Elisabeth Wilson Talks About MFF’s Child Welfare Accomplishments

Child Welfare Initiative | Issues and Impact | Blog | 6 mins.
Written By: Olivia Muenz | Posted On: 06/19/2024

Elisabeth Wilson started her research career as a pollinator conservationist. Now working in child welfare as MFF’s strategic change and evaluation specialist, one would assume these two fields have nothing in common. But for Wilson, they are connected. Her early work taught her how much she loves doing research that gives an answer directly to the people doing the groundwork—an approach she’s been able to apply to MFF’s $1.4 million, three-year Child Welfare Initiative, which launched in 2021 as a result of Wilson’s presence.

We asked Wilson for an update on the latest big wins in MFF’s Child Welfare Initiative and what they mean for keeping families healthy and together.

What are the most significant changes in child welfare in the past few years? 

 The passage of the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) in 2018 changed the way child welfare funding is distributed by prioritizing funding that keeps families together. Now, in order to be recognized under the Federal Title IV-E Prevention Services Clearinghouse, organizations and agencies must show data to prove their efficacy. This means they now need to invest in research in order to receive funding.

What has this meant for MFF and your role as the foundation’s strategic change and evaluation specialist?

Before joining MFF, I worked with the Indiana Department of Child Services as a research manager while the department navigated this change in funding. I was able to bring in my research skills and build the Department’s Research and Evaluation team, build their evaluation programs, and build the pilot model for what we now do at MFF on a national level.

At MFF, we believe in the power of data. No matter how you’re running your system, no matter what policies, or even what leadership structures you’re under, information is a universal tool. We realized both child welfare agencies and nonprofits had the same problem: not having access to data and evaluation expertise. Traditionally, as research is contracted out to universities, consultants, and big firms, nonprofits don’t really own their data or often don’t have full-time staff dedicated to looking at their internal data. The same is true for child welfare agencies. And it makes sense. As people-focused organizations, it’s really hard to spend resources on data and evaluation when that’s money being taken away from kids and direct services.

So we decided to start building research and evaluation teams within child welfare agencies that were ready to take on that work. For those that weren’t ready for more full-time staff, we developed other tools to help them access and use data.

While at the Indiana Department of Child Services, you co-authored a paper that’s now positively impacting not only MFF’s Child Welfare Initiative but also the child welfare space nationally. Can you tell us about that paper and its impact?

In 2019, the Department’s Research and Evaluation Team that I helped build conducted a multi-year evaluation on its new program, The Indiana Family Preservation Program, to prove its efficacy in keeping families together through in-house family programs, concrete supports, and mental health services, which were streamlined and easy to access.

The study that I co-authored, “Proving promise and support: Preliminary evaluation of the Indiana Family Preservation Services,” was the first recipient of MFF’s Open Source Funding Grant. Without open access, that information would be out of reach for agencies and organizations because of high-cost paywalls and other barriers. Last month, the program was approved by the California Evidence Based Clearinghouse, which is the largest repository of evidence-based child welfare programs in the country. Approval to the clearinghouse, which requires open access publication, takes a year to successfully navigate and I’m immensely proud that this was accomplished. Indiana’s operating procedures are now available to all child welfare organizations in the country and set the precedent for other states to implement this program. David Reed, who led the program, has since been able to speak on its positive impact before Congress.

How is Colorado applying the Indiana model and what role is MFF playing? 

MFF dedicated $875,000 to start the Colorado Implementation Science Unit (CISU) within the Colorado Department of Human Services. This funded the employment of four data professionals for three years. The idea was, we will give you a three-year runway to see what a full-time data and evaluation team can do. We believed this would allow them enough time to start advocating for the state to fully fund those positions long-term.

The impact of this funding has been huge. Since 2021, CISU has worked with over a dozen organizations and has supported the implementation and expansion of the Colorado Kinnected Navigator Program, which places children who cannot stay in their own homes with “kin.” In the last year, the program hit a new milestone: 50 percent of foster care youth have had their initial placement with kinship caregivers. The program is now Title IV-E recognized, which has expanded federal funding to the State of Colorado, which means they will receive more resources for their related agencies and more support for foster youth and their caregivers. As CISU approaches their final year of MFF funding, they are on track to continue long-term. They have integrated beautifully. They are a key component of the child welfare initiatives in Colorado and have been a huge point of pride and joy for the state.

How else is MFF’s Child Welfare Initiative helping agencies gather and share data? 

MFF has tackled child welfare from two levels. We’ve taken a top-down approach, creating director-level positions like in CISU. But we’ve also tackled it from the ground-up with a series of Executive Accelerators. And that’s really rare. MFF offers these Accelerators to nonprofits at no cost, providing training for its leaders and meeting them where they are in their data and evaluation journey. Combining both approaches allows us to see individuals grow in their jobs, an increase in team building, and an increase in collaboration among small organizations.

Watch the video below to learn about how Kids Voice of Indiana benefited from their MFF-sponsored Executive Accelerator.


For more background on MFF’s Child Welfare Initiative and related developments, read our child welfare stories on The Reach.