Reimagining Our ‘Newest’ Family Support Model

A family resource center operated by the Children’s Home Society in Oakland, California. Photo: CHS

For the past three decades I have been involved in the development of family resource centers, community-based facilities that serve as a gateway to critical supports and services for families. They existed long before I began that work, and our social work profession was founded on the back of settlement houses that were part of a broader reform movement starting with Jane Addams in 1889.

Now, this staple of the early American child welfare system is being rediscovered and reimagined by child welfare agencies all over the country. In the wake of the Family First Prevention Service Act – a new law that opens up new federal funding to reduce the use of foster care – states are looking at vehicles for primary prevention. In some cases they are also looking at family support approaches as a further upstream strategy. These approaches pre-suppose that given the right mix of resources and social connections in their communities, families will most often make the right choices on behalf of their children.

The renewed interest is welcome and long overdue. But child welfare agencies should first comprehend how far we’ve gone astray from the settlement house approach before they leap blindly into the development of family resource centers.

Decades ago, public child welfare moved away from a belief system that resembled the settlement houses – and quite frankly many of the underlying principles that characterize the more successful family resource centers and community-based family support models. Instead of help and healing, the public agencies, and their contracted private nonprofit partners, built a system on child rescue.

Almost all of the tools that have been developed for our agencies assumed that families would do the wrong thing without our intervention. We have literally taken the art of predicting risk and safety into the realm of science, and poured massive amounts of federal, state and local dollars into the equivalent of emergency services, while playing around the edges of how to strengthen families and the communities in which they live.

It has been the equivalent of the medical system putting all of its resources into EMT and emergency room services and devoting very little to prevention and/or follow up care for patients. When a prevention strategy or model does emerge that shows promise with actual results (homebuilders, etc.), we treat it like the newest shiny penny, worthy of attention until something else catches our eye.

Parents meet at a family resource center in Asheville, North Carolina. Photo: Children First of Buncombe County

Here is the caution. Moving into a community – or neighborhood-based approach is an adaptive challenge for many agencies, in part because they lack the underpinnings for what will make them successful. There is no three-ring binder for family resource centers. They are a manifestation of a unique, well-developed philosophy and the result of a gradual, deliberative and rational thought process that requires an abundant amount of self-control on the part of the planning group.

Community planners need a “why” and intentional “how” before they should choose the “where.” Simply being inspired by what agencies might see in their visits to more forward-thinking communities should not be the immediate jumping off point for the development of family resource centers. The resulting place, where the center will “live” and function, is a step that is farther down a deliberative road because the other steps have led to that collective decision.

The evidence shows that family resource centers are consistent with the spirit of the new Family First Act, and in a number of cases they have proven to be the right vehicles for improving the safety and well-being outcomes for families living in some of the most challenged communities in the country. And for social workers, this more holistic, non-threatening approach derives from the earliest days of the profession when settlement houses provided access to a wide selection of community services targeted at those most in need.

If our agencies are beginning to consider more primary prevention approaches, especially family resource centers or any community-based family support venue, that effort should be a reflection of a broader family support strategy. Their priority tasks should include the journey through a process of discernment and culture changes that alter an agency’s beliefs about child safety and family healing.

Paul DiLorenzo is the interim executive director of the Philadelphia Children’s Alliance.

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