All Commission activites are funded by one of the three federal Court Improvement Program (CIP) grants — Basic Projects, Training and Technology — that are awarded to the highest court in each state for the improvement of courts' handling of child abuse and neglect litigation. CIP grants are administered by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services' Administration for Children and Families (ACF).
The Basic Projects Committee oversees a variety of projects listed below.
In Alphabetical Order by Name
Appleseed Permanent Managing Conservatorship
In partnership with the Children’s Commission, Texas Appleseed performed a statewide study on Texas children growing up in foster care (those children who are in the permanent managing conservatorship (PMC) of the state). The study identified needs and problems common to PMC children, services available to them, and barriers to successful outcomes. The final report identified best practices within the legal system and how using those best practices may improve these outcomes, which may include the continued appointment or re-appointment of an attorney or guardian ad litem after the child comes into permanent legal custody of DFPS, targeted judicial training, more frequent case reviews, or a re-examination of whether termination of parental rights or kinship placement is viable and appropriate. The study also examines the possible costs associated with the various solutions proposed. Ultimately, this study will lead to the improvement of outcomes for youth in long-term care.
Texas Appleseed completed its study of Texas children in PMC and published its final report last November. Since that time, Appleseed, DFPS, Casey Family Programs, CPPP, CASA, and the Children's Commission have been working on how best to implement the recommendations in the full report, which can be linked to here:
An abbreviated version of the report also appeared in the October issue of the Bar Journal. The projects include an effort to establish a bench mark hearing that would incorporate some of the recommendations from the 2010 report. This process has included a cost analysis to determine the current cost of hearings in multiple jurisdictions in order to learn how expensive a bench mark hearing process might be and a survey of several courts to evaluate PMC hearing quality. The survey was conducted in partnership with Casey Family Programs and the NCJFCJ. Other projects include continuing to work with Harris County, as appropriate, to improve the administrative handling of CPS cases generally and improve the judicial practices used in PMC cases.
In response to the report by Texas Appleseed, the Austin Young Lawyers Association (AYLA) is planning to launch a project to recruit attorneys to volunteer for appointment to represent children in the PMC of the state. The Commission will be working with AYLA to develop the curriculum for the orientation training course for the Ad Litem project. The goal of the Ad Litem Project is to provide pro bono representation for the children in PMC and potentially change children's lives forever. Attorneys will advocate to find the children permanent families and to provide them what they need to have a good start in life. Attorneys will get court room experience at the hearings held once every four to six months.
Some 20 members of the Appleseed Permanency Project Workgroup met January 14, 2012, to continue work on removing systemic barriers to permanency identified in Appleseed's November 2010 report that PMC children face. The workgroup is considering launching some kind of a campaign focused on permanency. The Children's Commission has agreed with the Texas Center for the Judiciary to substitute the Beyond the Bench conference scheduled for the fall of 2012 with a Permanency Summit. The Appleseed Workgroup will advise TCJ on the content and structure. Also, Appleseed recently completed a cost analysis of hearings in several jurisdictions that may be useful in helping estimate the cost of developing and implementing a bench mark hearing process, should a jurisdiction decide to adopt that recommendation from the Appleseed report. Other projects include continuing to work with Harris County, as appropriate, to improve the administrative handling of CPS cases generally and improve the judicial practices used in PMC cases.
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Bench Book - Child Welfare Law
A Children's Commission committee wrote an interactive, web-based judicial bench book on child welfare law that launched September 2010. The password-protected document is currently located at the Texas Center for Judiciary's servers and is accessed through TCJ's website, but will be relocated in 2012 to the Supreme Court's servers under the Office of Court Administration.
Judicial Disproportionality Workgroup (JDW)
In an effort to address how cultural and institutional racism contributes to the over-representation of African-American, Native-American and Hispanic youth and families in our child protection system, the Supreme Court Children's Commission, in partnership with Casey Family Programs, Texas Strategic Consulting and the Texas Health and Human Services Commission Center for the Elimination of Disproportionality and Disparities, formed a workgroup to help the legal system do its part in addressing this important issue.
The JDW is co-chaired by Joyce James, Associate Deputy Commissioner, HHSC Center for Elimination of Disproportionality & Disparities, and Carolyne Rodriguez, Senior Director, Texas Strategic Consulting, with Casey Family Programs, Associate Judge Meca Walker of Harris County, and Senior District Judge John Specia. The JDW held its first meeting in December 2010 and adopted a mission statement as well as anti-racist principles that will guide the workgroups course. Most members of the workgroup participated in an Undoing Racism workshop in February 2011.
Since the last Commission meeting, the JDW has been planning the Third Annual Implicit Bias conference for February 2012. The JDW will be expanding the conference to include judges who hear criminal cases, juvenile cases and other areas of the law which overlap with child protection cases. A wider audience will bring a richer discussion of how cultural and institutional racism contributes to the over-representation of African-American, Native-American and Hispanic youth and families in CPS system. The group would also like to hear from experts regarding how racism within other systems affects the CPS system. The JDW is co-chaired by Joyce James, Associate Deputy Commissioner, HHSC Center for Elimination of Disproportionality & Disparities, and Carolyne Rodriguez, Senior Director, Texas Strategic Consulting, with Casey Family Programs, Associate Judge Meca Walker of Harris County, and Senior District Judge John Specia.
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Harris County encompasses Texas' largest city, Houston, and A more intense Judicial Technical Assistance project that goes beyond merely providing permanency data analysis was launched in Harris County in February 2011 that partners Harris County judges who hear CPS cases, DFPS and Harris County CPS, Casey Family Programs, Texas Appleseed, and the Center for Public Policy Priorities.
The Children's Commission continues to pursue efforts to provide technical assistance to Harris County as the judges examine how to reform the way cases are handled administratively and practically. The issues identified included case delays, accountability and preparation, service of citation and notice, low reunification rate, lack of permanency, Disproportionality, case management and docketing, legal fees for appointed attorneys, countywide oversight and cooperation. A conference call with the outgoing and new administrative family and juvenile judges was held in November 2011.
February 2012 Update
In December, Justice Guzman sent a request to Harris County Judges Judy Warne, Bonnie Hellums, David Farr, and Michael Schneider asking them to lead efforts to implement improved processes and protocols to produce better outcomes for children and families involved with Harris County CPS. Eight Harris County district judges and seven associate judges met on January 13, 2012 to discuss how the juvenile and family judges can work together to address some of the legal and child welfare system barriers that are contributing to the delays in foster youth exiting the system. Justice Massengale and Judge Specia are serving as advisors to the group and the Children's Commission has conveyed its availability to assist when and where needed. This newly formed leadership council for juvenile and family court judges will address system barriers identified in the Texas Appleseed Study and the LRS study. Improving service and docketing will be two of the group's first priorities.
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Interstate Compact for the Placement of Children (ICPC) Reform
The Children's Commission has been invited to participate in a national workgroup sponsored by the National Association of Counsel for Children (NACC) to address the delays to permanency that the ICPC creates. The ICPC is a uniform compact enacted in each state that governs the placement of foster children who move from one state to another. It prohibits one state from placing a child in another state without first obtaining the receiving state's approval and is widely considered to be the cause of unnecessary delays in placing children in permanent homes. Currently, the ICPC is controlled by the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA) which administers the compact on behalf of states.
February 2012 Update
Although the APHSA recognizes that problems exist, it has been unable to produce an amended compact to which child welfare professionals and states will agree. Three primary issues central to this lack of agreement are; the subjective nature of homestudies, the failure to provide a presumption of non-custodial parental fitness, and the inability of one state's judiciary to review or appeal another state's placement denial. One national expert said that the unreviewable denials act as de facto terminations of parental rights. And, three states have struck down the application of the ICPC in certain instances to place children with their birth parents. Thus, many child welfare professionals have determined that it is time for the ICPC to be reformed.
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Judicial Technical Assistance (JTA)
The Judicial Technical Assistance (JTA) project is a data analysis free service available to judges to help them evaluate their jurisdiction's performance on permanency as measured by specific data DFPS collects per federal requirements. The Children's Commission has a contract with an expert who, at a judge's request, will analyze and write a report on the performance of the requesting judge's court on permanency measures, such as the percent of their cases in which a final order was issued within one year. Eeducating judges on how to interpret and extract meaning from allows them to use it to reform processes and practices within their own jurisdiction
The federal Administration for Children and Families (ACF) uses such data to assess and rate state's perform in child safety, permanency and well-being. This joint project with the Center for Public Policy Priorities grew from a 2010 Children's Commission Round Table about the problem of children who get stuck in long term foster care under the state's permanent managing conservatorship. Judges may use the data report to help them identify areas for improvement.
February 2012 Update
The JTA project will change slightly in FY2012 and move from analyzing individualized county-specific permanency data, to analyzing permanency data from a broader perspective. CPPP will provide a number of different reports next year. For example, one planned report will compare five large urban counties (Bexar, Dallas, Harris, Travis, Tarrant) collectively to the rest of state and another will compare each of the five counties to the other four collectively. Other reports will cover rural and areas with mid-sized cities and/or populations. The geographic areas to be covered by these reports encompass about 80% of all kids in CPS custody.
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Jurist in Residence
The Jurist in Residence project was created to foster judicial leadership and promote greater expertise among child protection judges. The Commission's JIR, Judge John Specia, has been instrumental in advancing judicial education and community collaboration across the state. OCA will add another JIR position to assist the Children's Commission for FY2012. The Children's Commission will continue to publish JIR newsletters to assist judges hearing CPS cases with practical information and tools to help them do a better job.
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Legal Orphan Project
The Children's Commission is part of a project started in 2011 by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) that will try to determine how courts can help stem the growing number of children who are aging out of foster care as legal orphans. Judge Michael Key, current president of the NCJFCJ, heads the ad hoc committee that will study the matter and present findings and recommendations to the Administration of Children and Families. Texas was selected as one of the states to participate in the project.
The Legal Orphan Project targets youth who are at risk of aging out without biological ties to any parent. Courts terminate parental rights to free a child for adoption so that they can find a loving, permanent family. However, for some children in foster care, permanency plans fail and the child remains in the foster care system until aging out at 18. When the child becomes an adult, he or she leaves foster care without family connections or a support system. As a result, many of these legal orphans fall on hard times and end up in the criminal justice system. To reduce the number of children who age out of the system, the Legal Orphan Project focuses on those children that tend to have difficulty achieving permanency and makes special efforts to find permanent living arrangements.
The deliverables for each participant state: to identify the number of children who are 12 and older with termination of parental rights regardless of whether their plan is adoption and who have been in foster care for at least one year; to produce a written report about the problem, propose solutions, and start a national dialogue among child welfare professionals and the judiciary; and to build a national curriculum around permanency counseling for children who identify as not interested in being adopted. Texas submitted a Technical Brief in 2011 that will be included in the materials published by this workgroup. The workgroup will also submit a resolution to the NCJFCJ Committee on Public Policy.
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Legal Representation Study
The LRS Workgroup, formed by the Commission to develop plans for implementing the recommendations from the LRS Report, has continued to meet regularly. Judge Dean Rucker is serving as chair of the LRS workgroup. There are more than 30 members who meet via teleconference and the work is broken down by Subcommittee (Practice, Policy/Legislation, Outreach) and by subtopic (Appointment Method, Compensation, Training, Standards, DFPS Representation).
The Appointment Method group has been charged with examining those elements of the Commission's Legal Representation Study dealing with various types of representation around the state and nation and is directed to consider which models will best serve children and parents (including individual court appointments, public-defender type offices, regional public defenders, private contract attorneys, or a state-wide model with a centralized management structure and budget authority).
The Compensation workgroup has been charged with examining how Texas can structure a compensation system that optimizes attorney performance, provides quality legal representation, and at the same time provides adequate and fair compensation for attorneys. The Compensation group is considering a means for tracking attorney billing submissions through a statewide, internet-based system. Such a system would allow judges to quickly identify attorneys that are falling outside of the norm and will increase oversight and fairness in the billing process.
The DFPS group is considering whether the state should restructure DFPS representation so that DFPS provides all representation throughout the state except in those counties that wish to keep it and whether Texas should continue the status quo of the DA/CA being in control of who represents DFPS, but changing the statute to prevent counties from being able to force DFPS to provide representation without any discussion, input, or approval prior to offloading the cases. In short, the consensus of the group so far is that the State should not restructure DFPS representation and that DFPS should not handle ALL representation. And, although there was no agreement on what changes needed to be made to Texas Family Code Section 264.009, there was general agreement that DFPS should not be in the position of having to take on a county's caseload without any advanced warning or say-so in the matter, which is allowed by the current statute.
The Standards and Quality Assurance workgroup / work has been combined with the Training workgroup since those issue overlap. That work has focused on getting consensus on whether there should be a mandatory appointment of counsel plan for each county / jurisdiction; minimum qualifications and training requirements to be eligible for appointment to represent parents and children in CPS cases; a standardized application process for attorneys wishing to be on an appointment list; a standardized system for appointing attorneys from the list; a standardized method for evaluating performance of attorneys; training minimums and standards (subject to judge being able to waive). The entire report can be accessed on the Children's Commission website: http://www.supreme.courts.state.tx.us/children/pdf/LRS.pdf
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National Adoption Day
Adoption Day is supported by the Children's Commission to help consummate adoptions from foster care, celebrate and honor all families who adopt, and raise awareness about foster care children still waiting for adoption.
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Notice & Engagement
In December 2010, with the help of Casey Family Programs and DFPS the Children's the Commission held a Notice & Engagement Round Table discussion that brought together various stakeholders to assess current efforts and areas for improvement. The discussion addressed service of citation and notices relating to the lawsuit, which must comply with the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure (TRCP). Additionally, the discussion addressed notification and engagement efforts to encourage parents, relatives, youth, and other persons' participation in the case.
The round table discussion revealed that notice is not always consistently or timely provided and that confusion exists on the difference between notice of hearings and service of process. The discussion also revealed that because engagement efforts are wanting, children lose the chance to get valuable support of relatives others. As a follow up to the Round Table, and to assist with compliance with the Fostering Connections Act, the Texas Legislature enacted provisions to strengthen the notice required when a child is removed from their home and to require broader and deeper engagement of relatives when placing the child and serving their needs. Specifically, newly enacted SB 993 codifies the federal requirement to notify adult relatives and adds court oversight to review DFPS's diligent efforts to engage relatives.
The Commission will continue to work on educating judges on the need to review compliance with notice and engagement requirements and to hold parties accountable. The Commission will also be working with DFPS to clarify its policy regarding the responsibility and requirements of providing service of citation and notice and engaging family members. As part of this effort, the Commission will try to address presumptions and attitudes about relatives and family members that may be driving caseworker practices. One of our focuses will be on increasing involvement of alleged fathers and paternal relatives.
A follow-up Round Table on changes to the Status Hearing statute is under consideration to determine whether the statute should be changed to allow judges to monitor compliance with the notice provisions and to ensure the statute allows plenty of opportunities for engagement.
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Psychotropic Medication Workgroup
In early 2011, many judges and child advocates expressed concern that in the foster care system, psychotropic medication has been over-prescribed, inappropriately prescribed to control behavior, and not monitored well enough. In response, the Children’s Commission formed a multi-disciplinary workgroup to examine how judges, the child welfare agency, and other advocates and interested persons could work together to further decrease the use of psychotropic medications by Texas’ foster youth. The Psychotropic Medication Workgroup (Workgroup) led by Judge Diane Guariglia, Associate Judge from the 245th District Court in Harris County, and Dr. James Rogers, Medical Director at DFPS, studied the psychotropic medication oversight process in Texas, the information-sharing process between the court and the state’s many child welfare professionals, and the consent process for psychotropic medications.
The Workgroup began its work by studying the newly revised Psychotropic Medication Utilization Parameters for Foster Children (Parameters), a best practices guideline to ensure comprehensive evaluations and appropriate treatment of children prescribed such medications. The Parameters have been very successful, leading to significant reduction in the overall use of psychotropic medications and decreases in the use of multiple medications for the same purpose. Dr. James Rogers, Medical Director of DFPS, Dr. David Harmon, Chief Medical Director of Superior Health Plan, and Commissioner Octavio N. Martinez, Jr., M.D., described for the group how the Parameters were developed and the ways in which the Parameters are used in health screenings, automated monthly pharmacy screenings, and by CPS staff, CASAs, caregivers, attorneys and judges in the review of the medications of foster children.
Commissioner Audrey Deckinga, DFPS Assistant Commissioner for CPS, and Kathy Teutsch, CPS Division Administrator of Medical Services added institutional knowledge of the Psychotropic Medication Utilization Review (PMUR), the process to seek further scrutiny of prescriptions that appear to fall outside the Parameters. Judge Diane Guariglia, Judge John Hathaway, Associate Judge of the Travis County Youth Transition Court, and Judge Karin Bonicoro, Associate Judge of the Child Protection Court of Central Texas also provided feedback about the trends they see in their courts and their ideas for improving the Parameters and PMUR process. The collaborative discussion led to a better understanding of the PMUR process, identification of possible gaps in the system, and potential solutions to be explored further.
For a more in-depth discussion, more than 50 judges, attorneys, psychiatrists, child welfare leaders, mental health experts and other advocates attended the Psychotropic Medications Round Table in July 2012. The Round Table was opened with a reminder of the common purpose of every participant in the room: to provide foster children the best, most effective and least intrusive treatment for emotional and behavioral difficulties. All of the 50-plus attendees agreed that no one wished to over-medicate or under-medicate children, and that the difficulty was in finding the right treatment for each child. Advocating for a child struggling with mental health issues is time and resource-intensive. As reflected in national debate, there are also philosophical, moral, and religious differences about how psychotropic medications should be used with children.
The Round Table participants discussed the Consent Process, Judicial Review, and Agency Oversight, including a detailed discussion of the Parameters. The participants reviewed current statutes, policies, and practices surrounding the use of psychotropic medications and offered their expertise and insights from the field regarding what is working well and what is not.
In January, the Children’s Commission issued a 50-page report entitled Psychotropic Medication and Texas Foster Care. The report included 20 recommendations to help guide DFPS and the Judiciary in continuing to improve legislation, child welfare policy and judicial practices in the use and oversight of psychotropic medications. While not a definitive roadmap, the Report articulates an urgent call to improve medical consent systems, amend the Texas Family Code to increase accountability, and enhance data collection and information sharing to better serve our children’s best interests. Of paramount importance to our state is garnering the necessary resources to implement a statewide, trauma-informed approach to serving children, youth, and families involved in the child welfare system. The 28,000-plus foster youth currently in care deserve an accountable and sensitive system of care and Texas must do everything in its power to get it right for each and every child.
Read the full report here:
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Restraint Group / Trauma Informed Services
In response to concerns raised by Richard LaVallo of Disabilities Rights Texas (formerly Advocacy, Incorporated) regarding the recent death of a foster child as a result of being physically restrained in a residential treatment center, the Children's Commission formed a workgroup to further study the use of physical restraints and other emergency behavioral interventions. The Restraint Workgroup has met three times, focusing on the goals of the group such as (i.) proposing guidelines for the use of physical restraints for foster youth similar to those that have developed for psychotropic medications; (ii.) propose changes to the DFPS rules governing the physical restraint in residential treatment centers; (iii.) providing data on the use of physical restraint in residential treatment centers for judges, caseworkers, CASA volunteers and attorneys ad litem; and (iv.) explore the possibility of stakeholders applying for a Developing Trauma-Informed System of Care grant.
The Restraint Workgroup also attended a training on trauma-informed services sponsored by the Hogg Foundation. The training brought national experts on trauma-informed care who stated that physical restraint is often trauma inducing for youth who are victims of abuse and neglect. Trauma-informed care focuses on comfort and de-escalation in crisis, rather than control and restraint. This approach leads to fewer injuries of youth and staff and a more healing treatment environment. Further, facilities adopting alternatives to physical restraint have found that while the no-restraint approach may be more costly up-front, these practices eventually lead to cost savings through less turnover, and fewer workers' compensation claims.
February 2012 Update
This Workgroup brought together representatives from DFPS, child-placing agencies, advocacy groups, universities, and foundations to examine the use of restraints and other emergency behavioral interventions in foster care. The Workgroup researched national best practices and found that rethinking restraint policy is part of a bigger paradigm shift to Trauma-Informed Care. The Workgroup found that this shift in policy is being contemplated in many child welfare arenas including a Hogg Foundation Advisory Committee which helped develop training for mental health professionals entitled “Culture Change: Advancing Trauma-Informed Care in Texas.” DFPS is currently engaged in strategic planning to further develop a trauma-informed system of care that would include agency staff, judges, therapists, foster/kinship parents, residential contractors, and STAR Health. This Commission Workgroup will continue to collaborate with the ongoing efforts and communicate these best practices to judges and lawyers.
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Round Table Series
In 2009, the Children’s Commission began holding round table discussions on issues pertinent to the Texas child protection system. The Round Table Series brings together subject matter experts, judicial and executive branch leaders and key policy-makers who work together to advance ideas that result in sound executive agency policy, carefully planned legislation, and improved judicial handling of child protection cases. The project’s history is listed below:
- Round Table 1: Analysis of a recent appellate court decision that clarified certain legal parameters of CPS investigations and removals. February 2009.
- Round Table 2: Assessment of CPS mediations. June 2009.
- Round Table 3: Analysis of data on children in PMC. February 2010.
- Round Table 4: Analysis of notice and engagement. December 2010.
February 2012 Update
Budget Constraints: A Round Table focusing on the Department’s budget constraints was held on November 14, 2011, which was co-hosted with Casey Family Programs, DFPS and CPPP. The multi-disciplinary participants discussed the impact of FY 2012-2013 budget limitations, strategies for best utilizing the FY 2012-2013 funding, and available resources to achieve optimal results of safe and timely permanency. Participants discussed how CPS evaluates families and work with community providers, noting that assessments are sometimes duplicative and relied too heavily on self reporting. Issues concerning CPS-required services were discussed as well, including their over-assignment, the long waiting periods and difficulty families have accessing them. The Budget Round Table Report is available on the Children’s Commission website.
Notice and Engagement: Plans for a follow up Round Table or a workgroup to focus on changes to the Status Hearing statute will be examined in 2012 to determine whether changes should be made to allow judges to monitor compliance with the notice provisions and to ensure the statute allows plenty of opportunities for engagement. This effort also fulfills PIP requirements.
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This project is aimed at improving child welfare stakeholder relationships and collaboration with tribal nations in Texas.
In April 2012, a sma;; Commission delegation traveled to the Alabama-Coushatta reservation in Livingston, Texas to attend their Judicial Symposium. The delegation met with the Tribal Peacemaking Court and Collaborative Council Member Aaron Williams. Judge Michael Petoskey, the keynote speaker, is an elder and member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. He has been instrumental in developing five tribal courts in Michigan and serves as chief judge in three of those courts. Judge Petoskey offered many ideas to promote better relationships between state and tribal courts and a deeper understanding of federal Indian law and the legal standing of tribes. Members of the Alabama-Coushatta shared many of their traditions and core values.
February 2012 Update
Senior Peacemaker Batisse of the Alabama-Coushatta attended the tribal nation attended the November Commission meeting, sharing insight from the traditions and practices of the Peacemaking Court as well as her thoughts for strengthening and enhancing the state-tribal relationship. The Children’s Commission will be working with the Alabama-Coushatta in the development of Texas’ first tribal model court, a new Court Improvement Program grant application, and the second annual judicial symposium. Also, Commission staff has been connecting with members of the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo and the Kickapoo tribes for continued collaboration in our work with vulnerable children and families.
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