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A Breakthrough Series on Engaging Fathers and Paternal Relatives in Child Welfare: A System Response to COVID-19 and Racial Unrest


In March 2020, COVID-19 rapidly spread in the United States, forcing child welfare agencies to manage new and complex logistical, safety, and basic health concerns. In May 2020, nationwide protests followed the killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and other Black Americans, and this unrest spotlighted the racial inequities and disparities in child welfare and other systems. In reaction to the dual impact of racial unrest and the pandemic, some child welfare agencies limited or suspended initiatives focused on father engagement or racial justice, for example, that were perceived to be outside of the core practice of child protection. This article shares examples of how participation in a Breakthrough Series Collaborative enabled child welfare jurisdictions to proactively manage and lead in this time of complexity and uncertainty. We discuss how these jurisdictions maintained their focus on father and paternal-relative-inclusive family engagement and well-being, responded to the public health emergency in comprehensive and nimble ways, and expanded their racial justice work through an intentional focus in the context of a syndemic.

In March 2020, COVID-19 rapidly spread in the United States, forcing child welfare agencies to manage new and complex logistical, safety, and basic health concerns (Griffith, 2020). In May 2020, nationwide protests followed the killings by police of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and other Black Americans, and this unrest spotlighted the racial inequities and disparities in child welfare as well. In reaction to the syndemic—the dual impact of two parallel epidemics unfolding together (Singer, 2009)—some child welfare agencies necessarily turned their efforts inward, limiting or suspending initiatives that were outside of what they saw as their core practice: child protection. In our experience, initiatives focused on improving father engagement, addressing racial equity, or developing prevention services are often considered “innovative” or “in addition to” what is typically required by policy. As such, these are often among the first initiatives to be set aside in order to focus on maintaining core child protection functions in times of crisis or resource limitations. Additionally, over the course of 2020, child welfare workers were challenged to perform their work as they served vulnerable and pandemic-stressed families, faced their own family and health concerns, and were required to navigate their work in the context of virtual services, delayed hearings, and other barriers (Font, 2021).

This article explains how participation in a Breakthrough Series Collaborative (BSC) enabled child welfare jurisdictions to proactively manage and lead in this time of complexity and uncertainty, including providing a strong foundation to address issues related to racial justice. Funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families, the six teams participating in the Fathers and Continuous Learning in Child Welfare Project BSC used an active implementation science and rapid-change methodology to test direct-service practices and strategies. We discuss how the sites maintained their focus on father and paternal-relative-inclusive family engagement and well-being, responded to the public health emergency in comprehensive and nimble ways, and expanded their work on racial justice through an intentional focus in the context of a syndemic.

Translating Syndemic Challenges Into Opportunities for Breakthrough Series Collaborative Teams

A BSC is a continuous learning methodology adapted from health care that focuses on bridging the gap between “what we know and what we do” (Institute for Healthcare Improvement, 2003, p. 1). Anchored in process improvement, implementation science, and the social dynamics of change, BSCs are designed to help teams adapt, implement, and spread best practices across multiple settings as they simultaneously facilitate organizational culture change in ways that can sustain the work over time. The goal of the methodology is to facilitate sustainable improvements tailored to local contexts. The BSC approach is distinguished from other continuous learning processes in child welfare by its reliance on facilitated cross-site shared learning opportunities and rapid, small tests of change. The model focuses on areas of practice most in need of change and uses data to guide improvements. Active coaching and shared leadership are fundamental to work guided by this model. Scholars in organizational change have described the need to use both horizontal and vertical leadership to support organizational transformation (e.g., Oliveira-Cruz et al., 2003). Vertical leadership flows from positions of power and hierarchy downward through a system, whereas horizontal leadership is dispersed across a system and can flow in all directions. The BSC model aims to increase horizontal leadership to facilitate more broad and rapid systems change.

In child welfare BSCs, multilevel, inclusive teams are created at each participating site to leverage input from and empower team members across varied roles and system levels to develop, implement, and provide data and feedback on tested practices and strategies. These stakeholders also spread the achievements of the BSC throughout the agency and support a culture of learning.

Six teams from five sites, representing five state or county public child welfare agencies, were recruited to participate in the Fathers and Continuous Learning in Child Welfare Project BSC (Fung et al., 2021). BSC teams participating in the project included a mix of administrators, managers, supervisors, child welfare caseworkers, and community partners as well as fathers and paternal relatives. The work of the teams was also actively supported by project staff as well as faculty coaches, who were research, policy, and practice experts and provided training, technical assistance, and led some BSC meetings. The authors of this article represent a variety of roles and participating jurisdictions, including the project BSC consultant, the project principal investigator, a child welfare administrator, a child welfare supervisor, a community partner, and a faculty coach.

We identified five key factors that helped child welfare jurisdictions participating in this BSC respond to the syndemic in proactive, responsive, and open-minded ways: (a) cross-team connection and support; (b) horizontal leadership at all levels, not simply those with positional authority; (c) a solution-focused mindset anchored in testing small changes at a rapid pace; (d) an authentic focus on antiracism; and (e) a nimble and agile project approach.

Cross-Team Connection and Support

The BSC methodology relies on the development of trusting and supportive relationships across teams through in-person facilitated activities, shared learning opportunities, intentional team-building, and the creation of role-based affinity groups. In contrast, most child welfare workers, leaders, and community partners rarely have the chance to work toward a common goal with others in similar roles from other jurisdictions. As child welfare encountered the considerable challenges 2020 brought, the six teams had colleagues across the country from whom they could receive validation and support, as well as practical strategies and tools. For example, team members and faculty coaches regularly shared specific practice ideas, data collection instruments and strategies, assessment tools, father-engagement related publications, and other resources. The collegial support also inspired team members to think in less traditional ways. The teams moved their work beyond single-father and paternal-relative engagement strategies, tools, and practices to how the implementation of the collective effort could support intentional culture change in agencies.

As Christine Lau, the senior leader from the Connecticut Department of Children and Families team, described,

The first BSC senior leadership call that occurred in the early days of the pandemic was a welcomed opportunity to connect with colleagues across the jurisdictions. We were all facing challenges no one could ever have imagined. Despite this, our discussion did not center around the challenges but instead, the discovery of how the virtual world created new and meaningful ways to engage fathers and ensure they stayed connected to their children.

On a call in early April 2020, this senior leadership group shared the experiences of their staff feeling tired, scared, and many testing positive or being exposed to the coronavirus. Yet, they went on to discuss emerging strategies to continue their intentional focus on ensuring that children could see their fathers—albeit virtually—as often as possible.

Leadership at All Levels

Another key element of the BSC methodology is the belief that everyone on the team, regardless of title or role, is a leader in the work. This stands in contrast to the complex hierarchies that are often embedded in child welfare, where directives are generally top-down. Each jurisdiction’s multirole team was coached to “leave their titles at the door” and honor everyone’s expertise in their own experience. Additionally, the BSC facilitated role-based affinity groups in which participants in similar roles from the different teams met to problem-solve and identify strategies. As each participant—including child welfare staff and administrators, along with community partners, fathers, and paternal relatives—stepped into their roles as leaders of the work, they were well positioned to lead in response to the syndemic. For example, a member of the community partner affinity group developed a virtual training called “50 Opportunities for 50 Barriers,” in which he helped social workers in the participating office identify strategies to address common barriers to engaging fathers. The senior leader for this team implemented the strategy across the entire participating child welfare office and made plans to share it across the entire jurisdiction.

Alan-Michael Graves, a community partner from the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services team, said,

During the pandemic, I’ve been called on more and more to take on a leadership role in ensuring that father and paternal engagement remains a focus and at the forefront of addressing disparities and disproportionality in child welfare. My greatest takeaway has been the importance of ensuring that leadership in child welfare is intentional and inclusive in order to meet the needs of the real bosses—the families that we are tasked to serve. As a national trainer and member of the community partner affinity group, I’ve pivoted my instruction to include discussions on leadership needs to include adaptation of policy and practices to help families instead of making families fit into boxes to satisfy system protocols. We need to empower fathers and paternal relatives to be leaders in the work, from the bottom-up instead of working from a place of, “We, the child welfare system, know what is best for you.”

A Solution-Focused Mindset Using Small Tests of Change

A third key element of the BSC methodology was an inquiry mindset rooted in quality improvement, beginning with small tests of change. Continuous quality improvement strategies have been used to develop and implement evidence-supported interventions (Ahn et al., 2017), and state child welfare systems have made substantial efforts to increase continuous learning and quality improvement efforts. These efforts are often geared toward broader, long-term system improvements rather than short-term activities. Within the BSC, participants are encouraged to continuously think about rapid cycle changes, primarily using Plan-Do-Study-Act/Adjust cycles. Rather than waiting for policy to be dictated or guidance to be rolled out, this mindset inspired BSC participants to be proactive in thinking about logistical challenges related to teleworking by asking, “What can we test by next Tuesday?” Team members were already accustomed to a quick and agile response and were poised to test ideas. Further, the teams had a mindset that all challenges have solutions. This mindset meant that even when in-person visits and attendance at agency meetings were not possible, fathers and paternal relatives were never forgotten about or put on hold. Thanks to creative, innovative approaches, the sense of urgency that guides the lives of children in placement and their families remained at the forefront despite the challenges posed by the syndemic.

Jason Mahoney, the team leader on the Wake County Department of Human Services team, shared an example:

To ensure that fathers maintained a connection with their children in out-of-home care and had a voice in their child or children’s care, one team tested and implemented strategies to increase the attendance of fathers at child and family team meetings (CFT). The team invested in a new scheduling system to prompt social workers to invite fathers to CFT meetings and submitted their contact information so that fathers would receive an invite from a father engagement specialist regarding the meeting. The invite consisted of a dialogue that provided fathers with various tools and techniques to prepare for the meeting. Fathers were also provided with needed resources to address needs they identified related to social determinants of health, such as food, housing, employment, etc. The intentional invitation and resources provided yielded an increase in attendance and engagement among fathers and paternal relatives during CFTs amidst the pandemic.

Authentic Focus on Antiracism

One of the guiding documents for a BSC is the collaborative change framework, in which key domains for change are articulated. This BSC described five domains, one of which was focused on achieving equity for men of color. To this end, teams engaged in complex, direct, and honest conversations about bias, disparities, equity, and racism at all levels (personal, interpersonal, institutional, and systemic) and tested changes in practices to address racial equity. Too often racial equity work in child welfare is separated from father engagement work rather than reflecting the inherent intersections. The team’s racial justice work, including addressing the impact of racism on men of color and staff of color, prepared team members to face the second part of the syndemic—national unrest related to racial injustice—with experience and skill. They tackled issues related to race head-on, recognizing this moment as an opportunity in which the spotlight on racism and disparities could further illuminate the need to identify, engage, and partner with men of color in positive and meaningful ways. Although many agencies work to address racism and disparities through implicit bias trainings, analyzing data on disparities, or putting an equity lens on their work, the BSC teams strived to fundamentally transform their work with men of color by explicitly identifying where and how racism directly impacts fathers of color and what they need to do to dismantle the racism.

Leonard Burton, one of the BSC faculty coaches, shared his reflection on this work:

Domain 2 of the collaborative change framework (“Cultivate racial equity for men of color in the child welfare system”) created an authorizing environment to move beyond the typical benign surface-level equity and cultural competence discussions in child welfare to grappling with the role that white supremacy and anti-Black racism has on policy, practice, research, and resources. We were able to challenge assumptions and attitudes about Black, brown, and Indigenous fathers and paternal relatives. For some jurisdictions, the shared language and concepts presented on antiracist work was new and prompted them to reach out for more in-depth training and technical assistance. For others, it either reinforced or expanded upon existing work and made them more committed to addressing disparate treatment of Black fathers and their relatives.

For example, one jurisdiction brought in a local expert on racial justice to facilitate reflective dialogues with all staff about bias, racism, and the impact on fathers.

Nimble and Agile Project Approach

Continuous quality improvement is at the core of the BSC methodology. Some great ideas in child welfare work very well in some jurisdictions but could still fail in others when highly prescriptive approaches bump up against varied contexts. The BSC approach is not formulaic; rather, each BSC is designed specifically around the content area and participating jurisdictions and then further adapted over the year-long process based on teams’ progress, strengths, and needs. In this case, the BSC methodology was poised to respond to the rapidly changing national context by tailoring shared learning opportunities and expectations for teams. Despite the emerging demands on jurisdictions as they responded to the syndemic, expectations for participation in the BSC were not lowered. Instead, teams’ responses to COVID-19 and racial injustice in their respective jurisdictions were woven into calls and agendas as a reminder that the engagement of fathers and paternal relatives, especially men and families of color, was a priority during the syndemic for these agencies with responsibility for the safety, permanency, and well-being of all children.


Child welfare systems may find it challenging to engage in systems change, including taking on initiatives like a BSC, because of the burdens already placed on systems and staff or the overwhelming nature of the challenges addressed. But the effort can be beneficial, injecting child welfare systems with resilience against anticipated and unanticipated shocks and challenges. The jurisdictions participating in this national BSC found their involvement in this project to be especially supportive during these unprecedented times rather than an additional burden. Although the BSC model is used—and is useful—at all times, during the syndemic the additional relationships and supports, the rapid problem-solving mindset, and the focus on the complex and critical issue of racial justice made the method particularly valuable. Cross-jurisdiction support and collaboration; leadership at all levels; a solution-focused mindset focused on small tests of change and continuous learning; experience addressing antiracism in direct, deep, and action-oriented ways; and agile and nimble responses enhanced BSC participants’ ability to respond to this complex and continuous syndemic in deep, meaningful, and substantial ways.

We would like to thank our project officers in the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Pooja Gupta Curtin and Katie Pahigiannis, and our other federal partners, Toya Joyner (Office of Family Assistance) and Matthew McGuire (Children’s Bureau). We also want to express our gratitude to all of the Breakthrough Series Collaborative team members for their contributions to this project and our collective learning from it. We also thank the Mathematica team, including Matthew Stagner, Roseana Bess, Jill Spielfogel, and Candice Talkington.


Jen Agosti, MPP, is an consultant and president at JRA Consulting, Ltd.

Jennifer L. Bellamy, PhD, MSSW, is the associate dean for research and faculty development and a professor at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work.

Leonard Burton, MEd, is a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Social Policy.

Alan-Michael Graves, EdD, is senior director of teaching, capacity building, and policy change at the Good+Foundation.

Christine Lau, MSW, is an assistant chief of welfare at the Connecticut Department of Children and Families.

Jason T. Mahoney, MS, is a child welfare program manager in the Human Services Department, Child Welfare Division, Wake County, NC.

Correspondence regarding this article should be directed to Jennifer L. Bellamy, 2148 S. High St., Denver, CO 80208 or via e-mail to .