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Twente Hall houses the School of Social Welfare researchers who will collaborate with statewide partners for the Kansas Strong for Children and Families project. 

An $8 million, five-year grant received by the University’s School of Social Welfare from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will go to the Kansas Strong for Children and Families project.

Associate Professor of Social Welfare Becci Akin said the grant opens up a new opportunity to work with University partners — the Kansas Department for Children and Families, KVC Kansas, Saint Francis Ministries and the Kansas Court Improvement Program — in what is called a public-private-university collaboration.

“The project is focused on looking at Kansas child welfare systems in areas where we’ve had challenges in recent years,” said Akin, the principal director and investigator of the project. “We’re really trying to target those and come up with strategies that will improve them.”

Three main outcomes are on the agenda for the public-private-collaboration, Akin said: a decrease in the number of children entering the foster care system, an increase in family reunifications and an increase in adoption rates for children who cannot return to their family.

Racial disproportionality and disparity is a sub-issue within the larger challenges Akin said the collaborative hopes to address with the Kansas Strong for Children and Families project.

“In our analysis, for example, when I prepared the proposal, we found that African American children were less likely to reunify with their own families,” Akin said. “And then, of the kids who had to go on to adoption, it was African American children who took longer to get adopted.”

One strategy to address these issues is coaching public and private agency supervisors on four prioritized topics, Akin said. How to engage with parents and youth and how to assess families for risk and safety issues are among the coaching topics, Akin said.

“We’re going to be delivering this coaching to supervisors who are supervising all the workers who do investigations in child welfare,” Akin said. “You know, that’s thousands of kids.”

Another new strategy is to work with courts in a couple of different ways, on a ground level and on a systematic level, Akin said.

First, the collaborative will identify which practices may be reinforcing challenges and acting as barriers, Akin said. Second, an inter-agency collaborative will be created to “bring together child welfare in court systems” in order to discuss challenges and strategies, Akin said.

Kansas Department for Children and Families Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel provided a statement on the Kansas Strong for Children and Families project in an email from Taylor Forrest-Crowell, DCF communications director:

“The Kansas Department for Children and Families (DCF) looks forward to working with the University of Kansas and other partners to help strengthen the child welfare system. The agency has implemented numerous changes and initiatives to shape the landscape of child welfare in Kansas, and this grant will continue to further those efforts. By working together, we have a great opportunity to enhance our current use of data, strengthen social work practices through evidence-informed coaching and better support Kansas families. These strategies are vital to help prevent children from entering the foster care system and improve reunification and adoption rates.”

Melinda Lewis, an associate professor of the practice in the University’s School of Social Welfare, and William Elliott, a professor of social work at the University of Michigan, combined their research and wrote a book to help people understand trends of education inequality and how getting a head start on college savings can help students avoid debt and get better returns on their degrees later in life.

Kansas Strong for Children and Families has entered a nine-month planning period in which the collaborative will double-check their proposal and targeted issues, Akin said. She said she hopes this project will go as well as previous projects the collaborative has conducted.  

“Really, what we’re doing now is a broader population of kids, I would say,” Akin said. ‘We’re also kind of approaching as a broader strategy than the parenting intervention that we did before, and then you know, working with courts, that’s a new strategy as well. But, I still think that there’s a lot of promise in what we’re going to be doing.”   

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