Posted on

Family Engagement in Policy and Governance Boards

Nowadays, family involvement is a pretty big buzzword. What does it really mean, though? It is certainly true that human services agencies, community agencies, and other organizations are increasingly interested in recruiting family and youth partners into their decision-making processes. It is also true that research supports the notion that family engagement is associated with positive outcomes for youth, families and systems. That’s all well and good, but when it comes to moving past the very basic “We need more families involved!” to something more concrete, there are misconceptions. Let’s explore the subject…


Family Engagement in Colorado

Did you know that Colorado is lucky enough to be fairly progressive in the family involvement arena? Family engagement is written into the Colorado Prevention Leadership Council and Early Childhood State Plans. The state was recently awarded a System of Care grant and many child and family serving systems are changing practices to be more receptive to the family voice. Colorado’s organizations are in the midst of a shift in culture and practice. In short, this needed change is upon us.

A practice change to include families more thoughtfully is equally good for workforce / line staff as well as for the systems in which they work. Families and youth consumers bring a perspective that staff members do not have: their lived experiences as beneficiaries of services and systems. As consumers of services, they will know the barriers and benefits first hand. This is true for board representation, as well as for coalitions and committees. Staff is unable to know their system like a recipient or consumer can, even if they are parents themselves.

“The system building process that fails to develop meaningful partnership with the constituency that will depend upon the system is inherently suspect and limited in its capacity to build an effective system.  Meaningful partnerships with families and youth require concerted attention, dedicated resources, and capacity building across all parties.” Sheila Pires, 2002

The rest of this blog provides a few definitions related to family involvement and outlines ways that our child and family systems (mental health, public health, child welfare, schools, juvenile justice) can support family partnerships.


Defining Key Terms

Colorado advocates and system partners have worked alongside families to formalize a working Colorado definition for Family Advocate and Family Member. These terms are intended to cross systems and offer a baseline of expectation and role clarification.

  • Family Advocate: According to the Colorado revised statutes (27-69-102) a “Family Advocate” means a parent or primary care giver who has been trained in a system of care approach to assist families in accessing and receiving services and supports; has raised or cared for a child or adolescent with a mental health or co-occurring disorder; and has worked with multiple agencies and providers.
  • Family Member: As defined by the Colorado System of Care Collaborative, a “family member” is a person who is raising or has raised a child, youth, or adolescent with special physical, mental, emotional, behavioral, substance use, developmental, and or educational needs. They have direct experience in working with many of the agencies and providers in their community and can provide valuable insights by serving on state and local boards, committees, and coalitions. They also can also be hired as Individualized Service Plan care managers and/or facilitators, family advocators, evaluators, and trainers.


Readiness Self-Assessment

Are you ready to bring on family partners? Is your board or committee ready to take the steps to change practices (by-laws and voting protocols) to enable full participation and voice? If you are on a board or committee that would like to include family and/or youth members, the Board Self-Assessment on Family and Youth Involvement is for you! This is a free self-guided tool that provides a succinct way to capture your group’s readiness, areas of strengths, and opportunities for improvement in order to transform the group culture to one that welcomes consumer’s ideas and sustains their involvement.

The results of the self-assessment point the user to specific sections within the Family and Youth Involvement Workbook for Policy and Governance Boards and Planning Groups , pointing out examples, worksheets, and talking points to help you move your organization towards a more inclusive place.


Listening to Families

In 2008 Spark conducted focus groups with families involved with Colorado’s child welfare, mental health and juvenile justice systems in 2008. Family members who have been working with systems suggested the following ways to create involvement opportunities for families and consumers:

  • Incorporate requirements around family involvement in requests for proposals;
  • Maintain and promote family and youth advisory boards; and
  • Create and adopt a process to evaluate the success of staff efforts to engage families and youth.

Family members also suggest the following strategies to make your meetings more family and youth friendly:

  • Hold informational meetings at existing events in communities;
  • Have meaningful, action-oriented meetings and roles for families to contribute;
  • Have family & youth members help identify agenda items for the meetings;
  • Provide food and /or childcare available whenever possible;
  • Have the various organizations bring in resources, information, and linkages to their programs; and
  • Use rules that are less formal and complicated than Roberts Rules.


More Resources

Besides the Family and Youth Involvement Guidebook, there are plenty of other resources out there to help you bring the family voice into your decision or policy-making effort. Here are just a couple:

  1. This six page document from the National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health helps to identify authentic family involvement at a systems level, beyond just the presence of family members at meetings.
  2. Center for Juvenile Justice Reform: Safety, Fairness, & Stability For Youth and Families —Recommendations to Strengthen Federal Agency Support of Family Engagement Efforts, 2011 Georgetown University.

Also, check out the family and youth involvement section of the Igniting Change resource website for information about training families and youth to participate, engaging them in systems transformation, and engaging them in evaluation.

These suggestions and tips are another way to build off the great work happening in Colorado!


Posted on

Resources for Igniting Systems-wide Change

Change agents throughout our country are transforming service delivery systems – they are changing how human services, health, and mental health provide care. Some of these transformations go by the name of Medical Home and others call themselves Systems of Care. Regardless of the name, transforming systems is a difficult process. As you undertake transformation in your community, knowing where to go for resources and which models are the best fit can pave the way for successful change.


Defining Systems Transformation

At its most basic, systems transformation is changing the way that a service delivery system does its business in order to improve outcomes for its participants. How is that different from systems building, you might ask? ((For a general overview of what is involved in a good systems building effort, please see our previous blog: Why Should We Focus on Building Systems Versus Programs?))  Well, most systems transformation models attempt to pull together and integrate the disparate parts of a particular set of service delivery systems under a new set of values – a new set of guiding principles, or philosophy, for all the service delivery systems with a shared population focus. These new principles usually describe the quality of the services that the entire big new system should offer. Having outlined the guiding principles, most systems transformation models then get into the concrete systems building activities that are needed to bring about the new guiding principles.


Systems Transformation Models

Spark’s new Igniting Change website has tools and resources on a variety of systems transformation models – resources ranging from background reading to examples to concrete toolkits on systems transformation.

There are many models out there for systems transformation. It is true that most originate from a particular health or human services sector,
but it is also true that most models can be and are adapted to other systems with relative ease. For example, the Systems of Care model of systems transformation was first developed with the population of children with serious emotional disorders in mind and later expanded to all systems that serve children and their families.


Medical Home

The medical home model, also referred to as the Patient-Centered Medical Home (PCMH) approach envisions comprehensive primary care through the creation of a partnership between patients, physician and in certain situations patient’s families. This model of systems transformation allows for better health care, increased satisfaction and better health outcomes.

Here are a few of the resources on Spark’s Igniting Change website related to the medical home model:


System of Care

Similar to the medical home model, Systems of Care is a specific approach to systems transformation. As we mentioned earlier, although systems of care is originally from the mental health system, it can be applied to any system serving children, youth, and families.

[blockquote]“A system of care incorporates a broad array of services and supports that is organized into a coordinated network, integrates care planning and management across multiple levels, is culturally and linguistically competent, and builds meaningful partnerships with families and youth at service delivery and policy levels.”   Building Systems of Care: A Primer[/blockquote]

There are many resources on Spark’s Igniting Change website relevant to building systems of care. These tools provide background information, examples, and concrete toolkits on this approach to systems transformation. For example:

  • Building Systems of Care: A Primer by Sheila Pires is a technical assistance tool for state and local stakeholders engaged in developing systems of care for children with behavioral health disorders and their families (but relevant to many other populations as well!). This Primer will provide you guidance on developing over 30 critical systems of care functions that require structure, such as governance, care management, financing and quality improvement, and examines the pros and cons of different structural approaches.
  • The National Child Welfare Resource Center for Organizational Improvement’s Primer Hands on Child Welfare, a web-based training resource for system builders working for children, youth and families involved, or at risk for involvement with the child welfare system. This includes all key stakeholders from families, youth, providers, natural helpers, frontline staff, supervisors, county managers and State administrators, judges, court appointed special advocates, guardians ad litem, law enforcement personnel, policy makers, researchers and evaluators, technical assistance providers, advocates and others.


Five Tips for Systems Transformation

  1. Don’t start from scratch.  There are great models and resources to guide your work.
  2. Make sure the values match.  When you pick the model that can guide your systems transformation, make sure you and your community of stakeholders can agree with the values.
  3. Start from where you are at.  Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But sometimes we want to start with significant change, when small changes are all that our system is ready to undertake.
  4. Celebrate along the way.  Systems transformation is not a one year effort, three year effort, or even a five year effort. It can take a decade or more. That doesn’t mean significant, meaningful change won’t happen every year you work on it. Celebrate those changes!
  5. Ask for help.  Systems transformation communities throughout the country are excited to provide their insights and guidance, along with national technical assistance centers.



Posted on

How Groups become Change Agents

When we think of change agents, we think “individual.” That one person who takes the lead, rejects the status quo, embraces innovation, pushes the boundaries, takes chances, even breaks the rules. Public policy groups, especially the legislatively-mandated Council, Task Force, Blue Ribbon Commission, have hefty mandates and short timeframes – something a change agent would embrace. But how do you find/recruit not just one but a council full of change agents? You don’t. That is, you don’t recruit them – you make them. Or more accurately, they make themselves into change agents through a planning process that is focused on action, necessary conditions, leveraging partners, and identifying the gaps that they then fill.

What Are Strategic Roadmaps?

Many groups undergo strategic planning processes, hold planning retreats, or develop logic models to jump start their work. But nothing beats a strategic roadmap process for creating a dynamic action plan for a group. We, at Spark, call the outcome of the process a “roadmap” because it lays out on one page the “roads” and “turns” that need to be taken to reach the final destination.

In a nutshell, a strategic roadmap is a backwards planning process where we define the big change we want to see and then define smaller changes to lead to that big change. Instead of working backward through what you’ll do, they work backward through how you can influence change. They begin by focusing on the end of the road – the big picture, why we are here goal, which is ambitious but achievable, and then work backwards looking at what is the precondition to this goal (that is, what is immediately prior to getting to this big picture change), and continuing to work backward until you get to smaller changes that are achievable in the near term.

So, why a roadmap? Simply put: So the group doesn’t get lost, take a wrong tour, or inadvertently follow a detour. Keeping your eye on the prize when the prize lies at the end of a complex set of conditions and actions requires keeping all eyes on the road. A Road Map keeps a group focused, tracks progress, and inspires action. In short: Groups → with a Roadmap → become Change Agents.Farm to School Logo

A Group of Change Agents is Born

The Colorado Farm to School Task Force (TF) – a 13 member appointed body enacted by the Colorado legislature in 2010 – is now working in concert with each other to bring “collaborative, sustainable implementation of farm to school statewide.”

How It Started

At their first staffed meeting in February 2011, the TF was guided through a strategic roadmapping process. They:

1. Began by identifying the end of the road or where they wanted the state of Colorado to be in 15 years.

2. Identified the two possible ways (“conditions”) by which farm to school could be implemented – either (1) Colorado schools & producers work directly together or (2) Colorado producers sell to a food hub that sells to schools.

3. Identified the numerous “preconditions” necessary to implement farm to school. Preconditions are the bridges on the road – without them, you cannot get to the other side of the river where your destination lies.

4. Identified exactly which organizations were doing what to build each of the needed bridges.

5. When all the activities were connected to each bridge, the nuts and bolts and even entire girders of a bridge that were missing became apparent. It is the missing parts of the bridges (the “gaps”) that became the work of the Task Force.

Click here to see the FTS Task Force Road Map!

How Much Has Changed?

Kids at lunchThe TF runs like a well-oiled machine. Everyone keeps on task, following the roadmap action step by action step. In its first year, the TF:

  • Provided outreach and technical assistance by request to schools, producers and communities around the state interested in starting or expanding FTS efforts.
  • Supported the development of direct technical assistance to schools and producers, including the Durango Farm to School Conference, which brought together five school districts and 22 local producers to jointly develop bid processes and safety protocols to meet the needs of both schools and producers; the Connecting Local Farms to Schools Conference that brought together more than 200 attendees representing schools, community groups, parents, producers, public health and state agencies to engage in workshops ranging from “getting started” to “ramping up” farm to school efforts; and the Southwest Pre-bid Conference that resulted in four school districts releasing local produce and product bids (three for the first time) and 13 producers successfully landing contracts with the school districts.
  • Released two Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on the new USDA “geographic preference” option, which has been a source of confusion in the field. This option allows school food purchasers to give preference to locally grown foods when comparing bids.
  • Released a 50-state legislative scan of farm to school and healthy school food legislation introduced in 2010-2011.
  • Supported pilot projects by helping stakeholders define and refine five food hub projects, and helped locate funding sources and advocate for financial support.
  • Conducted quarterly meetings around the state to learn about the needs of different regions. In 2011, the Task Force met in Pueblo, San Luis Valley, Longmont and Denver.
  • Developed a Farm to School Grant Template to provide assistance to schools to find funding and apply for grants to buy equipment and upgrade kitchen facilities.
  • Provided letters of support and Technical Assistance commitment to farm to school projects.
  • Designed the Farm to School Information Hub Website, a centralized, sustainable information hub that purposefully connects the many different farm to school related resources in one easy to navigate website, including an active and supported peer networking component. The website will include information for producers, schools and communities.
  • Received a major grant from the Colorado Health Foundation to support its 2012 activities.
Fire Up Your Policy Group

If you work with a group or are a member of a group that is not yet “all it can be,” consider whether it would benefit from a strategic roadmapping process to:

1. Have a shared understanding of what is trying to be accomplished.

2. Have a realistic picture of the complex change process needed to reach the long-term goal.

3. Have precise language and action steps to avoid misunderstandings or confusion.

If any or all of these ring true, your group may very well need its own roadmap! For more information, visit

Healthy Snacks


Posted on

Understanding Today’s Welfare System and Opportunities for Innovation

Throughout the US, TANF (welfare) funding is a critical resource for serving low-income families. Did you know it can do far more than provide basic cash assistance? TANF is a flexible resource that allows communities to be innovative and meet a wide range of needs to help families achieve economic security. Although TANF is no longer an entitlement program and the fund is effectively shrinking each year, TANF services can, in fact, go beyond basic cash assistance to fund a variety of “supportive services”. TANF supportive services help families address challenges in achieving long term self-sufficiency and include child care support, technical training, and job coaching. Agencies and organizations can provide a diverse array of supportive services under TANF as long as they ensure the service can be reasonably calculated to meet one of TANF’s four purpose areas.


Welfare 101 ~ TANF

Already familiar with TANF? Skip this section! Curious to know the basics? Here we go:

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is known as the principal safety net for low-income families. It’s a federal funding stream, but each state gets to decide how they want to use it. Remember all of the press coverage around “the end of welfare as we know it” during the Clinton administration? That was when TANF was created, as an alternative to the previous welfare system (known as AFDC – Aid to Families with Dependent Children). What was the biggest difference between the old way of doing welfare and the new way? It’s pretty big: recipients are no longer guaranteed welfare benefits based on eligibility. ((  Instead, TANF has requirements and incentives to get welfare recipients into employment opportunities.

There are many other differences as well. TANF funding doesn’t increase over time – it stays the same regardless of inflation. This means that in real dollars TANF is shrinking each year!

TANF also allows each state to decide what they want to do with their TANF funding, resulting in over 50 different models for welfare. Some states, like Colorado, even allow each county to decide what they want to do with their TANF funding – 80% of Colorado’s TANF funds go straight to the counties! This flexibility can be a good thing, allowing for each community to meet their unique needs. But it can also be confusing, for recipients and the public agencies trying to implement TANF programs.

In fact, TANF is often referred to as a very “grey” funding stream because of its relative flexibility compared with other government funding sources. This flexibility allows for innovation and creativity in the use of TANF to better support low income families. Let’s talk more about how that flexibility plays out in the real world.


Going beyond cash assistance

We usually think about “welfare” as giving money to low income families – and TANF does that through its Basic Cash Assistance program. Eligibility for Basic Cash Assistance is 30% of the federal poverty level, which is approximately $24,817 for a family of three. But, these monthly basic cash assistance allocations are often not enough to meet a family’s overall self-sufficiency needs and are time limited as well.

Fortunately, TANF was designed to go beyond cash assistance – it can fund services and programs that support families in many other ways (called “supportive services”). TANF can fund expanding child care support, skill building, health benefits, case management, job coaching, education and technical training, domestic violence services, housing and vehicle repairs, etc. All of these services are critical for low-income individuals to gain the skills and resources they need to be successful in the job market, get off basic cash assistance and, ultimately, achieve long-term self-sufficiency for themselves and their families.


TANF Innovations

TANF is flexible because the primary guidance provided on the federal level is that programs and services supported with TANF funding must be reasonably calculated to meet one of the four TANF purpose areas. The purpose areas are: 1)Providing assistance to needy families so that children may be cared for in their own homes or in the homes of relatives; 2)Ending the dependence of needy parents on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work, and marriage; 3)Preventing and reducing the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies and establishing annual numerical goals for preventing and reducing the incidence of these pregnancies; and 4) Encouraging the formation and maintenance of two-parent families. Because these purpose areas can be very broadly interpreted, TANF can support an array of support services that transcend basic cash assistance.

Examples of innovative TANF Supportive Services include:

  • Upgrading the software or hardware needs of the computer lab of a community based organization that provides computer classes for TANF eligible adults so that they can increase their marketability to potential employers;
  • Training TANF eligible adults as child care providers in a community where there is inadequate child care support and there is a market need for trained certified, child care providers;
  • Opening a food bank that provides groceries to needy families in the community; and
  • Providing educational and skill building opportunities for TANF eligible mothers at the local community college.


TANF in 2012 ~ Statewide and Federal Budget Realities

While TANF is a critical component in ensuring a strong safety net for low income families across the nation, its inability to respond to inflation has had an impact. TANF funding for the states has stayed at the same level since 1996. Colorado, for example, annually receives $149,626,000 in TANF Block Grant funding. However, when TANF was created, supplemental grants were provided to a number of states that had been disproportionally impacted by their funding levels remaining fixed at 1996 levels despite a substantial growth in need. While TANF’s federal authorization was extended to September 30, 2012 – this extension legislation failed to fund the $319 million a year in TANF supplemental grants that had been provided since 1996 to 17 states with either high child poverty rates or high population growth.

Colorado, as a result of its high population growth, is one of the 17 states that did not receive its TANF Supplemental grant (resulting in an annual loss of 13.5 million in funding). According to the Colorado Counties, Inc. February 6, 2012 Legislative report, “Over the past three years, the number of families receiving assistance from Colorado’s TANF program has increased 69% – from 9,322 in July 2008 to 15,718 in June 2011. This significant increase has occurred while funding has remained static”. ((  With the loss of the supplemental grant, Colorado’s overall TANF funding has actually decreased at a time when many Colorado families have been hit hard by the economy. If TANF is the primary safety net for low-income families, it needs to more responsive to families impacted by the economic downturn. States have a role in ensuring that TANF remains an effective safety net. The 17 states that did not receive supplemental grants, for example, should demonstrate to our representatives in Congress the value of these grants in helping respond to an increase in need.


Posted on

Why should we focus on building systems versus programs?

What is Systems Building?

Those of us who work in social service related fields, like subsidized housing, early childhood education, and child welfare hear almost constant references to “systems building” from our funders, policymakers, colleagues and evaluators. Is systems building just another “jargony” term with a limited shelf life?

The answer is no: while systems building may be called by many different names, the concept is here to stay, because it represents the simple notion that you should look at the big picture of the system to figure out how better to serve the system’s target populations (whoever they might be).

A “system” in this context is the aggregation of different programs, services, policies, and funding streams that collectively respond to a particular need.

The term “systems building” refers to building a new system or working to improve an existing system that is fragmented, informal, or missing key pieces. ((


What’s so complicated about systems building, anyway?

Systems building can be a messy and labor intensive process. It always requires collaboration and often requires navigating multiple complex bureaucratic departments and, at times, an entrenched and contentious political environment. However, the end result is worth it! An effective, coordinated system can make a difference in people’s lives in a way that simply improving siloed programs cannot.

Here’s an example: Take youth homelessness. The vast majority of homeless youth need much more than mere shelter. In addition to a new place to live, a homeless youth may need support from an attorney for a past infraction with the law, a medical home to ensure access to medical support and care, vocational training or access to a good GED program and/ or subsidized higher education so he can find a job and pay the rent in his new place to live, and counseling to address the child abuse, domestic violence, or other home-related problems that drove him to leave home and live on the streets in the first place.

This requires a pretty big variety of programs and supports to come together and “wrap around” the youth. Building the youth homelessness system involves collaboration between all these programs and services, and all these programs and services have other targets besides youth, their own funding constraints, and are accountable to their own populations, funders, policymakers, and evaluators. And this is just what one youth might need – it’s nothing like the universe of what all the homeless youth in Colorado might need in order to end their homelessness.


What are the ingredients needed for effective systems building?

Building an effective system requires, at its foundation, consensus building and planning – in essence, a thoughtful planning process that brings together a broad and diverse group of stakeholders who are willing to transcend territorialism and politics to come together around a shared goal.

But there are other things that are necessary as well:

  • A sound infrastructure on the policy / system level of governance and decision making.
  • People in the trenches doing the work and, subsequently, a well-defined management and operations system on the program/service level is another critical component.

In order to be able to effectively serve the population you are trying to support, careful thought and assessment needs to be dedicated to developing the service array/benefit design.

In concert with the service array/ benefit design, the system needs to have strong entry and exit plans for clients who ware transitioning out of a system. Does for example, that homeless youth who is transitioning out of the homeless system – and has finished vocational training and secured a job working in the solar energy field – have ongoing support to help ensure that youth know the basics of being a professional from showing up at work on time, to dressing professionally, and addressing and handling management?

What else does a system need? Relevant screening assessment/testing and service planning. A diverse array of funding to build and grow the system – the systems budget, funding and financing strategies.

How do you know if your system is operating at its highest potential? To ensure that your system is continually working to improve its responsiveness to the population it is trying to serve, you have to incorporate quality monitoring/data and evaluation.

Also, ensuring that the individuals providing the programs receive training and professional development can only benefit the system.

Finally, an effective system requires the input of the population it is working to serve. An effective system is culturally responsive and includes consumer and family leadership. Without consumer and family leadership a system is missing, perhaps, the most important contribution to developing a culturally responsive and fully operational system.

But don’t be alarmed by the length of this list! The good news is that you can work on these things one at a time – you just need to make sure you’re thinking about the big picture of the whole system as you work on each of these pieces. Whether your organization works to prevent domestic violence or is involved in environmental preservation, engaging in collaboration to support systems building, while often a long-term and messy proposition, will ultimately be the most powerful approach in accomplishing your goals.