The term “community” in the abstract can mean many things. It’s easy to romanticize the term to conjure an image of all people in a given place or space, living together in harmony, looking out for each other, having what they need to thrive.
There is a growing consensus within child welfare that we should invest in community-based family support strategies. We see examples of this in the expansion of family resource centers and other place-based services that exemplify partnerships between public and non-profit organizations, as well as community residents.
The success of these efforts is contingent upon organizations’ ability to fully engage with and listen to residents, invest in community assets in the same way we do in families, and concern themselves with multi-generational approaches. Failure occurs when agencies act alone without resident consultation, display cultural insensitivity, ignore the importance of accessibility and responsive customer service ,or when agencies do a good deal of taking but not a lot of giving in a community. In other words, the benchmarks of failure have historically characterized much of traditional child welfare.
But we should be careful not to place too much on the shoulders of a community until we understand its capacity. And I say this as someone who has spent much of my career working to center communities when it comes to plans for child safety. As it stands, we are underestimating the potential capacity of many communities and overestimating their current ability to help.
This does not preclude the critical importance of engaging and working alongside organizations and individuals who are deeply rooted in the block, neighborhood or community they value. It is, on the other hand, part of the rationale for why we need to simultaneously invest in families and their communities if we are interested in an enduring level of family stability.
Communities reflect the families who inhabit them, and families adapt to the environment in which they live. Historically, their fates have been intertwined. Many in the child welfare profession are disconnected from the bumpy, daily grind facing the families we serve. Navigating the persistent obstacles within a neighborhood creates a whole other level of anxiety for parents and the children. In addition, not all communities on their own can fill in the blanks of adequate food, clothing, shelter and safety, while simultaneously breaking down the social isolation facing families who are stressed.
I’ve lived in the Philadelphia region most of my life. In the zip codes where child welfare and law enforcement frequent, the data and the neighborhood narratives are clear. For many parents, the streets are a source of toxic stress and imminent risk for their kids. In neighborhoods of diminished dreams, parents keep youngsters indoors and avoid any activities after dark. Everyone’s anxiety runs high.
Young men, barely out of their own childhoods — many alums of the child welfare system — are shooting at each other randomly and repeatedly, resulting in the death and disfigurement of little kids, their parents and each other. Programs designed for young people who have already picked up a gun or considered violence may have an impact, but they are far removed from the foundational work that needs to happen in a child’s home, at an early age, with adults who have what they need to raise well-functioning children.
There are neighborhoods in Philadelphia where there is not much left standing except the still-life relics of what existed before economic downturns, redlining and the mass exodus of the middle class. This level of disinvestment also occurs in rural communities where there is no reliable public transportation — or dentists, supermarkets, arts programs or ball fields. And even in places where there is an abundance of dedicated nonprofits and community clinics, there is a need for secure space where residents can socialize.
When we wait to do something to bolster the quality of life in a community, we wind up creating safety valves for social control, not socialization or effective resources for families. This type of programming is generally done “to” a community and not “with” them.
For a child, the accumulated impact of generational and social trauma, poverty and racial discrimination starts at an early age. It manifests itself in the home, schools and playgrounds, the offices of therapists and pediatricians and eventually, the community.
Community culture is created through a series of uninterrupted events that organize our behavioral norms, resulting in the capacity to support large numbers of families and individuals. But when more people are unable to trust the safety within their community, they become less confident and more isolated.
Anytime I have been called to serve in a community setting, I make sure to request a “drive around.” It consists of driving (or walking) with a trusted ally of the community who lives or works there, so I can learn.
Drive arounds, along with community conversations, should be mandatory for those who come to help. While riding, I’m creating an informal inventory of existing resources for families: schools, health clinics, recreational centers and cultural activities, as well as an appropriate level of law enforcement. I learn about available transportation, child care, the presence of supermarkets, banks and libraries, and in an urban setting, observing how many children and seniors are out on the street. Can the most vulnerable navigate the neighborhood?
Are there faith communities, or anchors that stabilize? Are the neighborhood restaurants mostly pick-up joints with bulletproof glass? Are there eyeglass shops, pediatricians, schools without bars on the windows? Are there places where kids can play outside, laundromats and public pools or sprinklers? Even if there are several non-profits in that community, an absence of everything else reinforces the perception that a place is undesirable.
Communities and families constantly reflect each other’s blessings and blemishes. Concurrent distress in the home and the community often make up the singular, uninterrupted continuum of family disruption. Our investments need to be in families and their communities. Unless we radically re-imagine the need for supporting families with young children at an earlier stage and simultaneously value where they live, we will witness the further wearing away of neighborhoods and rural communities.
Quite a while ago, I served as Philadelphia’s Director of Children’s Policy. During that time, we developed a comprehensive mapping of health and well-being data related to kids and their families. The zip codes facing the most distress formed what our Commissioner of Public Health called the “J” curve: a density of challenge and a deprivation of solutions. In 2023, the curve still exists, decreasing the likelihood that families will draw much comfort or support from their neighborhood.
Our recent advocacy for a child-family-community paradigm for child welfare improvement and transformation is smart and happens to be rooted in the earliest days of our profession. I’d suggest that we train our team members to understand that all communities have value and the potential to be a part of a family’s brighter future. Simultaneously, child welfare agencies should align themselves with resources that keep neighborhoods vital.
The social work trailblazers knew that we limit the potential of success when we disconnect the problems facing families and their communities. A century-plus after their work, we might do well to revisit the implications of that original vision for supporting families and the spaces they call home.