Journal Issue: Protecting Children from Abuse and Neglect Volume 8 Number 1 Spring 1998
Building Communities to Support Families
Confronted by increasing demands and decreasing resources, and having only a limited capacity to respond to a broad range of needs, some local child welfare systems have embraced the idea of engaging communities in caring for their children. This notion moves well beyond traditional referral strategies, and focuses on long-term partnerships between public agencies and community-based civic, business, religious, and parent groups to help families protect their children with far less involvement by public agencies. (See the article by Waldfogel in this journal issue.) To focus on the role of the community in protecting children, however, entails a number of changes for child welfare agencies.
At the most basic level, the diversity of community contexts makes it important that family-centered services be flexible and adaptive. The basic needs of families in the South Bronx may be similar to those in Salt Lake City, but their cultures and contexts are so different that they require very different service strategies. Staff must therefore understand the diverse populations they serve and use culturally sensitive practices when they deal with families62 and communities.
A related principle of family-centered practice is that staff understand and engage with the communities in which families live their daily lives. Adopting a positive and respectful attitude toward communities does not come naturally to many child protective services workers, who are more likely to see communities as part of the problem rather than as part of the solution. Child welfare services can be made more responsive to communities if workers are trained to assess community assets and needs, respond sensitively to diversity, and forge partnerships with community-based organizations and community members.63 Geographically based assignment of cases can also help to assure that workers understand community norms, values, and resources.
While the child welfare system may indeed be "broken and in need of fixing,"64 it cannot be fixed by attending to child welfare alone. The basic social problems that are at the core of the nation's malaise are also at the core of child welfare problems. Poverty, racism, violence, and drugs affect almost every family in the United States; for some, they affect daily activities so thoroughly that "normal" family life is impossible and children are neglected or abused.
Under the premise that "physical, economic and social, individual and collective, adult and child well-being are all interconnected," 65 a number of recent initiatives have set out to help communities become better able to support healthy growth and development in their populations.66 These initiatives work on many fronts simultaneously—economic development, development of physical infrastructure, and development of integrated systems of social services—to improve the lives of neighborhood inhabitants. They rely on coordination among service agencies and collaboration between community organizations and residents to achieve their goals.65,67
The experience of these pioneering efforts suggests that success requires far-reaching changes in existing institutions, power structures, and patterns of personal interaction.54,68,69 It takes time to build constituencies, assess current conditions, establish credibility, and develop leadership.68 Although the development, implementation, and evaluation of comprehensive approaches have proven difficult,70 they may offer the best chance to improve the lives of the poor families and children who are currently the clients of the child welfare system.