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DU Groups Facilitate Community Change in Colorado Program

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Lorne Fultonberg

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Lorne Fultonberg

Pay for Success programs tackle underserved youth issues

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The state of Colorado is partnering with the University of Denver and the community on novel models to help underserved youth and their families.

The Pay for Success Projects, as the three pilot programs are known, will draw on expertise from two DU programs — the Colorado Evaluation and Action Lab, within the Barton Institute for Philanthropy and Social Enterprise, and the Graduate School of Social Work’s Center for Effective Interventions (CEI) — as they test solutions to address a litany of issues that affect youth in or at risk for placement in foster care, juvenile detention, group homes or treatment centers. End goals include the educational success of youth in foster care and preventing the need for child welfare and juvenile justice involvement for youth who run away.

Rebecca Arno
Rebecca Arno

“The concept is a little complex,” says Rebecca Arno, director of the Barton Institute, ”but if it works, it would be amazing.”

The Pay for Success financing is new to the state of Colorado but has slowly spread across the world over the last decade, on the back of “impact investments” that bring both a financial and a social return. The thinking, when former Gov. John Hickenlooper put out a “call for innovation” in January 2017, was that investing money to expand certain programs would save cash in the long run. But since the upfront cost for the state would be high, half of the funding comes from investors, who will get their money back if the projects succeed.

With more than $2.3 million in backing, Sue Kerns, a GSSW research associate professor and executive director of the CEI, sees an opportunity to reach more than 600 families over the next three years with an intervention called Multisystemic Therapy (MST).

Sue Kerns and Gov. Hickenlooper
Sue Kerns with former Gov. John Hickenlooper

“That’s an intervention for youth who are 12–17 years old and are at risk for out-of-home placement, either in the juvenile justice system or to child welfare or congregate group care,” due to antisocial behaviors or substance abuse, Kerns says. The agencies she works with deliver the intervention to families, coming up with individualized treatment plans that take into consideration a number of factors related to youth behavior and risk for placement.

The CEI works with local agencies to make sure the services they provide are effective and cost-efficient, maximizing the return on investment. “There needs to be a bridge between the science and the community,” Kerns says.

Such intervention typically isn’t cheap. MST teams consist of two to four therapists and a supervisor who must monitor the youth outcomes and meet accountability requirements. But Kerns estimates that with the implementation of MST, which will continue through 2022, the state will save more than $3 for every dollar that’s invested.

“If we don’t think about creative funding streams, we’re probably never going to make these services widely available,” Kerns says. “So for those of us in universities who struggle with that reality, to be able to be thought partners and participate in these types of initiatives is a tremendous opportunity.”

Elysia Clemens
Elysia Clemens

Evaluating the accomplishments of Pay for Success programs — which, in addition to MST, include the Denver Runaway Project and Fostering Opportunities in Jefferson County Public Schools — falls to the Colorado Evaluation and Action Lab.

“We’ve been able to work with these project teams to create rigorous studies to truly measure the impact on the outcomes the governor’s office has identified as having a key return on the investment,” says Elysia Clemens, the lab’s deputy director. “At the Colorado Lab specifically, we focus on projects that are cross-system in nature. They have the potential to inform insights and actions for multiple systems that serve an individual, youth or family.”

Independent evaluation, Arno explains, is one of the Barton Institute’s specialties.

“We look at things that are testing an idea of how to serve the community and determining whether or not it’s something that can be brought to scale by any number of systems,” she says. “It’s really important for the state of Colorado to have a partner like the Colorado Lab that can do this up-front thinking and invest the understanding of multiple systems in addressing the needs of these programs.”