Too often great ideas are kept in-house without recognizing their potential to create change beyond the communities where they are born. COA’s Innovative Practices Award (IPA) identifies, documents, and celebrates examples of successful approaches to management and service delivery practices adopted by our accredited organizations.

In 2020, a committee made up of COA volunteers and staff selected 4 finalists to move forward with a full case study. Alternative Family Services (AFS) came out the winner. Read on to find out how the AFS Enhanced Visitation Model kept families in touch during the crisis of COVID-19.

Helping families stabilize, heal, and reunify is an essential part of the work at Alternative Family Services. In-person visitation between kids in foster care and their biological family members is an integral part of the therapeutic process. The frequency of visits between parents and their kids are one of the strongest predictors of the family reuniting. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the challenges kids and families must overcome on their journey towards reunification.

As the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic became more apparent, AFS staff and clients were suddenly faced with the reality that in-person visitation between kids and their family may be halted, or at the very least severely restricted. The ever-changing state and county guidelines added uncertainty and stress to the situation. Since many of our AFS staff, biological families, and foster families are considered a “higher-risk” demographic to have serious consequences from COVID-19, there was palpable fear in conducting in-person visits. AFS staff knew it was critical for families to continue to stay connected, especially during such uncertain times. So, a taskforce was formed that included representation from key AFS stakeholders. The group was asked to create a safe and equitable plan that would allow in-person visitation to resume. After much input and deliberation, the Enhanced Visitation Model was approved.

Exploring the AFS Enhanced Visitation Model

Health Risk Assessment

It was important for AFS staff to evaluate and address client’s COVID-19 concerns and mitigate the risk of individual exposure to the virus. The taskforce sought input from its constituents, researched professional resources, and ultimately developed the “Wellness Questionnaire.” Staff can rapidly administer this assessment tool to determine COVID-19 risk factors each visitor had been exposed to within the 14 days prior to an in-person visit.

Visitation Service Plan

A “Visitation Service Plan” is a simple, flexible, and predominately check-box/circle-based tool that seamlessly incorporates the risk factors identified in the “Wellness Questionnaire,” assigning families to one of three visitation service levels according to COVID risk level:

AFS staff wanted to provide therapeutic strategies in a fun, genuine, and safe environment regardless of their Visitation Service Plan. Once the assessment and planning tools were established, staff needed to create pandemic-safe stations for families to interact.

Enhanced Visitation Venues

When families have a positive, stress-free visit, they are more likely to retain and practice the therapeutic skills they learn.  So, AFS staff developed a variety of indoor and outdoor “Visitation Venues” that are fun, affordable, replicable, and portable. The visitation venues meet COVID-19 safety protocols so parents and their children can safely interact. Here are some examples of our indoor and outdoor venues:

Indoor Visitation Venues

Hugging station
The Hugging Station.
Enhanced Visitation Room
A wider shot of the Enhanced Visitation Room.

Curious to see what these options look like? Check out  this video that highlights our indoor visitation venues.

Outdoor Visitation Venues

Since research has shown COVID-19 is less likely to spread between individuals while outdoors, AFS staff has developed a variety of safe outdoor venues that can easily be setup and disinfected after each use. When visits occur in the parking lots of one of our offices, artificial turf and gymnastic mats provide ground cover for families to play outdoor games. Pop-up tents provide shade when necessary, and bikes and tricycles are provided for families to ride together (staff uses a Clorox Total 360® Disinfectant Cleaner between uses).

AFS Visitation in 2021

The AFS Enhanced Visitation Model, funded with the assistance of the Walter S. Johnson Foundation, was the winner of COA’s 2020 Innovative Practices Award. While we were humbled to be selected, we are always striving to be innovative when it comes to providing the highest level of care to our children and families. At the end of every Enhanced Visitation Session, staff collects feedback from families to see what they like and what they feel has room for improvement.

While we are thankful that the COVID-19 vaccine is being distributed, AFS will continue to adhere to our Enhanced Visitation Model for the foreseeable future to ensure that staff, families and resource parents remain safe.

The views, information and opinions expressed herein are those of the author; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Council on Accreditation (COA). COA invites guest authors to contribute to the COA blog due to COA’s confidence in their knowledge on the subject matter and their expertise in their chosen field.

Alternative Family Services

Alternative Family Services

Founded in 1978, Alternative Family Services (AFS) provides thoughtful, informed care, adoption and mental health services to foster children and youth throughout Northern California. The mission of Alternative Family Services is to support vulnerable children and families in need of stability, safety and wellbeing in their communities.

AFS, a COA-certified foster family agency, currently serves the diverse and varied needs of 1,500 foster youth, plus their biological and foster families, in the San Francisco Bay Area and Greater Sacramento Regions. Services provided by AFS include therapeutic foster care, Intensive Services Foster Care, support for foster children with developmental disabilities, therapeutic visitation, community-based mental health services, transitional housing support, independent life skills training, and much more.

COA would like to congratulate Alternative Family Services (AFS), a Resource Family Agency and mental health service provider serving Northern California, as winner of the 2020 Innovative Practices Award for its “Enhanced Visitation Model: Foster Care” program!

The Innovative Practices Award identifies, documents, and celebrates examples of successful approaches to management and service delivery practices adopted by our accredited organizations. Too often great ideas are kept in-house, without recognizing their potential to create change beyond. The purpose of the Innovative Practices Award is to amplify the effect of one great idea by elevating it to the national stage and offering it as a resource for direct service providers, leadership, researchers, and advocates across the full spectrum of human services. 

This year, innovation is more important than ever. The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged every sector of our society, but it has presented special obstacles for the human and social services field. 2020 has also reinforced the urgent need for better equity, diversity, and inclusion. With that in mind, COA requested that Innovative Practices Award submissions address one or both topics.

This year’s evaluation process began with a preliminary round of submissions in which applicants provided a one-page synopsis of their innovative practice. Four finalists were selected to move forward and submitted their full case studies, which were reviewed by a team of expert judges. The community got to weigh in, as well, with hundreds of public votes making up 5% of each submission’s final score.

You can view the case study of the Enhanced Visitation Model program here.


Visitation frequency between parent and child is one of the strongest predictors of successful family reunification within the foster care system. The initial response to the COVID pandemic for many agencies and institutions charged with overseeing family visitation was to restrict face to face services. Even as government and private agencies have begun to reinstitute face-to-face visitation, it is clear that the pandemic will ebb and flow. If visitation is going to be available to all families, some families will need to practice social distancing or utilize virtual technologies during visitation in order to contain contagion and meet foster parent fears and demands for safety. Families involved in the foster care system are often distrustful of how resources are allocated and rules are applied. When restrictions are placed upon parents’ right to visit their child, it is imperative that the process be transparent and equitable. To accomplish its purpose, the visitation experience must also be positive and encourage healthy interaction.

AFS’ Enhanced Visitation Model incorporates risk assessment and visit planning tools to assist staff in developing transparent and equitable visitation plans for all families. They have coupled this with replicable visitation activities or venues that can safely provide a continuum of healthy visit experiences regardless of risk level. Three levels of visitation service delivery address the special needs of families required to adhere to community, social distancing, or quarantine requirements. AFS’ Enhanced Visitation Model is designed to inspire clients and parents to play and communicate freely while minimizing the potential for client and family re-traumatization that can be caused by difficult to enforce rules and restrictive visitation environments. Their Enhanced Visitation Model is intentionally easy to replicate. They hope their model inspires and encourages family visitation providers to address the challenges of the COVID19 environment with innovative and creative visitation practices for all the families they serve.

Learn more about Alternative Family Services at

A big thank you to Catholic Charities of Buffalo, New York for this guest post!

"When you show deep empathy towards others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That's when you can get more creative in solving problems." --Stephen Covey

We at Catholic Charities Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Program believe that empathy can create positive change, giving WIC participants the most resources and best experiences possible to live healthier lifestyles with their families and community. Our term for this is called “Participant-Centered Nutrition Services.” With the family and their needs at the center of each interaction at WIC, we can better focus on the nutrition education and resources appropriate to suit them. With this in mind, we created the Shopping Experience Simulation.

The goals of the Shopping Experience Simulation initiative were to:

The Shopping Experience Simulation (the Simulation) included three steps: planning, simulation, and debriefing. A team of three staff planned and coordinated all activities in the Simulation. This team met with grocery store management to plan the Simulation, created simulated WIC checks to represent all different kinds of WIC participants, and coordinated which staff would work together. In the Simulation, all WIC participant types were represented: pregnant women, breastfeeding postpartum women with infant, postpartum women formula feeding her infant, and families with toddlers and preschoolers. In the Simulation, staff in teams of two were assigned a WIC participant role, and had 30 minutes to shop with the simulated WIC checks. Immediately after the shopping experience WIC staff attended a debriefing session that included a survey, a group discussion, and a brainstorming session for takeaways.


In the planning phase, we contacted TOPS Supermarkets  as the vendor partner for the Simulation. After phone conversations, we selected the local store  and held a meeting  with the company executive, store manager, and store management team to review the  Simulation plan and establish expectations for all parties. TOPS Supermarket would supply two training checkouts and cashiers to simulate real physical check out of food items, enforcing all WIC policies concerning separating food items, signing and dating checks, and purchasing of approved items. Afterwards, store personnel would replace all simulation food items to proper place in store.

The Simulation was piloted by 13 staff from the Kenmore and North Buffalo WIC locations. Staff would be provided one month of WIC checks. Checks would represent a variety of WIC food packages, including breast feeding mother and baby, infant on specialized formula, participant-requested soy products, and a standard package for child and pregnant woman. Participating staff would have 30 minutes to purchase WIC approved foods as listed on checks, following WIC policies. Staff members were given WIC check folders and food sheets to follow and guide the experience. The staff members were not given the WIC pictorial food guide as an aid. The Store Manager was available for any questions or assistance.


Even with all of this structure in place, reality set in. Shelves were bare where baby food should be. Aisles were crowded, and labels were difficult to find to make sure the item was correct. It took over 18 minutes for the pharmacist to unlock the baby formula case. The wait in the cashier’s line was embarrassingly long, as each item had to be checked to make sure it was as written on the check. Staff became frustrated, losing their checks in abandoned shopping carts. If children would have been added to the mix, as they are in reality, it would have been a truer simulation, and almost certainly more frustrating. To ensure an accurate reflection of the shopping experience, the WIC staff immediately completed a written debriefing questionnaire on feelings and experiences associated with the Simulation. Staff then had an opportunity to verbally share experiences and brainstorm ideas for making the shopping experience better, including how to counsel WIC participants to better prepare them for shopping and using WIC benefits.


The debriefing  results were tallied and shared with the entire WIC Leadership Team, WIC staff, and the New York State WIC Learning Community. As a result of the Shopping Experience Simulation results, educational action steps were designed to administer this Simulation training to all 107 employees at all 21 sites across the 3 counties that we serve (the Erie, Niagara, and Chautauqua Counties in Western New York). A report with the debriefing data was then e-mailed to executives at TOPS Supermarket to share the impact the Shopping Experience Simulation would have on WIC activities. This partnership and feedback with TOPS Supermarket also generated ideas on how to make the general shopping experience better.

We took challenges in stride, and made adjustments for future Simulations.  We noted that too many WIC staff participated at one time, which overwhelmed the small store and training cashiers. To lessen the impact on the store, fewer staff will be trained at one time in the future. Too many checks were given out , and it became too much to handle. In the future, one week of WIC checks will be given to each staff member.  

What was learned was more valuable than the resources that went into the execution of the Simulation. This Simulation effectively used resources, as it cost virtually nothing to train the staff. The only cost associated with the Simulation was staff time. Feeling overwhelmed themselves allowed WIC staff to connect with WIC participants. Staff learned to be less judgmental, more supportive, and more open to the needs of WIC families. The WIC Shopping Experience Simulation illustrated  how small but effective educational changes can provide better participant-centered nutrition services and make the work of WIC participants, WIC staff, and vendors  easier through a more successful shopping experience. Empathy resulting from the experience will give WIC staff an increased capacity to respond to concerns of WIC participants and validate WIC participants’ experience and feelings while shopping with WIC checks.

Embedding lessons learned 

As a result of the simulation, several changes have been made to all Catholic Charities WIC office procedures:

The Shopping Experience Simulation accomplishes much with little investment. Catholic Charities WIC Program has shared the Shopping Experience Simulation with all other WIC Programs in New York State as an innovative practice. The original team that developed the Shopping Experience Simulation has presented the project on the state level in the WIC Learning Community and for a WIC Conference in Albany, New York. The Shopping Experience Simulation demonstrates a new way of thinking about WIC participants. Walking in their shoes through their experience creates empathy and enriched practices. This has been warmly received in the New York State WIC community. I encourage readers to ask yourself what experiences you can provide your staff to augment their understanding of your clients. Concentrate on your services. Simulating customer service experiences while following our steps of planning, simulation, and debriefing will help your staff gain client perspective. Gathering data from simulation experience will help frame action steps to make your business and services more client-friendly.

"Empathy is about standing in someone else's shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place." --Daniel H. Pink

The views, information and opinions expressed herein are those of the author; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Council on Accreditation (COA). COA invites guest authors to contribute to the COA blog due to COA’s confidence in their knowledge on the subject matter and their expertise in their chosen field.

Grace McKenzie

Grace McKenzie holds a Master’s Degree in Education from Buffalo State College. For the past fifteen years, she has worked in Community Relations and Outreach for various nonprofit organizations. Currently, she works at Catholic Charities of Buffalo as the Outreach Supervisor for WIC. As a mom, she enjoys family time with her two girls, including exploring nature, tending the garden, visiting museums and family time at home.

Self-Study [n]. The collection of evidence that COA-accredited organizations put together prior to their Site Visit that shows how they are implementing best practice standards.

We at COA know that generating the Self-Study is a both a challenging and enlightening process for organizations, and we regularly hear from about the value that it brings even after achieving accreditation. That got us thinking; we wanted to dig deeper to find out how organizations were continuing to leverage their Self-Studies after the accreditation process was complete.

In March 2020, we put out a call for organizations to share all the ways that the Self-Study lives and continues to impact their organization beyond accreditation.  We partnered with the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities (the Alliance), one of our founding Sponsoring Organizations, who maintain a library of Self-Studies that are accessible to their members.  It was wonderful to see the second lives that Self-Studies take on, helping organizations to continue grow and thrive by informing a wide range of functions.  And no, using the Self-Study (which can be quite a large collection of evidence) as a doorstop or flyswatter was not mentioned.

The Alliance Self-Study Library

The Alliance Self-Study Library is a valuable resource for member organizations, providing a wealth of information and documentation.  The library contains approximately 3,500 COA Self-Study documents and 66 Self-Studies from member organizations, with confidential information removed before archiving.  All materials are digitally archived, and documents can be pulled for member requests. 

The Self-Study Library can be helpful for Alliance members completing their own Self-Studies, or for developing policies and procedures for their own organizations.  Organizations have also used the information for creating job descriptions, developing strategic or fundraising plans, and board books – giving members insights into how other organizations have strategized or used resources in innovative ways.  If you are a member of the Alliance, please e-mail the library with any questions or to submit your Self-Study documentation. 

Pie chart depicting breakdown of Self-Study use types
The breakdown of reported uses for the Self-Study post accreditation.

Now on to our survey results…

How organizations reuse their Self-Study

We received more than 50 individual uses of the Self-Study from COA-accredited organizations in the United States and Canada.  22% were focused on providing information to internal staff and board members.  More specifically, organizations use them for orientations and manuals/resource development. A couple of organizations even use them as trivia fodder when preparing for Site Visits – or during team building or staff activities – to showcase how well employees know the organization.  The Self-Study has been described as the go-to document that many people look for when starting at a new organization, because it provides a comprehensive look into the organization itself and gets them up to speed quickly.

“There is nothing that should be outside the accreditation process, as the accreditation process encompasses everything we do.”

-Survey respondent

On the planning-side, 18% of responses focused on the Self-Study as a planning resource.  In particular, organizations use it for strategic plan development, including providing it to planning consultants when working with external partners.

13% of responses focused on funding-related uses for the Self-Study.  Organizations noted that it helps to open up funding opportunities, since it documents the high standards of services that they are providing.  The Self-Study information also helps to facilitate the completion of grant applications and informs reporting to large funders.

“It’s a great reference tool for grant applications. Sometimes I’ll recall something I wrote in the Self-Study that perfectly fits a question in a grant application.”

-Survey respondent

The Other section (13%) provided some very interesting ideas for Self-Study uses we hadn’t thought of. This included using them in social work-focused higher education, where an anthology of Self-Study documents could be analyzed for a leadership or organizational structure class.  For organizations that are considering accreditation, it helps them to become more familiar with the process and the importance of looking at the whole organizational structure.  Outside of accreditation, reviewing the Self-Study of an established organization can also serve as a reference guide for newly formed organizations as it helps to inform best practices. Accreditation Site Visits are not the only visits, audits, or other reviews that organizations are faced with, and the Self-Study can help to prepare for these. 

“[The Self-Study] is a great way to keep the organization accountable to administrative areas that may fall through the cracks otherwise (especially in HR and PQI).”

-Survey respondent

The use of the Self-Study to inform communication strategies (7%) and outreach was another interesting way organizations leverage the Self-Study information.  Organizations use their Self-Study to inform their website content, external marketing materials (in particular the narratives), their newsletters, and materials distributed to their volunteers. It is also a useful tool for communicating with government officials about how their decisions inform the work that organizations conduct.

The Self-Study also plays a role when it comes to quality improvement.  7% of organizations use it to help program directors begin to identify areas for improvement, learn more about best practices, and improve upon an agency’s policies and procedures. These organizations recommend that it should be shared with both internal and external stakeholder to demonstrate continuous quality improvement.

“The Self-Study document should be a living document that is part of a continuous quality improvement process.”

-Survey respondent

To round out the uses, policy development was cited as a Self-Study use by 6% of organizations. This applies both internally and when developing policies with community partners.  5% of organizations use the Self-Study for both presentations and training.  Presentations included those for stakeholders, donors, and other audiences that desire data-focused content. Trainings focused more on using the Self-Study information for internal staff trainings.  Lastly, 4% of organizations noted using the Self-Study to support external oversight or licensing visits, as was alluded to in the “other” section.

“We’ve used our Self-Study during agency audits and monitoring site visits.  It’s a great ‘vault’ of information on our governance and organizational structure, quality improvement activities and risk management practices.”

-Survey respondent


As you can see, the Self-Study’s usefulness does not end after an accreditation decision.  It is the informational heart of an organization, one that can provide easy access to key information to help with everything from staff and board engagement to strategic planning and securing funding.

Thank you to all of you who took the time to share your own experiences.  If you did not get a chance, please feel free to add a comment below and let us know how you use yours!

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. An estimated one in three women and one in four men experience some form of domestic abuse over the course of their lives.  For those in a physical, emotional, or sexually abusive relationship, escaping from a cycle of power, control, exploitation, or violence can be a daunting challenge.

Outsiders often question why someone would stay in a situation that inflicts physical, emotional, and physiological harm. However, walking away from an abusive environment is incredibly complex. The dynamic between the person inflicting violence and the person experiencing violence in and of itself complicates the path to safety. Given that domestic violence is rooted in power and control, leaving an abusive situation can be the most dangerous time for a victim/survivor.While danger and fear are prominent factors, there are several other reasons why individuals do not leave – love, shame, children, cultural/religious beliefs, and financial resources are compelling forces.

Advocates are also calling attention to one important but often overlooked factor: pets.

Why pets matter

If you are an animal-lover, it may not be surprising to hear that victims/survivors frequently cite concerns related to their pets or companion animals as part of their decision to stay. Pets become part of the family and provide comfort and companionship, creating an emotional bond that is hard to break. In times of crisis, that bond intensifies.

Studies vary, however, research over the years has indicated that between 20 to 65% of domestic violence victims delay leaving their abusive partner out of fear of harm to their animals, who can be exploited in exchange for the victim’s compliance and silence. Abusive partners commonly use pets to exert power over victims by threatening to hurt or fatally harm the animal if their partner leaves. A strong body of evidence also links a history of animal cruelty to domestic, child, and elder abuse and mass violence, with many experts regarding animal cruelty as a precursor to violent crime. One study found that 71% of pet-owning women entering women’s shelters reported that their abusive partner had injured, killed or threatened family pets as a form of psychological control or revenge.

Although the relationship between domestic violence and animal abuse is clear, survivors with pets face extremely limited options; most shelters and housing options do not allow pets. This may be in part due to the obstacles associated with pet-friendly, co-sheltering models. Resources alone are a significant barrier, given the supplies, services, and accommodations needed to house survivors and their pets safely. There are also legal and liability concerns related to caring for animals and humans in a shared environment. Navigating physical and physiological factors, including consumers’ fear of animals and animal behavior, require special considerations when it comes to service delivery, staff training, and community outreach. 

Currently, it is estimated that only 10% of all domestic violence shelters nationwide accommodate companion animals. As of September 2019, five states – Hawaii, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and West Virginia – do not have any pet-friendly domestic violence shelters. This overwhelming unmet need is a significant barrier to seeking safety for pet-owners affected by domestic violence.

Rising to the challenge

Recognizing that pets factor into a victim/survivor’s journey, advocates and providers are working towards addressing the need for pet-friendly programming and policies. Organizations are thinking outside the box when it comes to partnerships and service delivery to bridge the gap.

Housing is a substantial roadblock. In response, organizations are implementing innovative approaches to provide pet-inclusive shelter programs, including on-site kennels or pet-friendly facilities. Other providers are looking within their local communities to help survivors find foster homes or safe havens for their pets off-site.

Pet-friendly programming

• Rose Brooks Center is a COA-accredited organization located in Kansas City, MO. It became the first domestic violence shelter in the region to accommodate animals when it opened its pet shelter in 2012. The pet shelter offers a safe on-site environment along with pet advocates, and owners have 24/7 access to their pets. In August 2019, Rose Brooks Center was honored by The Kansas City Animal Health Corridor for its commitment to protecting animal welfare and survivors of domestic violence.

• In October 2018, COA-accredited Women in Distress opened its pet shelter in partnership with the Humane Society of Broward County. The shelter is the first of its kind in Florida and can house up to 20 pets in its kennels, while survivors reside on the organization’s 132-bed campus. In addition to safety, pets receive daily care and medical treatment on-site.

• Urban Resource Institute (URI), one of the largest providers of domestic violence shelter and support services in New York City, opened the country’s first-ever domestic violence shelter specifically designed for survivor-pet co-living. PALS Place is a seven-story emergency shelter in Brooklyn that provides 30 one- and two-bedroom apartments for up to 100 survivors and their pets.

In order to increase access to services for victims/survivors and their pets, it is essential to promote policies that address companion animals in the context of domestic violence. The Pets and Women Safety (PAWS) Act, passed with bipartisan support in December 2018, was a big step forward at the federal level. In addition to expanding federal domestic violence protections to include protections for the pets of domestic violence victims, PAWS created a federal grant program to help providers offering shelter or housing assistance options to survivors with pets.

Break down barriers to pet-friendly service delivery

Research and anecdotal evidence confirm the impact of animals on human wellness and functioning. The therapeutic benefits of companion animals are well-known. Pets provide tremendous emotional support and a sense of stability and protection to their owners. For survivors of domestic violence, that care and comfort can be critical to the recovery process, which is why the need for pet-friendly shelter options is so great. The power of human-animal connectedness can help survivors navigate difficult periods of change and overcome challenges (both practical and trauma-related).

Want to help raise awareness about this issue in your community? Here are some resources and recommendations for providers and individuals interested in learning more.

Find housing assistance for survivors with pets

Looking for shelter options that accommodate pets in your community? The resources below provide links to a variety of providers as well as groups that offer financial assistance to cover costs associated with housing companion animals. 

Pet-friendly housing resources

• The Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) created an interactive, comprehensive list of safe havens for pets. AWI’s Safe Havens Mapping Project for Pets of Domestic Violence Victims provides a state-by-state listing of shelters that accommodate pets and providers that can provide referrals to such facilities.

• Red Rover offers financial assistance for families and pets affected by domestic violence through their RedRover Relief program. Survivors can apply for a Safe Escape grant, which covers the cost of temporary pet boarding while they’re in a domestic violence shelter. The organization also has an online directory, Safe Place for Pets, that provides linkages to on-site and off-site housing options and community programs for victims/survivors with pets seeking safety.

• Sheltering Animals and Families – Together (SAF-T) provides a concise, up-to-date list of pet-friendly domestic violence shelters in every state.

Explore ways to build capacity and partnerships

If you are a provider that is interested in expanding services to accommodate the needs of victims/survivors and their pets, there are tools and resources that can help you adapt your facilities to becoming pet friendly. Through their recent work, URI created a whitepaper full of lessons learned, including the importance of developing an educational plan and safety protocols to help alleviate potential areas of risk and concern. SAFT-T also developed a start-up manual that outlines different housing models and legal and financial considerations. There are several funding opportunities available to nonprofits based on how they are looking to support survivors. The Purple Leash Project, a partnership between Red Rover and Purina will provide $500,000 in grants to transform domestic violence shelters into safe spaces for survivors with pets over the next four years, with the goal of establishing a pet-friendly shelter in all 50 states by 2020.

Don’t have the resources required to provide pet-friendly services on-site? You can still build on your capacity to support victims/survivors in ensuring their pets’ safety.

For example, integrating animal/pet-related questions into the intake, screening, and/or assessment process can help organizations better identify potential barriers and connect victims/survivors to appropriate housing options. Safety planning  is another opportunity to be pet-inclusive on a victim/survivor’s path to safety; workers can empower individuals to make decisions about their pets’ care and address needs such as emergency shelter, proof of ownership, veterinarian records, and protective orders.  

Additionally, it is important to familiarize staff with pet-friendly alternatives in the community in order to refer victims/survivors whenever possible. If there are a lack of supports readily available in your area, consider connecting with your local animal shelter to explore potential partnership opportunities to offer other safe options for pets off-site. 

Additional resources

For anonymous, confidential help available 24/7, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY) now.

Too often great ideas are kept in-house without recognizing their potential to create change beyond the communities where they are born. COA’s Innovative Practices Award (IPA) identifies, documents, and celebrates examples of successful approaches to management and service delivery practices adopted by our accredited organizations.

In 2018, a committee made up of COA volunteers and staff selected 6 finalists from over 45 Innovative Practices Award submissions to move forward with a full case study. The St. Louis-based Foster & Adoptive Care Coalition’s 30 Days to Family® came out the winner. Read on to find out how 30 Days to Family® is leading the charge to create stability for kids in the chaotic world of foster care.

Seven siblings entered foster care when they were discovered in deplorable conditions with no food or water. With no known relatives in the area, they were split up between four separate, distant foster homes. Eight days after our team stepped in, all children were placed together, and, one year later, are still in the same home.

Maliek’s father’s beating sent him to the hospital. Lost to addiction, his mother was nowhere to be found. His grandmother, a refugee from the Rwandan genocide, wanted custody, but because she spoke limited English, the licensing team refused to accommodate her. His aunt also wanted custody but lived out of state. The Coalition stepped in to provide translation services and one-on-one training with grandma so she could become a licensed relative provider for Maliek while his aunt went through the lengthy ICPC process. One year later, Maliek was happily in the guardianship of his aunt, his grandmother living in to assist with childcare.

* * *

By the start of the opioid epidemic in 2011, the St. Louis-based Foster & Adoptive Care Coalition had become family-finding experts. We were the first agency in the country to utilize full-time private investigators, and our work was featured in The New York Times and TIME Magazine. But like everyone else, we were doing family finding for children who had already spent years in foster care.

Why were we waiting? We know that long-term foster care is bad for kids. We know that extended family experience deep grief because they’ve lost a child to the system for years. And we know that relatives often respond to requests for help by telling us, “I said I could help years ago, but then nothing happened.”

The Fostering Connections Act of 2008 mandated that all family members be alerted within 30 days of a child entering foster care, but we know that doesn’t happen. Lack of time, tools, and training mean a caseworker identifies an average of only seven relatives. Though a safe, appropriate family member could have been found, a nonrelative foster parent is called and, as a result, children suffer in isolation from their culture of origin, school, neighborhood, and church.

To make matters worse, Missouri does not have enough foster homes to deal with a steep increase in the number of children entering care due to the opioid epidemic. In the last 10 years, Missouri has seen a 42% increase in new entries, with more than 20,300 children spending time in foster care in 2018.

Realizing an opportunity to do better work up front, we created 30 Days to Family®.

30 Days to Family® is an intensive, short-term intervention that places children in the homes of safe and nurturing relatives within 30 days of entering foster care. It works because 30 Days to Family® Specialists are required to find an average of 150 relatives for each child or sibling group. In the last eight years, we’ve learned many lessons about how to find and engage family. Here are the top three:

Work fast

Every night in foster care for a child is a night in crisis. That’s why we initiate 30 Days to Family® the moment a child enters foster care. A member of our team attends the child’s first protective custody hearing to create a sense of urgency around the case. The more time a child spends in care, the more likely it is that relatives will fall away or disengage. Immediacy is key.

And that attitude of immediacy permeates every aspect of every case. If a relative expresses interest in providing placement, we drop everything and assess for safety on the spot. Relative foster parents shake up their entire lives when they agree to care for our kids; the least we can do is match their enthusiasm and flexibility.

“We operate from a mindset of ‘don’t put off tomorrow what can be completed today.’”

When it comes to 30 Days to Family® cases, regular business hours do not apply. We operate from a mindset of “don’t put off tomorrow what can be completed today.” The early tasks in a case are critical for setting the tempo and tone of everything that comes after. Our team never wants to let an opportunity slip through their fingers to find a safe, appropriate relative for a child and get the whole professional team on the same page.

But we don’t slow down once a relative steps forward. Our Specialists bring the same sense of urgency to support as to recruitment. We will not allow a disruption because daycare isn’t in place and the caregiver has to choose between a job and a child. This person became a parent days ago – they have a million things to deal with and calling daycares for openings or doctors for Medicaid eligibility distracts them from meeting the needs of the child in their care.

Engage everyone

When it comes to our kids, everyone has something to contribute. While they may not be able to take placement, a retired uncle may be able to transport the kids to appointments, grandma could watch them after school, or a cousin could help cook dinner on her nights off.

You simply never know when you will find a relative with something amazing to give. To that end, we will contact every living adult relative despite their background, criminal history, abuse and neglect history, social situation, or living conditions. Even if they aren’t appropriate for placement, they may know of a long-lost relative who will prove invaluable in supporting the family. Everyone has a piece of the puzzle.

Often, our team will hear that an aunt or grandparent doesn’t want to be involved – they had enough of mom and dad years ago. Or maybe they don’t trust the child welfare system. A key to our success has been to never take that at face value. We always reach out to hear their story, and often find that if we listen actively and with empathy, they will become an active part of the child’s life.

Another thing that sets 30 Days to Family® apart is its commitment to involving paternal relatives. We do not wait for paternity to be established to reach out, as we’ve found that cousins or grandparents will often step up if they know the children. Biological relation is not a deciding factor for many of our caregivers. Many will ask for placement even after a conclusive paternity test shows they have no relation to the child.

However, we do always attempt to establish paternity. We know kids do better when they’re connected to family. To that end, we’ll do our best to give them as much information as possible. We’ve even begun conducting our own paternity tests to speed things up.

Support always

“Focusing on natural supports strengthens the caregiver’s existing social network, offers more flexibility, and gives kids more relative connection.”

Just as important as finding a relative placement is putting an end to what we call “relative dumping”– you know, when grandma is asked to take in her four grandkids with no support. Say grandma has a good job at a factory, but inflexible shifts. Suddenly, all the kids in her care need physicals, dentist appointments, psychological exams, new school enrollment, court dates, and team meetings – all within a month. Instead, our team utilizes our proprietary Roadmap to Family, which guarantees all formal and informal supports are in place to keep grandma focused on caring for her grandkids.

The Roadmap to Family is a thorough, culturally competent plan created in concert with the family. Everyone has buy-in and makes a commitment. Our team focuses on “natural” supports rather than “prescribed” supports: We’ll find a cousin to take the kids to their doctor’s appointments rather than rely on public transportation, or an aunt who is a math teacher instead of hiring a tutor to help with homework. Focusing on natural supports strengthens the caregiver’s existing social network, offers more flexibility, and gives kids more relative connection.

Another key to 30 Days to Family® is the inclusion of backup placements, often more than one. Should a placement disrupt, having multiple relatives lined up to step in ensures that the kids stay with family and are not forced to go to a stranger’s home. It eases the burden on overworked caseworkers, who otherwise might place the child in residential care due to a shortage of available nonrelative foster homes. Our team fully vets each backup as though they were taking immediate placement, so there is as little friction as possible in the event a disruption happens.

Finally, we conduct intentional, direct follow-up with caregivers at two weeks and 30 days after the end of services. We want to know if and how they’re utilizing the Roadmap to Family, if there’s any support they lack, any barriers they’re facing, or if they feel there’s any risk of the child disrupting. We want to make sure they feel supported and set up for success. If the caregiver needs anything, our team jumps back in – whatever needs to happen to minimize the disruption in the child’s life.

What’s in it for our kids?

In 2015, we secured funding for a multi-year, independent study of the 30 Days to Family®. Dr. Anne Atkinson with PolicyWorks, Ltd., a think tank based in Virginia, matched children served by 30 Days to Family® with comparable children who received services that were business as usual. The results were stunning. Children served by 30 Days to Family® exited foster care 91.4 days earlier on average. If the child had an identified disability, s/he exited foster care 257.8 days earlier. Not surprisingly, most children achieved permanency through reunification, adoption by their relative, or guardianship, reducing the need for nonrelative adoptive homes.  Also, children served were half as likely to spend time in an institution (26% vs. 14%). Excitingly, children served were 81% less likely to experience placement disruptions.

By increasing permanency and stability and reducing the toxic overuse of residential treatment, 30 Days to Family® has created resilient placements which created a wide range of benefits for children, such as:

Additionally, Dr. Atkinson’s study was the first economic child welfare study of its kind in the United States. It demonstrated that every child served by 30 Days to Family® saves taxpayers an average of $10,217.61. Average savings increased to $21,687.26 for children nine and older.  These numbers do not include intangible benefits such as reducing foster parent recruitment costs and easing caseworker workload.  Neither does it include second-and-third-tier benefits, such as reduced Medicare costs and savings from lower percentages of children spending time in institutions. Our 30 Days to Family® Specialists can serve a minimum of 30 children per year, resulting in at least $300,000 in savings.

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Family search and engagement takes work, but the rewards are worth the up-front investment of your time and resources. 30 Days to Family® represents the way forward for an overburdened child welfare system. By deepening family involvement and relationships, we build resilience among our most vulnerable children and increase buy-in in our community. By creating stability in their chaotic lives, we give our kids a chance at a genuine childhood, in which they can develop meaningful, long-term relationships, succeed in school, and pursue their passions. By being good stewards of public resources, we model responsibility and accountability. By rigorously evaluating and means-testing our own work, we set a precedent that children in foster care deserve the best we have to offer.

If your organization is interested in the 30 Days to Family® model, please contact the Foster & Adoptive Care Coalition’s Director of Program Replication, Melanie Moredock, at melaniemoredock @

The views, information and opinions expressed herein are those of the author; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Council on Accreditation (COA). COA invites guest authors to contribute to the COA blog due to COA’s confidence in their knowledge on the subject matter and their expertise in their chosen field. 

Melanie Moredock

Melanie began with the Foster & Adoptive Care Coalition in 2011. Melanie’s previous child welfare experience includes residential treatment, specialized case management, and foster/kinship parent training and licensing. Melanie obtained her Juris Doctorate from Saint Louis University School of Law and has been a member of the Missouri Bar since 2007. Melanie’s passion is engaging and empowering family members, as well as working closely with the professional team members to ensure the laws regarding relative/kin placement are followed. Melanie enjoys sharing her knowledge of the program with others through providing individualized training and consultation to interested agencies and supervision of the 30 Days to Family® replication sites.