Damali Flippin, a mother of a 6-year-old girl, had been living in Washington, D.C., for years not knowing where to find emotional and social support. With her family living far away, the pandemic deepened those needs.
“To be candid, I’d been feeling very depressed and just, you know, anxious and not motivated,” she said in a recent public meeting held over videoconference.
Her desolation continued until the day an outreach counselor visited her apartment building with flyers about newly established “Family Success Centers.”
Flippin went to one of the centers and her life changed, she told the virtual audience. She learned about all the resources available for her: enrolling her daughter in an arts program and cooking classes, receiving coaching on how to build a resume and, above all, feeling connected to her community.
“I don’t feel alone anymore,” said Flippin, who went on to land a job as a community counselor.
Her experience is at the heart of what many in the child welfare field envision for the future: less punitive, more open-ended, flexible and voluntary venues where vulnerable families can connect to services, particularly in the communities sending the most children to foster care.
After a year of protests over racism in government services from policing to education, the family resource center model is gaining increased funding and supporters as a strategy for reforming the child welfare system — a pervasive presence in the lives of poor families and families of color in the nation’s capital and beyond.
The attention has brought increasing scrutiny as well, with some parent advocates objecting to the model. They say the agency with the power to remove people’s children should not be the same service provider offering families help and non-judgmental support.
New York City’s “family enrichment centers,” for example, have received positive reviews from the federal government and influential philanthropies like the Washington State-based Casey Family Programs. But some parent advocates like city resident Jeanette Vega ask why the centers’ funding can’t instead be used for grassroots organizations that don’t have direct ties to the government bureaucracies that straddle the line between enforcing codes on abuse and neglect, and providing social services to needy families.
More often than not, children are brought into foster care due to neglect — cases that can be closely linked with poverty and lack of health care — not physical or sexual abuse.
Vega’s advocacy group, parents who produce Rise Magazine, has produced a 34-page plan that includes the need for a “collective care” structure of support within communities, one that is outside what the group calls “the family policing system.”
Yet many local governments are increasing reliance on neighborhood centers run by child welfare agencies, which have become key support hubs during the pandemic, according to experts, advocates and parents like Flippin who spoke on Aug. 10 at the virtual panel hosted by the National Family Support Network.
The center Flippin attended is one of the 10 family success centers that opened last October in D.C., and one of the 3,000 centers of its kind serving more than 2 million people nationwide. New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced the expansion of its three “family enrichment centers” citywide to a total of 30, all in districts hard-hit by COVID-19. And the state of Kentucky invested $1.1 million for 24 new school-based resource centers.
This month’s virtual event, titled “Family Resource Centers: America’s Best Kept Secret,” aimed to underscore the importance of the model, and to make the case for expansion from the current 33 states to all 50 states.
Supporters say the model prevents child abuse and neglect and reduces the long-term costs if children are not served and end up in foster care — costs that are burdensome to individuals, families and society. After Teller County in Colorado implemented reforms last decade that included boosted funding for family resource centers, the child abuse rate decreased by more than 57%. The Vermont Parent Child Center Network estimated that the state saved an average of $210,000 per family – in 2010 dollars – that received assistance from its resource centers.
The venues go by different names: family enrichment centers, family success centers, family resource centers. But the goal is to serve as all-purpose spaces designed by parents without many restrictions on usage: A grandfather might be allowed to fall asleep in an easy chair watching a baseball game, while his daughter and a staff member use a computer to fill out a job application and her son plays with Lincoln Logs in a corner playpen. A community board or PTA might use the space for meetings on a Thursday evening, and Fridays could be for tango classes.
Whether quasi-recreation centers or social services concierge shops, the goal is to make any parent feel like they can drop-in.
Because they aren’t designed specifically for families already under investigation for child abuse and neglect, they are considered an “upstream” model for preventing foster care placement. Anyone can show up and ask for help, no matter their need, or walk in simply to connect with their neighbors. That means the centers lack the stigma of traditional child welfare prevention programs that are not voluntary, and come with intensive social workers and court monitoring.
But there are some tensions at the heart of the family resource center model, which was highlighted at a street protest this month in New York City.
The parent-led Rise Magazine opposes the city’s plan to expand family enrichment centers. Standing in front of City Hall on a mid-August Friday amid chants of “Nothing about us without us,” parent speakers cited the model’s connection to the city’s local child welfare agency, which is viewed with hostility in many communities of color as a surveillance force with workers out to remove children from their low-income families.
“Why are we creating family enrichment centers in City Hall and not on 42nd street?” asked Vega, co-director of Rise. Her magazine is created by parents who have faced investigations from the city’s Administration for Children’s Services, some of whom lost their children to foster care.
Some supporters of the resource centers agree.
Representatives of the Washington, D.C.-based Family Support Network say they should be located in both economically challenged and affluent neighborhoods, to reduce stigma on participating families.
“There is a huge disparity in the communities in which we serve. Is majority African Americans, moms, females who are single with a certain education level. So we want to make sure, Andrew [Russo], that we are doing what we can as a system to tackle these issues, you know, systemic racism that it’s been there for generations and generations,” Octavia Shaw, Families First DC program manager, pointed out at this month’s panel.
Many resource centers, like those in New York City, have been modeled after New Jersey’s statewide network. Each New Jersey center typically employs three to four full-time employees, on an annual budget that is between $240,000 and $300,000. The size and cost is regional. In Kentucky, school-based family resource centers operate with one or two full-time staff and an annual budget between $33,000 and $82,000.
Currently, these resource centers do not count on dedicated federal funding, but Russo said he and his colleagues are working with other national organizations for greater access to funds available under the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, which offers flexibility in the programs it can fund.
Even before the pandemic, the nation’s highest-ranked child welfare official issued a plea for the system to move more toward neighborhood services centers:
“If we are truly serious as a field and a society about preventing child fatalities and having enough foster homes, we must go to the root causes of both,” wrote Jerry Milner, the former associate commissioner of the federal Children’s Bureau. He went on to state that the system must go beyond the “clinical walls” of intensive therapeutic interventions, in favor of “ensuring that families have a place to go where they are not afraid to ask for help.”