What is a System of Care?

The System of Care concept for children and adolescents with mental health challenges and their families was first published in 1986 in an article by Beth Stroul and Robert Friedman. They articulated a definition for a System of Care along with a framework and philosophy to guide its implementation.

The original concept was offered to guide the field in reforming child serving systems, services, and supports to better meet the needs of children and youth with serious mental health challenges and their
families. The concept has shaped the work of nearly all communities, with at least some elements of the System of Care philosophy and approach found nearly everywhere that serves children and youth with significant mental health challenges. The System of Care concept is a vision with continued potential to transform children’s mental health. During the past two decades, the concept and philosophy have laid the foundation for such transformation. The System of Care approach has already demonstrated significant benefits as evidenced by improvements in systems and in the social and emotional functioning of children, youth, and families.

A System of Care is a spectrum of effective, community-based services and supports for children and youth with or at risk for mental health or other challenges and their families, that is organized into a coordinated network, builds meaningful partnerships with families and youth, and addresses their cultural and linguistic needs, in order to help them to function better at home, in school, in the community, and throughout life.

There are three core values basic to System of Care approaches: being community-based, family driven/youth-guided, and culturally and linguistically competent.

Our challenge for the future in  operationalizing System of Care (SOC) values and implementing SOC approaches is likely to include:

  • Increasing the effectiveness of services and supports by implementing evidence informed and promising practices both in planning and delivering services
  • Implementing family-driven, youth-guided services
  • Implementing strategies to reduce disparities and improve cultural and linguistic competence
  • Implementing effective financing mechanisms for Systems of Care
  • Strengthening the emphasis on performance measurement and continuous quality improvement
  • Implementing a public health approach to children’s mental health services
  • Developing a skilled workforce through education, training, technical assistance, coaching, information dissemination, expanding provider networks, and enhancing provider-level accountability
  • Creating an advocacy base and support for children’s mental health and Systems of Care through social marketing and other public education approaches

Locally in Elkhart and St. Joseph Counties, the expansion of our work with schools, child welfare and juvenile justice to promote System of Care approaches will be important to securing solid positive outcomes for the children with mental health challenges that we all serve.

-Adapted from Updating the System of Care Concept and Philosophy by Beth A. Stroul, M.Ed., Gary M. Blau, Ph.D., and Robert M. Friedman, Ph.D.



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