Until recently, “family preservation” had a very specific meaning. It usually was preceded by “intensive” and it referred to programs that rigorously followed the rules set down by the first intensive family preservation program, Homebuilders in Washington State.

A Homebuilders intervention is brief, no more than six weeks, which has prompted critics to label it a “quick fix.” But workers are on call 24 hours a day and have caseloads of only two, so they can spend time with a family that often equals a year’s worth of conventional “counseling.” After the intervention, the local child protective agency is responsible for providing less intensive help to the family.

Family preservation workers combine traditional counseling and parent education with a strong emphasis on providing “hard” services to ameliorate the worst aspects of poverty. Faced with a family living in a dirty home, a Homebuilders worker will not lecture the parents or demand that they spend weeks in therapy to deal with the deep psychological problems of which the dirty home is supposedly just a symptom. The Homebuilders worker will roll up her or his sleeves and help with the cleaning.

Michigan has the largest family preservation program in America, serving 3,000 families a year. In the two years since the program became available statewide, Michigan’s foster care population has gone down by 10 percent.

In Alabama, a lawsuit prompted the state to reform its child welfare system over several years, including a strong emphasis on family preservation. In those counties already operating under the new system, the foster care population has dropped by 30 percent in two years.

In Michigan, children placed in family preservation were compared to a control group. After one year, among children referred because of abuse or neglect, the comparison-group children were nearly twice as likely to be placed in foster care as the family preservation children.

An experiment in Utah and Washington State also used a comparison group. After one year, 85.2 percent of the children in the comparison group were placed in foster care, compared to only 44.4 percent of the children who received intensive family preservation services.

Family preservation is not 100 percent safe. Out of more than 22,000 children to go through the Michigan program, 2 died. But it is safer than foster care, where studies have found abuse in one out of four foster homes. In Alabama, according to a court-appointed monitor, “children were found to be at less risk of harm” when the system changed to a family preservation approach than before the new system was put into place.

Unfortunately, though the name Homebuilders is now a trademark, the term family preservation is not. Any agency–or reporter–can slap the label “family preservation” onto anything.

And that’s what happened in Illinois. The state’s Department of Children and Family Services broke almost every rule established by Homebuilders. According to an evaluation of its Family First program by the Chapin Hall Center for Children:

The median number of cases per worker in Illinois was five–two and a half times the maximum permitted in the Homebuilders model. As a result, workers in these so-called intensive programs spent an average of only 32.4 minutes per day with a family. This diluted service was stretched out over 90 days or more, again contradicting the Homebuilders model.

In the Homebuilders model, the Homebuilders worker does even the most mundane tasks, using the time to observe how the family functions, discuss family problems, and build trust with family members. In Illinois, these tasks were assigned to homemakers, who spent an average of 9.6 minutes a day with the family.

Provision of ongoing services by DCFS after the “family preservation” intervention ended was “haphazard and inadequate.”

Agencies providing the services were allowed to lower their hiring standards for workers.

DCFS was in turmoil. The agency ran through four directors in four years, and never figured out what it wanted its “family preservation” program to accomplish.

So it came as no surprise when the Chapin Hall evaluation found Family First ineffective in preventing placement, largely because many of the children included in it were not at imminent risk of placement in the first place.

And of 17,000 children who went through the program, 6 died during or after the intervention.

Family First has been discontinued in Cook County, although it continues in the rest of Illinois. Locally it’s been replaced by a program modeled after Homebuilders but with one crucial difference. Here, agencies can reject families. That raises the question of “creaming,” opting for families that would stay together anyway.