“It is critical that young children and families involved in the child welfare system have access to services that have the potential to mitigate the impacts of the trauma they have experienced.”

Project Link Issue Brief, 2014

As a part of the Partner Plan Act webinar series, Debbie Bridges, Renee Tetrick, and the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) School Readiness Team (SRT) presented about a joint project between the child welfare system and the early childhood system.  The partnership was between the DCFS School Readiness Team and Illinois Action for Children Innovation Zones.  The webinar took place June 28, 2017 and was titled, Connecting child welfare and early childhood systems: How can cross-sector partnerships improve services and outcomes for children? 

Through Project Link, a Children’s Home + Aid initiative, low enrollment rates of child welfare-involved children in early learning programs in the South Suburbs Innovation Zone suggested opportunities for improvement.  The child welfare and early learning systems are natural collaborators, and the DCFS School Readiness Team and Innovation Zone became quick partners in a shared vision: increasing enrollment of child welfare-involved children in high quality early learning programs.

The plan was to build cross sector partnership to use system thinking and design thinking methods to understand user perspectives.  Together, the DCFS and IAFC would design strategies and test solutions for increasing enrollment.  The research questions that guided the work were:  Which strategies, practices, and procedures work for enrolling child welfare-involved children in high quality early learning programs?  How might we increase enrollment of child-welfare involved children in high quality early learning programs?

The IAFC team hosted focus groups and interviews in the South Suburbs with child welfare professionals and families revealed many insights.  A strategy memo was developed to highlight bright spots to leverage system strengths and opportunities for small experiments.  Overall the strategies were designed to:

  • Streamline, clarify and simplify the language in materials and visuals
  • Build awareness and the utilization of the School Readiness Team
  • Create clear, consistent messaging and design to establish Team as go-to resource
  • Provide frequent, accessible information to “plant and prime” for regular practice related to enrolling children
  • Give caseworkers information and tools to take on navigator role with families
  • Build networks for SRT and child welfare professionals to augment efforts to increase enrollment
  • Offer caseworkers clear information on documentation and eligibility requirements
  • Develop cross-sector information sharing about eligibility throughout all systems

As a result of these insights, five main goals were developed:

  1. Position School Readiness Team as key in DCFS’s strengthening families approach and, specifically, in increasing enrollment of child welfare-involved children in early education
  2. Build awareness of the School Readiness Team – the staff’s expertise and when/how to contact them
  3. Frequently connect child welfare professionals to user friendly, valuable, up-to-date early learning program enrollment tools and information to support them in their efforts to increase enrollment of children in care in high quality early learning and development programs
  4. Empower and equip child welfare professionals as change agents to support more families with enrolling children in care in high quality early learning and development programs
  5. Empower and equip child welfare and early learning professionals with clear, easy to read information on documentation and eligibility requirements across systems

The School Readiness Team and Innovation Zone Team co-created the following materials:

  • Marketing materials for the School Readiness Team role, purpose, and when to contact (e.g. presentation slides, one-pagers, elevator speech)
  • Articles about early learning and development, finding and enrolling in an early learning program, who to contact for help when finding and choosing an early learning program
  • Brown bag lunch toolkit for shared learning amongst caseworkers
  • Caseworker navigation guide with a step-by-step process for enrolling child welfare-involved children in early learning and development programs
  • Policy handouts to clarify the documentation and eligibility requirements

Some lessons learned from this co-creation process:

  • Shared vision, mission, and goals within the partnership can help solve problems and improve systems
  • Buy-in around experimentation and innovation is critical (design, prototype, test, iterate)
  • Power of data, user research in charting a direction and designing strategies
  • Greater understanding of SRT role and purpose
  • Greater understanding of each other’s systems
  • Importance of involving the “experts” of the system + “users” of the system in all stages of the process (i.e. SRT, caseworkers, families)
  • Power of cross-sector, cross-system collaboration and alignment
  • Importance of sharing the process and project with others demonstrates the power of community systems development, cross-sector partnerships, and the use of design thinking

When asked about the partnership and process, one School Readiness Team member said, “I appreciate all the effort in the project to promote school readiness.  The materials you have produced will be invaluable as our team moves forward in assisting caseworkers and families to ensure our children are in the best educational setting possible.  It will be very exciting when given approval to start using the documents.  It has been a great pleasure working with each of you and look forward to future projects.  THANK YOU!!

The DCFS School Readiness Team is in conversations with their system to gain approval for resources and materials.  Once approval has been given, the Team plans to test their materials, gather feedback, and refine further.

Together, across our systems, we can co-create in order to improve outcomes for the most vulnerable children in our state.  What will your role be?

To get in touch with your DCFS School Readiness Team representative, click here or contact the appropriate representative below.

  • Statewide School Readiness Administrator, Mary Beth Corrigan, corrigan@illinois.gov, 630-801-3480
  • Cook Region School Readiness Specialist, Martha Cerda-Babbington, Cerda-Babbington@illinois.gov, 708-338-6630
  • Northern Region School Readiness Specialist, Vanessa Castro, Castro@Illinois.gov, 847-931-2003
  • Central Region School Readiness Specialist, Diane LaMothe, LaMothe@Illinois.gov, 217-735-6098
  • Southern Region School Readiness Specialist, to be filled

To access the webinar recording, go here http://partnerplanact.org/webinars/

For any questions about the project, please contact renee.tetrick@actforchildren.org.