NCSL and NGA Three Branch Institute

Three Branch Institute on Child Social and Emotional Well-Being | 2013 - 2014


Three siblings sitting togetherThe Three Branch Institute is a partnership between the National Conference of State Legislatures and the National Governors Association. The Institute is designed to bring the three branches of government together, not just once a year at the national meeting, but also in each state on a regular basis, in order to focus on the most pressing child welfare issues.

The Three Branch Institutes began in 2009 with a meeting of 18 states examining strategies to safely reduce the numbers of children in foster care.

In 2011 and 2012 the Three Branch Institute partners worked with five states—Colorado, Delaware, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin—on strategies to enhance permanency for older adolescents in foster care.

The current 2013-2014 Three Branch Institute focuses on the social and emotional well-being of children in foster care, including behavioral and mental health, physical health, psychotropic medications, substance abuse, child well-being finance, and cross agency collaborations.

2013-2014 Three Branch Institute on Social and Emotional Well-Being

The Three Branch Institute on Child Social and Emotional Well-Being is a partnership between NCSL, the National Governors Association, Casey Family Programs, the National Center for State Courts, and the National Council for Juvenile and Family Court Judges. The 2013 Three Branch Institute on Child Social and Emotional Well-Being was held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in July, 2013.The 2014 Three Branch Institute on Child Social and Emotional Well-Being was held June 30-July 2, 2014, in Milwaukee, Wisonsin. This meeting was hosted by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, the National Conference of State Legislatures, Casey Family Programs, the National Center for State Courts, and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. The initiative is aimed at engaging all three branches of government—as well as the broader services and advocacy community—to improve the social and emotional well-being of kids in foster care. States participating in 2013-2014 are: Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, New Mexico, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

The 2014 Three Branch Institute featured national experts from Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, the Forum for Youth Investment, the University of Pennsylvania, Casey Family Programs, Anu Family Services, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, Children and Family Futures/National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare, Vermont Department of Health, Tufts University School of Medicine, and the University of Illinois at Chicago Department of Psychiatry. In addition, three representatives from Tennessee, who developed an independent three branch institute, were on hand to share their successes and experiences.

Each Three Branch Institute consists of representatives from the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government working in teams to develop and implement coordinated, comprehensive strategic plans. States are selected through a competitive RFP process. Teams participate in a yearly two-and-a-half day meeting where they interact with national experts, foster youth, state administrators and their colleagues in other states to develop plans, exchange ideas, and discuss barriers and potential solutions. They also receive technical assistance, participate in educational webinars and receive other assistance throughout the year.






Photos: Representative Harry Brooks of Tennessee, Judge Donna Davenport of Rutherford County Juvenile Court in Tennessee, and James Henry, Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, address the group about Tennessee’s success with their independent three branch effort.

What is Well-Being?

While there has been a dramatic decrease in foster care caseloads in recent years, the federal Administration on Children and Families and other key child welfare stakeholders are working to encourage states to address the social and emotional well-being of children and youth in care. In addition to an improved understanding of the devastating and long-term effects of children’s exposure to violence, child maltreatment and trauma, there is now good evidence of effective, evidence-based programs that states can develop to significantly improve these children’s well-being.

State legislators—in their oversight capacity of child welfare systems, and working in partnership with courts, child welfare administrators and others—can be instrumental in encouraging collaboration among stakeholders—including child welfare, health, mental health, education, courts, law enforcement, faith-based and community-service organizations. Working together, these partners can develop statewide well-being frameworks; mandate evidence-based, trauma informed services; determine outcomes for children and families; and assess the social and emotional well-being of children involved in state child welfare systems, such as New Mexico is doing as part of its participation in the Three Branch Institute.

In recent years, state lawmakers have crafted policies around child well-being in a number of areas including screening and assessment; health and mental health; children’s social and emotional needs; and prevention and early intervention.

View NCSL's 50 State Child Well-Being Legislative Enactments, 2008-2013 page for more on what state legislatures have done to improve child well-being!

Screening and Assessment of Children in the Child Welfare System

Lawmakers in several states have addressed the issue of bringing the appropriate screening and assessment of children to the attention of public child welfare systems. For example, in 2011, Michigan lawmakers enacted a bill that required the Department of Human Services to use a standardized assessment tool to ensure greater cooperation between Human Services and the Department of Community Health, and to measure the mental health treatment needs of every child in care. In that same year, Minnesota required that county boards must arrange for or provide mental health screening for children in care. In 2010 Minnesota legislators stipulated that all children referred for treatment of severe emotional disturbance in a treatment foster care setting or residential treatment facility undergo an assessment to determine the appropriate level of care prior to admission. New Mexico’s Three Branch Institute team has made assessment of children in foster care a priority and they will describe that work to you momentarily.

Health and Mental Health

In response to the federal Fostering Connections and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008, lawmakers in several states have enacted laws related to the oversight and coordination of children’s health care. For example, in 2013 Connecticut lawmakers required the Department of Children and Families to develop a comprehensive implementation plan for meeting the emotional and behavioral health needs of all children in the state and Oklahoma created a “Passport Program” to include educational, medical and behavioral health information for all children in care. See additional examples of legislation related to health and mental health.

Additionally, concerns about the overuse of psychotropic medications and new federal requirements for states to develop protocols for the use of such medications have prompted states to examine the use and oversight of psychotropic medications; New Mexico is one of those states and you will hear more later.

Social and Emotional Needs

Studies indicate a high incidence of behavioral problems for children who have experienced abuse or neglect. State legislators have worked to better understand and provide for the needs of such children. For example, in 2010 West Virginia lawmakers established “Jacob’s Law,” which requires that foster children ages four to ten be provided early intervention services; assistance with emotional needs; and medical evaluations and independent advocates. It also required that their foster families be provided training and education, and that the children be immediately evaluated and tested following removal from a home. West Virginia also created a commission to study the residential placement of children who are in need of or at risk of needing social and behavioral health services.

Prevention and Early Intervention

Lawmakers have also examined prevention and early intervention services:

  • In 2011, Washington House Bill 1965 was enacted to identify the primary causes of adverse childhood experiences and mobilize public and private support to prevent harm to young children and reduce the accumulated harm of adverse experiences throughout childhood. The law calls for a focused effort to identify and promote the use of innovative strategies based on evidence-based approaches, and to align public and private policies and funding with approaches and strategies that have demonstrated effectiveness.

About This NCSL Project

The Denver-based child welfare project staff focuses on state policy, tracking legislation and providing research and policy analysis, consultation, and technical assistance specifically geared to the legislative audience. Denver staff can be reached at (303) 364-7700 or

NCSL staff in Washington, D.C. track and analyze federal legislation and policy and represent state legislatures on child welfare issues before Congress and the Administration. In D.C., Joy Johnson Wilson at 202-624-8689 or by e-mail at and Rachel Morgan at (202) 624-3569 or by e-mail at

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