Notes from Alliance for Children and Families Conference

World Resort Drive, Orlando, Fla. –

In the mouse-eared shadow of America’s iconic entertainment complex, about 500 youth and family service employees met at the Alliance for Children and Families national conference this week to discuss services for struggling families and children.

The Alliance was kind enough to let Youth Services Insider roam the halls and workshops, so we headed down to the Sunshine State for the Tuesday and Wednesday sessions before heading back to D.C. for the Federal Advisory Commission on Juvenile Justice meeting on Thursday (we’ll cover that one next week).

It has been an interesting year for the 360-member, Milwaukee-based Alliance. The organization lost its longtime CEO, Peter Goldberg, in August of 2011. Goldberg was succeeded by former Alliance Chief Operating Officer Susan Dreyfus, who left her position atop the Washington State child welfare system to return to Wisconsin. Dreyfus enjoyed a modest increase in membership during her first year, after a couple years of decline during the recession.

YSI definitely picked up on a few story ideas going forward, but here are some more quick-hit takeaways from the conference:

Putting ACES in Play

We sat in on a well-attended pre-conference session on Tuesday (why these things are called pre-conference, YSIwill never fully grasp) called Applying Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES) to Policy and Practice. The title refers to the 2004 ACES Study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which looked 17,000 adults who agreed to be interviewed during a health insurance screening about traumatic experiences in their childhood. Interviewers asked about ten specific experiences, including various forms of direct abuse and witnessing domestic violence.

Click here to check out the study, which found that 64 percent of the adults reported experiencing at least one of the ten ACES. In YSI’s opinion, the major finding was that one-third of that 64 percent experienced three or more of them.

Predictably enough, ACEs correlated to negative health and behavioral outcomes later in life for adults, and multiple ACEs correlated even more strongly to negative outcomes.

“It made me go back and take a look, and think about how much of mental illness is genetic versus experiential,” said Dr. Robert Anda, a former CDC researcher who led the ACEs study. “If you believe our numbers, much of it relates to early childhood experiences.”

The Alliance session drilled home the concept, and what current data was being collected about ACEs, but it lacked a bit on detail on what the direct service providers ought to actually do with this knowledge. How should the fact that trauma incurred in childhood leads

In fairness, that is a tough question to answer. Likely, it involves preventative efforts with parents, to help stem the tide of ACEs being handed down from one generation to the other. It also probably means that more attention should be paid to establishing what trauma is present in the life of a child client, and seeking to address those early on with therapeutic interventions.

What might help providers and policy makers develop ACEs-informed services would be to find out what the common factors are among adults who report higher numbers of ACEs but little or no negative health outcomes. In other words, what are the commonalities of people who experience childhood trauma but are doing okay now?

D.C. Presence

The Alliance lost Patrick Lester, the face of its longtime Washington, D.C., last February; he is now director of fiscal policy for OMB after a brief stint with a nonprofit called Social Impact. But the organization has staffed up in a big way around new Vice President of Policy Katherine Astrich. It is the largest Beltway presence in the Alliance’s history, CFO John Schmidt told YSI.

That is a notable sea change for the Alliance. Goldberg’s view was that the Alliance was better off helping its members develop advocacy skills and capacity, and was less interested in building the means for the organization itself to push for policy and appropriations.

It is, of course, an inauspicious year to come Washington way with hopes of increased spending on child welfare or anything else. The federal government is currently operating under a continuing resolution good through March. But at some point this year, Congress is obligated to begin chopping down domestic and military spending, thanks to the failure of last year’s Super Committee to reach a bipartisan agreement on long-term spending. The politically nerdy name given to this process, which will lop more than $1 trillion in federal spending over 10 years, is “sequestration.”

Astrich circulated a state-by-state breakdown of what sequestration would mean for some of the federal funding streams most germane to Alliance members. The Chronicle of Social Change will be putting together a more youth-oriented look at those figures to post next week, but for the overall breakdown, provided by the majority staff of the Senate Finance Committee: 500ff3554f9ba(1).

Astrich and her director of child welfare policy, Cecilia Fiermonte, delivered the bad-tasting medicine with some optimism on smaller policy initiatives: the Children’s Mental Health Accessibility Act that would create a Medicaid waiver aimed at replacing psychiatric residential treatment with home-based services, and the Uninterrupted Scholars Act, which would allow child welfare agencies access to educational records of youth who are removed from their families.

The latter could move quickly once the election is over, as it involves no money. The Mental Health Accessibility Act will require a fiscal score from the Congressional Budget Office, according to Fiermonte.

Younger Americans Act, Part Deux?

Hadn’t heard the phrase Younger Americans Act (YAA) in quite awhile…like, 10 years ago. But in her Wednesday morning address, Dreyfus hinted at the idea of bringing it back in style.

The YAA developed by former Sen. Jim Jeffords (Vt.), in a nutshell, would put money behind youth asset development strategies for youths between 10 and 19 years of age. The legislation stalled amid debates over the Bush-era tax cuts, over which Jeffords defected from the Republican Party.

 Wicked Problems Institute

No, that is not a think tank on how to get the Boston Red Sox back on track. It is a partnership between the Alliance, Children’s Home Society of America and the University of North Carolina’s Jordan Institute for Families, seeking to identify the most endemic problems in child welfare and build consensus around solutions.

The institute, an invitation-only group, has met twice and will meet again in Washington in February. From the presentation made by the Jordan Institute’s Mark Testa on Wednesday, two issues are certainly under the Wicked Problems microscope:

-The extent to which child protective services should be involved in child well-being or gauging itself on well-being metrics, a notion championed by leadership at the Department of Health and Human Services.

-How or if to change federal child welfare financing in such a way that states are incentivized to focus more on family preservation and reunification.

Eats and Exhibits

Pretty smart idea by the conference planners to have the exhibition hall and the breakfast/snack area in the same room, just to the right of the general session area. YSI has been to some conferences where exhibitors were stuck in the bowels of a building, or far away from most of the workshops. Certainly seemed like most of the exhibitors had traffic in front of them during most of the breaks.

John Kelly is the editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
About John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change 1212 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at

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