This three-branch approach creates intentional opportunities for all three branches of state government to unite in a nonpartisan effort to change the way child- and family-serving systems operate. States taking this approach have focused their initiatives on specific issues that affect children and families known to the child welfare system, often with the greater goal of embedding and normalizing work across the three branches to address the broader systemic issues these children and families face.

The Three-Branch Toolkit contains actionable strategies for states interested in making a coordinated, nonpartisan, cross-jurisdictional effort to improve outcomes for children and families.

State leaders can use this toolkit to:

  • Build the core elements of their three-branch approach.
  • Launch a three-branch approach.
  • Create a strategic plan that incorporates successful strategies from previous three-branch approaches.
  • Proactively address challenges before they arise.
  • Learn from other state examples and case studies.

How to Use This Toolkit

The Three-Branch Toolkit is intended for use by anyone in any branch of government who wants to break down barriers; move beyond siloed thinking, planning and funding; and take an innovative approach to solving the systemic problems that vulnerable children and families face.

This can include child welfare agency directors or staff, policy staff in the governor’s office, legislators or legislative staff, judges and judicial officials, court administrators, child advocates, state agency officials and local philanthropic organizations.

This toolkit takes planners through the process of gaining buy-in from one government branch, and then approaching the other two branches to form cross-branch project teams; creating a vision for vulnerable children and families; identifying an issue on which to focus; and developing, implementing and monitoring a strategic plan to fulfill that vision.

Next, users go through the steps to launch a three-branch approach, with strategies for success that states have developed during their journey through each step. The toolkit also contains an in-depth discussion of challenges that states might face as well as potential solutions that successful three-branch teams have used to address them.

Appendices contain checklists, sample agendas and strategic plans, examples of memorandums of understanding, and other practical material that states will find useful as they move forward. States can easily download customizable checklists and forms from the online version of this toolkit.

The goal of this toolkit is to help states foster cross-branch collaboration and develop sustainable relationships to improve policies and practices that affect children’s lives. By working through this toolkit, state leaders will learn how to communicate effectively with all three branches, understand and respect the complementary and varied roles of each branch, effectively share information and data, engage others’ views and share diverse perspectives, develop cross-branch strategies that achieve shared goals, and engage the public to build buy-in and a sense of ownership of both the issues and their solutions.


Successfully moving child welfare systems toward a holistic focus on child and family well-being will require the energy, commitment and resources of all three branches of state government to ensure that new funding and programmatic opportunities benefit vulnerable children and families

A Three-Branch Approach

All three branches of state government — executive, legislative and judicial — play significant roles in establishing the legal and policy framework for state child welfare systems.

In the executive branch, the governor’s office has primary responsibility for setting a vision and statewide priorities. State and county executive branch agencies implement that vision through their child protection and child welfare systems.

The legislative branch develops the policy framework for child protection, appropriates funding for child welfare and related public systems, and provides oversight of the executive branch.

The judicial branch makes critical child protection decisions, including when children should remain at home or be placed in an alternative setting, when they can safely be reunited with their families and when parents must participate in treatment plans for MH issues or SUD, among other concerns.

Several states have developed cross-branch collaborations after recognizing that no single branch of government can reform child- and family-serving systems in isolation. A three-branch approach creates intentional opportunities for the three branches of state government to unite in a nonpartisan effort to improve outcomes for children and families. States that have taken this approach have benefited from mutual education and cross-training as well as a deliberative planning process to address some of the most pressing issues children and families face. This toolkit is based on lessons learned from these initiatives.

A Three-Branch Approach

The Three-Branch Institute began in 2009 as a project of the National Governors Association (NGA), the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), the National Center for State Courts and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ). Casey Family Programs provided funding, guidance and subject matter expertise. For eight years, these organizations jointly provided intensive technical assistance to states interested in working together across government branches.

The Three-Branch Institute addressed a variety of issues, such as increasing permanency for older adolescents in foster care, improving the social and emotional well-being of children in foster care and preventing child maltreatment fatalities. A consistent structure was used for each initiative and, in all cases, representatives from the three branches of government collaborated on the development and implementation of a strategic plan.

The Institute helped states develop integrated approaches by building on earlier efforts and existing plans, such as performance improvement plans, plans for judicial summits, commission reports, state child welfare advisory group recommendations and partnership agreements with foundations. Three-Branch Institutes have resulted in substantial policy, program and practice changes, including:

  • Public education campaigns on safe sleep to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome and other sleep- related infant deaths.
  • Expansion of kinship guardianship programs to increase permanency options for children in foster care.
  • Centralized intake screening processes to ensure that the right families receive the right intervention at the right time.
  • Family drug court implementation and enhancement.
  • Improved practice and policy for substance-exposed newborns and plans of safe care.
  • Comprehensive and coordinated multidisciplinary teams to support pregnant women with SUD.

About NGA

Founded in 1908, the National Governors Associati on is the voice of the nation’s governors and one of the most respected public policy organizations in the country. The association’s members are the governors of the 55 states, territories and commonwealths. Members come to the associati on from across the political spectrum, but NGA itself is boldly nonpartisan. Because of that, governors can share best practices, speak with an informed voice on national policy and develop innovative solutions that improve citizens’ lives through state government and support the principles of federalism. For more informati on about NGA, please visit


About NCSL

The National Conference of State Legislatures is the bipartisan organization dedicated to serving the lawmakers and staffs of the nation’s 50 states, its commonwealths and territories. NCSL provides research, technical assistance and opportunities for policymakers to exchange ideas on the most pressing state issues, and is an effective and respected advocate for the interests of the states in the American federal system. Its objectives are:

  • Improve the quality and effectiveness of state legislatures
  • Promote policy innovation and communication among state legislatures
  • Ensure state legislatures a strong, cohesive voice in the federal system

The conference operates from offices in Denver, Colorado and Washington, D.C.