Strategies for Defining Family First Candidacy Criteria

Strategies for Defining Family First Candidacy Criteria

November 12, 2019 | Phil Decter

Father and son embracing_0

The Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) has created a valuable opportunity for states, tribes, and local governments to receive federal reimbursement for programs and services that keep children out of foster care. However, the act relies on child welfare jurisdictions to define eligibility criteria for these funds. Evident Change can provide assistance for jurisdictions using Structured Decision Making® (SDM) assessments to help determine eligibility, as well as other ways to assist jurisdictions in pinpointing effective criteria for their client population.

Using SDM® Assessments in Family First Candidacy Criteria

The SDM® safety and risk assessments are evidence-informed assessments designed for different purposes that help answer different questions in child welfare casework. These assessments may be helpful as elements of FFPSA candidacy criteria; however, the differences in these assessments should be clearly understood by everyone working to develop those criteria. 

The SDM safety assessment is used at the first face-to-face contact between a family and worker. It helps guide decisions about (1) whether conditions within the household being assessed in that moment pose an immediate and serious danger to any child in the household and (2) what immediate steps must be taken to address that danger, including a safety plan or foster care placement.

The SDM risk assessment is used at the end of investigations. The risk assessment (1) assesses household characteristics associated with likelihood of future CPS involvement (e.g., new investigations for alleged maltreatment, new substantiations, entry into care) and (2) helps to prioritize families for post-investigation child protection interventions.

These two tools, along with other administrative data available to a jurisdiction, can contribute to robust and thoughtful FFPSA candidacy criteria. It is important, however, that developers of those criteria use the SDM assessments as intended. Additionally, any candidacy criteria that includes use of SDM assessments should clearly state the actual purpose of the assessments in those criteria. 

Further Research Questions to Inform Candidacy Criteria

Evident Change can also help states explore research questions to define and communicate data-informed candidacy criteria. For agencies currently using SDM assessments, aggregate data analysis can illuminate issues that may be relevant to creating criteria. While not an exhaustive list, suggested questions include the following.

  • How many families/children have any identified safety threats? What are the safety threats, complicating factors, and safety interventions? How many children are removed and in what timeframe?
  • How many children are reunified? Which of those reentered foster care?
  • How many children are taken into care for short periods of time, and what are their characteristics? Do we know how they differ from children in care for longer periods?
  • What needs do families have? How many parents have evidence of needs in substance abuse, mental health, and parenting skills?
  • What are the races/ethnicities of children/families who would be identified as candidates using projected candidacy criteria?
  • How frequently are children/families from each county identified using the projected criteria?

Finally, Evident Change can help agencies create and monitor evaluation metrics to assess the ongoing effectiveness of their FFPSA prevention plans. For example, are FFPSA-funded services being directed toward the target population of families with children at “imminent risk of foster care”? Does the target population comprise the families most likely to benefit from FFPSA-funded services? Are those services effective, and are they producing the expected outcomes? If the answer to these questions is not “yes,” prevention plans are unlikely to help achieve agencies’ goals.

Though it may be challenging to develop a definition for children at “imminent risk of foster care,” to be equitable, consistent, and meaningful, FFPSA candidacy criteria should:

  • Be informed by data;
  • Identify candidates for whom funded services match needs and for whom these services could reasonably be expected to reduce risk of out-of-home placement;
  • Take into account issues of economic and racial equity;
  • Clearly distinguish candidate pools that are the focus of voluntary prevention services (not required services);
  • Promote consistency in evaluating candidacy while allowing room for overrides in unique situations;
  • Explore how candidacy requirements would play out in different states and counties with different populations and service availability; and
  • Include continuous quality improvement plans for evaluating candidacy requirements and service provision and the extent to which the criteria are achieving desired outcomes.

The federal government has presented a unique opportunity for child welfare agencies to determine how they identify families that would benefit from prevention services. Evident Change staff would be pleased to partner with jurisdictions at this important time and welcome questions and discussion about how we can assist our state, tribal, and local partners in this opportunity.

Philip Decter is director of child welfare at Evident Change. Contact him to discuss using SDM assessments to help identity eligible clients for FFPSA-funded programs at or (800) 306-6223.

Find an overview of the Family First Prevention Services Act here.