Georgia ranks near the bottom on almost every index of child well-being charted by KIDS COUNT, the annual survey that tracks children and families in all 50 states. While the state has made progress on issues like child deaths, teen pregnancy and high school graduation rates, Georgia sits at #42.
So when 500 people who provide services for children got together this week at the Georgia Conference on Children and Families, they had plenty to talk about.
Leaders of the largest state agencies and non-profits who guide child policy came together in front of a full house on Wednesday to send a message about sharing common goals and measuring progress with data.
“We have to work together by developing outcomes we agree to and track,” said Normer Adams, executive director of the Georgia Association of Homes and Services for Children. "Child welfare has changed so much over the years it really needed a break from the past. We have moved away from the model of child rescue to the model of family restoration. It’s more informed by research and outcomes than in the past. What we know from research is that children are best cared for by their families."
At a time of severe budget cuts, state agencies are relying on data to make the best of limited resources. Garland Hunt, commissioner of Juvenile Justice explained, “We’re doing a bigger job with fewer resources. It breaks down to the right service for the right child at the right time.”
B. J. Walker, commissioner of Human Services, pointed out that data can look like the enemy in the business of child welfare. But she said, “Data helps you know which road to take and how long to stay on it. “
The Annie E. Casey Foundation, which created KIDS COUNT, urges states to use the numbers strategically. Dr. Page Walley, a psychologist and the managing director for strategic consulting at Casey Family Programs, told the group, “Keeping score matters. What gets measured gets done.”
Getting key players on the same platform to talk about common goals is just the first step. "Everyone would acknowledge we need a common framework," Adams added, "but not everyone agrees on what that should be."
For Gaye Smith, executive director of the Georgia Family Connection Partnership, the challenge is to get every provider and agency to agree on the common framework. Goals for children generally center on health, school achievement, risky behaviors, and stable families. But Smith pointed out that each organization uses different wording, and some have different approaches.
“Other states have measured cohesively and talked across agencies,” said Smith. “When we talk about a vision for children and where we are, we can get further if we all talk about the same things.”
The three-day conference at Lake Lanier has evolved from a foster care conference to a much larger event this year that included all stakeholders in child welfare, from juvenile court judges and the Department of Education, to caseworkers and private providers. Three dozen workshops focused on issues like zero tolerance in schools, substance abuse, children in need of services, teen parents in foster care, and working with LBGTQ youth.
Ten agencies partnered to organize the conference. Here's the list with links to their home pages: The Georgia Association of Homes and Services for Children, the Department of Human Services, the Department of Juvenile Justice, the Georgia Family Connection Parnership, the Foster Family-Based Treatment Association, the Georgia Alliance of Therapeutic Services, the Georgia Court Appointment Special Advocates, JUSTGeorgia, and the Multi-Agency Alliance for Children.