Understanding the Improving Human Service Systems Theory of Change in Context

The widening income gap in California hits children and youth the hardest, with nearly a quarter of the state’s children lacking sufficient resources to meet basic needs. This deep poverty and related challenges leaves children and youth vulnerable to adverse experiences that can significantly jeopardize their potential for healthy development. Rising rates of mental, developmental and behavioral problems reflect increasing levels of childhood adversity, which comes in many forms (e.g., economic, environmental, social, familial, and behavioral) and is disproportionately pervasive in certain communities. Racial disparities persist throughout the state, with African-American, Latino, American Indian and subgroups of Asian and Pacific Islander youth faring significantly worse than their white counterparts across education, health and economic indicators.

Exposure to multiple adverse childhood experiences substantially increases a youth’s likelihood of involvement with the child welfare, juvenile justice and public behavioral health systems. These systems are characterized by fragmented service delivery, outdated models of care, an overstretched and often inadequately prepared workforce, barriers to accessing services, and limited ability to measure efficacy. To effectively address the variety of complex health and social problems that youth face, there needs to be a paradigm shift that transforms the way human services are delivered, with a focus on health promotion and prevention, systems integration and cross-sector approaches, and targeted data-driven practices that promote social justice and equity. In addition, more than ever, regional approaches are required as economic conditions increasingly push families out of cities and across county lines. Finally, both youth and systems benefit when youth and other community members have the opportunity, training and support to actively participate in developing solutions to improve systems in which they are involved.

Within this context, Zellerbach Family Foundation’s IHSS program focuses on integrated system responses to some of the most complex challenges facing vulnerable children, youth and families in the Bay Area. This includes the following groups, which frequently overlap and largely stem from the same underlying social, environmental and economic conditions:

  • Youth at risk of involvement in the juvenile justice system;
  • Youth involved in both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems;
  • Youth who are commercially sexually exploited;
  • Children and youth with mental illness; and
  • Youth transitioning into adulthood while involved in the juvenile justice, child welfare, and/or mental health system; and
  • Children of incarcerated parents.