New York City’s child welfare agency launched a bold small experiment in 2018: Three new community rooms deep in the city’s most under-resourced neighborhoods would offer comfy, staffed spaces for families to seek no-strings-attached advice and support, computer access, meeting space or children’s playtime, all at no cost.
The centers didn’t look like the typical government social service office, and were intentionally designed to offer anyone any basic support they requested. The goal was a non-threatening landing pad for the hardest-to-reach, thinnest-stretched parents to find help, in order to prevent their children from experiencing neglect or abuse.
The early data is in: New York City families who regularly access the resources that continue to be available to them at these city-funded nonprofit community centers in historically marginalized neighborhoods say the experience is having a positive effect.
According to the first-ever evaluation of the city’s three family enrichment centers — one in Brooklyn and two in the Bronx — more than 7 in 10 members said the programs made them feel like they had stronger social support than they did before. The new evaluation reports that the three centers are engaging between 200 to 750 people of all ages per month. More than 70% are female, and a similar percentage reported living in rental homes.
It’s one of the earliest-stage, lowest-impact interventions the city’s child welfare agency attempts, partly modeled after a similar network of facilities across New Jersey, as The Imprint reported in 2018. The centers host movie nights and autism support groups, while block associations can discuss neighborhood safety issues. Staff can help single mothers research daycare options and guide students enrolling in classes. Senior citizens can even catch a doze or watch a baseball game in an easy chair, while their grandbabies play with toys nearby, with the air conditioning cranked against the summer heat.
Previous research indicates that families with strong social supports are less likely to maltreat their children. This, in turn, means there is less likelihood that child protective services will be called to investigate the family.
This was the strongest indicator of the positive impact of family enrichment centers in New York City, which have been operating since 2018, according to the evaluation by the independent Youth Studies, for New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services.
While the results are encouraging, the authors noted, the evaluation had significant limitations. Among them: Survey respondents were self-selected, and their answers reflected only their own perceptions.
“There is a substantial amount of research evidence to support the hypothesis that promotion of these protective factors will reduce subsequent need for child welfare system intervention,” Youth Studies wrote in the report. “However, we do not have the benefit of a significant follow-up period that would allow us to determine whether members, in fact, experience fewer child protective interventions than they would have had they not had access to (a family enrichment center).”
In addition, there was no control group against which to compare people in these neighborhoods against peers in similar neighborhoods where residents do not have access to a family enrichment center.
“Despite these limitations,” the authors wrote, “this study provides important evidence that the FECs may be having a significant impact on strengthening members’ protective factors.”
Traditionally, child welfare services have focused on eliminating or minimizing “risk factors” for child welfare involvement, but efforts throughout the country are increasingly built around enhancing families’ “protective factors.” More than 3,000 family enrichment centers have been established in the U.S.; New York City began its pilot program only in 2018.
The survey of the family centers’ members found evidence that most of these protective factors were, in fact, enhanced, according to respondents’ own perceptions. It also found that the impact was strongest among those respondents who were the most frequent participants. But more research is needed to reach firmer conclusions, Youth Studies concluded.