Improving How Local Institutions Work Together

At Houston Endowment we often look to policy change as a way to tackle the tough and far-reaching issues that limit opportunity for the people of our region.

Policy change doesn’t happen only in capitol buildings. Voluntary changes in policies or procedures by our local institutions can have significant positive impact and often enable public dollars to go further.

We talked to two grantees of Houston Endowment whose work is changing how local institutions work together to better serve people in our region.

Barbie Brashear is executive director of the Harris County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council (HCDVCC). The Council creates collaborations between groups that serve survivors of domestic violence in order to increase survivor safety, hold domestic violence perpetrators criminally accountable and maximize community resources.

“We seek to work smarter rather than harder and pool collective knowledge,” Brashear said.

In 2012, HCDVCC undertook a year-long assessment of local law enforcement agencies, including the Houston Police Department, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and the Pasadena Police Department, to understand how these agencies responded to family violence.

HCDVCC’s resulting recommendations prompted the agencies to make some sweeping changes: survivors no longer need to go to the police substation nearest to where the abuse occurred to make a report; the sheriff’s office now has six advocates for domestic violence survivors; and investigators from different jurisdictions now have quarterly meetings, facilitated by HCDVCC, to share information on repeat perpetrators.

Brashear said their recommendations planted the “seeds” that have continued to lead to changes among the law enforcement agencies in the years since.

Patrol officers’ feedback also prompted HCDVCC to think about how they could eliminate the need for calls to multiple agencies to access emergency resources for survivors, which is their next major undertaking.

“We have to push our field to take some risks and challenge the status quo of how we’ve always done things,” Brashear said.

A social worker since 1992, Brashear said she used to love working one-on-one with clients but found herself thinking, There must be an easier way. When she got the opportunity to work at the systems level, she took it.

“Doing systems work has been the hardest work I’ve ever done … but also the most rewarding,” she said. “It gives you the ability to have the greater impact for the greater good.”

Houston Endowment Recent Investments in HCDVCC: $550,000 toward a coordinated community response for domestic violence in Harris County (approved 2015 – 2017), $375,000 toward evaluation of the rapid re-housing program for victims of domestic violence (approved 2016).

Kelly Sowards Opot is executive director of the Harris County Youth Collective (HCYC), which brings together the child protective and juvenile justice systems to make sure those systems are “connected, collaborating and providing the best quality of service that they can” for the youth in their care, according to Opot.

Changing policies and procedures within the two systems is at the heart of their work, she said. “So much of what we’re trying to do is local. It’s certainly affected by what happens nationally, or at the state capitol, but we rely on the organizations to shift the way they work to better serve youth.”

Stakeholders in the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department (HCJPD) and the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) had been having conversations for years about how to better work together to support young people in both systems. In 2016, this effort was codified under the HCYC – a neutral, third-party entity that is helping to connect the dots – and the term “dual-status” was adopted to describe the population of young people who found themselves at the intersection of the two systems.

“Previously they weren’t coming together,” said Opot. “Now they say, ‘Oh, you really do have these kids’ best interests in mind. Now I understand and I trust you in a way that will allow me to be more flexible than I was three years ago.’”

The new level of coordination and trust between the agencies has led to remarkable progress: Both agencies have created teams devoted specifically to youth who are dual-status; Regional directors within DFPS have elected to have their staff trained to work with the specialized population; The district attorney’s office dedicated a prosecutor to handle all dual-status youths’ cases in Harris County and is now more frequently recommending diversion programs.

And it’s making a difference. Opot speaks fondly of young people with lived experience as dual-status youth who have been able to graduate from high school or who are now living independently.

“Youth are more responsive to juvenile probation and DFPS because they have a team approach and are working with the kids,” she said. “They can connect with them more.”

Houston Endowment Recent Investments in HCYC: $1.5 million toward support for a cross‐system collaboration that will coordinate services and data‐sharing among entities working within child welfare and juvenile justice (approved 2016), $757,400 to FSG toward support of the dual status initiative, to foster greater alignment across the Harris County juvenile justice and child welfare systems (approved 2016), $194,000 to Georgetown University toward technical assistance to implement the Crossover Youth Practice Model in Harris County child welfare and juvenile justice systems (approved 2017)