Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Ryden Kershaw plants a flag after Utah Foster Care Foundation and supporters of children in foster care participated in a march for kids in Provo Wednesday, May 9, 2012.
If we can fix it in the home, we should. The cost of a child being disrupted from their home is just too great —Cassie Selim, Division of Child and Family Services program manager

SALT LAKE CITY — Front-line caseworkers say new flexibility with federal funding for foster care could be a game changer in the state's child welfare system.

It could mean the difference between a heart-wrenching ordeal of removing a child from his or her home and parents working cooperatively with a caseworker to keep the family intact, said Cassie Selim, a state Division of Child and Family Services program manager.

"Is being safe the same thing as well-being? I don't think so," Selim said. "There's something to a child feeling safe in their own skin. In their own homes, it's their bed, their people, their blood."

Child welfare officials hope that a new federal waiver will give caseworkers more options to serve families in their own homes — a practice experts say saves money and can result in better outcomes.

Child safety is DCFS's top priority, said agency director Brent Platt. In cases of physical or sexual abuse, in-home supports would not be appropriate.

But in other cases, parents and children alike could benefit from training and counseling that could be conducted in their homes or through community providers.

Sometimes, children may be neglected because their family is overwhelmed by illness, substance abuse, mental illness or a change in their financial circumstances. Connecting the family to resources that can help them regain stability after a crisis makes more sense than simply entering removal proceedings, Selim said.

"If we can fix it in the home, we should. The cost of a child being disrupted from their home is just too great," she said.

The waiver isn't a magic bullet, nor does it provide additional resources, Platt said. However, it enables DCFS to use federal resources differently when appropriate.

"We want to help families before we even get into foster care," Platt said.

Selim said the process of the state removing children from their homes exacts a toll from practically everyone involved.

"It's very emotional for the family and for the child. There's a lot of, 'Where do we go from here?' There's the fear of, 'Will they ever come back?'

"As a worker, there's a lot of questions you can't answer at the time. I tell the parents, 'It really kind of depends on you when they can come home,'" she said.

But the dynamics of removing a child from his or her home can sour the interactions between parents and caseworkers.

Selim said encouraging families to work voluntarily with DCFS instead of launching into the child welfare system, where families are court-ordered to undergo counseling or enroll in programs, makes a significant difference in the interaction between the agency and parents.

"When I do this, I tell them, 'My goal is to keep your family together. We will work together as a team to maintain safety and stability to make sure than can happen,'" she said of a related initiative under way in the division's northern region.

Once parents are empowered to work on issues, "it's a different dynamic," Selim said. "It's a more proactive thing. It's a trust relationship."

Utah was one of nine states to receive the federal waiver, which Platt says is an acknowledgment of the state's intensive efforts to improve child welfare services.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, co-sponsored legislation that made the waiver possible.

"The bipartisan bill enacted last year will give Utah much greater flexibility and opportunities to assist those truly in need, and will go a long way toward reducing the amount of Utah children and youth entering foster care," Hatch said in a statement.

The shift to increase in-home services will be phased in over time, said Cosette Mills, federal revenue manager for DCFS. The goal of the initiative is to reduce foster care caseload 10 percent by the fourth year of the waiver's implementation.

The effort is expected to launch in the spring to allow time to train staff, identify community resources to assist families and possibly hire more caseworkers to work with families that receive in-home services. As the need for foster care drops off, caseworkers could be reassigned to oversee families receiving in-home services.

The annualized cost of case addressed with in-home services is $1,912 per case, compared to $30,593 per child for foster care, according to DCFS.

In exchange for the flexibility, the federal government is requiring third-party evaluations and ongoing reporting to determine if the waivers can be extended and whether the experience can result in a nationwide policy shift, Mills said.

Platt said the waiver should help the state address a 38 percent increase in Utah foster care placements during the previous decade. The number of families that received in-home support that enabled children to stay in their homes decreased by 40 percent over the same time period, as revealed in the legislative audit.

The audit also pointed out that funding for in-home services had decreased over a five-year period. Those services are fully funded by the state's general fund, while out-of-home placements are funded with state and federal dollars.

"Now, for the first time in many years, we can define where we want to go," Platt said, explaining that ongoing improvements have built upon systemic changes that occurred after a federal lawsuit in the 1990s challenging the state's child welfare practices.

"We want to keep doing better," he said. "It is already a quality system recognized around the country."

For front-line workers, the possibility of providing more in-home services makes Selim "giddy." 

There's potential to "change the way child welfare works in the state of Utah," she said.

"I want people to call DCFS when they need help," Selim said, "not hide behind the curtains."