Erikson-DCFS partnership supports the youngest in Illinois’s child welfare system

In 1996, two career-changing events happened in rapid succession for Molly McGrath Tierney, M.Ed. ’98 — events that would have major ramifications for Illinois children.

Tierney, a case worker at a foster care agency, saw Erikson’s then-president James Garbarino speak, and she had the heartbreaking experience of a baby on her caseload dying of malnutrition.

“As a young professional, that was staggering to me,” she says. “In James’s speech, he said there’s a language children are speaking, and adults needed to learn how to understand it. I had the sense that, through his death, this child was trying to tell me something.”

Looking for answers, Tierney enrolled at Erikson. Shortly after graduating, she was recruited to work at the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS), where she founded the department’s Early Childhood Project and began to partner with Erikson. At that time, the number of children in the state’s foster care system had ballooned to more than 60,000, with the majority in Chicago. The department needed a plan to make sure its staff was better able to care for those children, especially the youngest.

George H. Sheldon, the acting director of DCFS, sees great value in Erikson’s 17-year partnership with the agency. “Our partnership with Erikson allows us to respond to the specific needs of infants and young children,” he says. “This agency pioneered a unique way of helping the youngest children, and we couldn’t have done it without Erikson.”

Warriors for children

Today, the DCFS Early Childhood Project at Erikson consists of 27 early childhood specialists employed by Erikson who work statewide to determine what services are needed to address the developmental and emotional concerns of children birth through five who are in the care of or who are being closely monitored by the child welfare system.

Erikson’s developmental specialists also administer developmental screenings to all children ages birth through three entering the foster care system in Cook County, with the aim of identifying and referring at-risk children to the Early Intervention System.

In 2014, the project served 7,246 children across the state from 6,453 families.

The work is far from easy, given complicated state policies and the emotional toll of working with troubled children and families, but that doesn’t discourage the Early Childhood Project specialists.

[img_caption src=”https://www.erikson.edu/wp-content/uploads/Andria-Goss-200×200.jpg” align=”right” caption=”Andria Goss, M.S. ’02” alt=”Andria Goss, M.S. ’02”]“I tell my team that we’re warriors in the field,” says Andria Goss, M.S. ’02, an Erikson staff member who became the director of the Early Childhood Project in 2000. “The role of this project is to help take better care of young children who are in the care of the DCFS system in Illinois. We are the only ones in child welfare who do what we do, and we deliver.

“It matters that Erikson is a leader and has a specific knowledge base of child development. I get people to listen to me by just saying ‘Erikson.’”

Focus on the child

In Illinois, and particularly in Cook County, young children come into foster care at rates considerably higher than the national average, and stay in foster care longer. The foster care system emphasizes safety and permanency — that is, the priorities are no continued abuse or neglect, and returning the child to the family. The Early Childhood Project also encourages a much-needed focus on the child’s well-being.

“The majority of children removed from their parents in Illinois are placed in a relative’s care,” Goss says. “But many relatives have had the same life experiences as the parent, so the outcomes may not be much different.”

According to Goss, rather than just achieving a safe foster placement, there needs to be a good match for the child with a committed caregiver, not necessarily a relative.

“Young children are people with their own inner lives,” she says. “We need to understand what the child has experienced and what support the child needs, and not focus on any safe placement.”

Supporting at-risk families

In 2010, Goss approached DCFS about the need to do more work with families who had an open case with the department but whose children were
not removed. These families, who may face a range of challenges, including incidences of abuse or unaddressed mental health problems, are offered but not obligated to receive services. They may have had two or three cases that were opened and then closed, with no services completed.

“We look at developmental delays and risk factors, and at the child’s interactions with their parent,” says Goss. “How does the mother view her relationship with her baby, and does she have empathy for the baby’s experiences? When we keep the baby at the center of the discussion, folks’ defenses drop.”

Specialists from Erikson screen for early intervention needs in cases that have been referred to the system, with a special focus on trauma experiences and mental health. Based on the results of the screenings, specialists make detailed, specific recommendations for therapeutic services for both the parents and child.

[img_caption src=”https://www.erikson.edu/wp-content/uploads/Pfeffer-Eisin-200×200.jpg” align=”right” caption=”Pfeffer Eisin” alt=”Pfeffer Eisin”]Pfeffer Eisin, associate director of the project and a supervisor of its intact families program, works to ensure the focus remains on children’s relationships.

“Developmental milestones are important,” she says, “but more important is seeing the relationship at home and with the family. Those relationships are the base for all subsequent development.”

Overcoming trauma

More recently, the project began exploring better ways to use foster care funds to support young children who have experienced trauma. In 2013, the Early Childhood Project played a central role in proposing and implementing a five-year waiver from the federal government to spend funds on developmentally informed therapeutic and psycho-educational services, including child-parent psychotherapy. “Child-parent psychotherapy is one of the best interventions for children who have experienced trauma,” Goss says.

By addressing experiences of abuse and neglect early in life, the child welfare system can potentially help the children recover from trauma symptoms that often show up later in life, causing difficulties for the child and family. The waiver program lowers the barriers to accessing these services for the highest need populations.

“I’ve never worked with a single child who started having issues at the age of 10,” Eisin says. “Often their histories include early trauma experiences and emerging signs of difficulty that weren’t understood or went unaddressed. Intervention at these earlier stages with them and their families could have made a big difference. When more significant delays show up years later, people often don’t connect that to trauma experiences as a young child.”

During the five-year demonstration project in Cook County, child and family outcomes will be tracked to see if these services can move families out of the foster system faster and more effectively, leading to savings for the state.

“If we see that this project is effective, it could be implemented statewide,” Goss says. “Addressing trauma before it becomes a bigger, long-term issue for children and their families could make for dramatically different outcomes.”

Landmark program for children and families

Project founder Molly McGrath Tierney, who is now director of social services for the city of Baltimore, is glad to see the project she created continue.

“Back then, there was no sensibility about young children in child welfare anywhere in the country,” she recalls. “I’m thrilled that it’s still going. This partnership may be the single most important thing DCFS is doing for children in their care. The relationship that was forged between these two organizations is really landmark.”