Keeping Families Together: Tailoring Interventions for High-Needs Families

By Deborah De Santis, President & CEO, CSH and Jasmine Hayes, Policy Director, USICH


We know that child welfare involvement and family homelessness are closely linked. A strong body of evidence and the day-to-day experience of practitioners and service providers confirms it.

Families caught in this cycle typically have a head of household who experienced abuse, trauma, housing instability, and often homelessness as a child. They are families in which parents face deep-rooted, complex challenges, such as extreme poverty, homelessness, behavioral health issues, and social isolation. All of these factors have a negative impact on child well-being, and decrease the likelihood of a stable home. The result? Child welfare agencies are often faced with two options: removing children from their home of origin, or allowing them to remain in an unstable environment with limited chances of success.

Neither outcome is what we want for children. Research tells us that separating parents and their children creates a host of life-long challenges and setbacks for every member of the family. Housing instability and homelessness also delay family reunification, further compounding the trauma that so many children in these highly vulnerable families have already experienced. Alarmingly, data indicates as many as 40% of homeless adults have a history in foster care.

So how do we keep children safely at home with families who face the most significant and complex challenges?

Supportive Housing Shows Promise for Families With the Highest Needs

Enter supportive housing. Evidence shows that supportive housing effectively addresses the needs of chronically homeless adults with serious mental health and addiction issues, combining affordable housing with an array of services designed to respond to an individual’s needs and strengths. Because of the great promise of the supportive housing model, the federal government also decided to explore its potential to support high-need families involved in the child welfare system. Five program sites were selected in 2012 for the Partnership to Demonstrate the Effectiveness of Supportive Housing for Families in the Child Welfare System:

To date, these five sites have succeeded in housing a total of 300 families, and are showing us how to address some of the most difficult challenges facing parents and children, like housing instability, medical issues, mental health needs, substance use issues, and real financial and employment obstacles.

H.E.A.R.T Reaches Major Milestone with PHA and Child Welfare Partnership

The H.E.A.R.T Alliance for Sustainable Families, which includes fifteen local organizations in Broward County, Florida, recently reached an important milestone -- connecting 50 vulnerable families with stable, affordable housing and supportive services to keep them healthy, safe, and together.

The families prioritized by H.E.A.R.T. are at high-risk of separation, so keeping them together or reunifying them is a main focus. To set the foundation for this, H.E.A.R.T. collaborated with five local public housing authorities to provide 50 Housing Choice vouchers to participating families. The findings of a major study undertaken by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development clearly demonstrates the efficacy of housing vouchers to help families establish permanency and stability.

Once families are stably housed, they are offered supportive services that focus on:

  • Providing family and parenting skills training and positive parenting
  • Providing pre-natal health and enhanced child health and development and success
  • Providing Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to help families build relationships, trust, protection and empowerment
  • Promoting economic self-sufficiency through mentors, employment advancement, financial literacy, income enhancement, household budgeting and financial management coaching

Local child welfare agencies have been an integral part of the H.E.A.R.T. effort, collaborating early in the initiative to ensure child well-being remains a paramount consideration. H.E.A.R.T. is concentrating on learning and delivering the Parent Cafe conversation method, a child welfare system practice for promoting and protecting child and family well-being. All partners in H.E.A.R.T. understand teamwork between housing and child welfare organizations is essential to helping vulnerable, fragile families.

As the demonstration project continues, we will continue to share findings that can inform efforts to scale this model for high-need families. Because of the work of H.E.A.R.T., and the four other partnerships across the country, we believe supportive housing is a promising approach for these families -- one that has the potential to end the tragic cycles of family homelessness and involvement with child welfare systems, decreasing unnecessary foster care placements while keeping children safe in stable homes.

Keeping Families Together: Tailoring Interventions for High-Needs Families

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