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System of Care: Supporting Kids with Mental Health Challenges and Their Families

Cardinal Innovations Healthcare — February 15, 2021 — 4 min read
Since 1992, a national initiative called System of Care (SOC) has helped thousands of families with children who face serious mental or behavioral health challenges. It has improved the way providers, communities, and parents approach their child’s health journey.

When we created Cardinal Innovations’ Child Welfare Program, we wanted our members and their families to receive the best support possible. That’s why we designed it to operate under SOC principles.

Learn more about our Child Welfare Program.

System of Care is not a service or program. Instead, it’s an approach for how families, communities, and providers can work together to provide the best support for children with mental health diagnoses. However, because it’s a philosophy and framework, System of Care can be difficult to explain—so we’re going to break it down a little differently.

Think of it this way: System of Care is like a house

Building a house takes lots of materials. Every piece is important if you want to create a home that’s warm, safe, and beautiful. It’s the same idea when it comes to serving the families of children with mental health diagnoses.

Families are the foundation

They provide valuable support and direction from the ground up. However, a foundation alone does not make a complete house.

Doctors, other providers, and child service agencies are the wooden frame

They’re necessary for children to stay on track with their health goals. However, without a solid foundation, framing can easily fall apart.

Community supports (schools, support groups, family friends, etc.) are the walls

They wrap around children to keep them safe and supported. However, without the structure from the frame and the foundation, walls can only give so much protection.

An effective System of Care is a sturdy home

A good System of Care is like a well-built house. Families and children get support from all sides, and they are more easily able to achieve their goals. But every house needs a good blueprint—that’s where the System of Care principles come in.

System of Care principles (the blueprints for success)

System of Care has a set of principles that act as the “blueprints” for children’s support networks to work effectively. Each principle was designed to help your child and family flourish. Learn more about each principle below.

Family-driven and youth-guided

In a good System of Care, each family helps decide which services and supports will best serve their child. Sometimes they can do this by forming a Child and Family Team (CFT). CFTs are part of a service called High-Fidelity Wraparound, which also follows SOC principles.


Children with complex needs need complex support. Therefore, SOC requires that all child service agencies work together for the wellbeing of the families they serve. These agencies include:
  • Schools
  • Faith-based organizations
  • Community organizations
  • Foster care
  • Group homes
  • Mental and behavioral health services
  • Substance use health services
  • Juvenile justice
In SOC, it’s important that each agency knows how other agencies are serving families and children in their community. This helps prevent gaps in services and ensures that every child gets all the structure and support they need.

Individualized and strength-based

All SOC professionals and community partners who work with families pay attention to what each child and caregiver does well and where they may need extra support. This way, providers and community partners can meet families where they are—not the other way around. Care plans are centered around each family and child’s unique strengths and needs.

Culturally and linguistically competent

With the SOC philosophy, families can feel like their providers and supports are responsive to their cultural background and speak their language. Providers who follow the SOC guiding principles know about implicit bias and stay updated with cultural competency training. They also make sure to find a way to communicate in all families’ native language, if possible.


Children do best when they can remain in their communities. However, this is only possible if there are enough community-based supports available in their area. That’s why care managers and other professionals following SOC principles make sure families have access to local supports like neighbors, nonprofit and faith-based organizations, and other helpful community resources.

Outcome-based and data-driven

Real, recognizable, and sustainable results are a key part of SOC. Most services will be evidence-based, and all progress is recorded. If a certain program or service is not making a noticeable difference in the wellbeing of the child or family, it should be recognized. Then the Child and Family Team and providers can work to create a new action plan.

Learn more about our System of Care team

We strongly believe in the System of Care principles, so we have an entire team of passionate professionals dedicated to supporting families on the community and individual level. Learn more about our System of Care team by emailing Noel Thomas-Lester at

Get involved with your local System of Care Collaborative

Find more information about North Carolina’s System of Care by visiting NC Collaborative’s website.

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