I’ve been thinking about innovations that started small and then turned out to have far-reaching implications. Each one of those innovations was the spark for a broader transformational effort.
The advent of settlement houses gave birth to the social work profession. An investor took a single burger joint and eventually developed the idea for what we now called fast food. And the sons of a widowed mother began delivering packages on their bicycles and eventually created UPS.
We have a vibrant base of small but effective community-based innovators in child welfare today. But I fear that the traditional public and private partners are looking past them.
Community-based family preservation and support programs have been inventive and effective. They have tremendous potential to shape the direction of child welfare’s future and should be influencing the direction of our systemic change efforts. I think we should reconsider why we underestimate the power of these programs and start applying the lessons learned to our transformation agenda.
Many of our colleagues are fixated on a Big Bang theory, believing we can pull the rug out from under a century of public and privately delivered child welfare services that are based on the premise that everyone is a client until proven otherwise. In reality, the value of small but powerful service models is worth our full consideration. Build from the ground up and learn as we go.
I was reminded about this when a friend sent me this email:
“…A first-time mom knew to come to our family resource center because although she had a crib, she had no mattress and no money to purchase one. The staff person reached out to me and my community relations person about what we can do today.
Within two hours, a volunteer drove to the main building and picked up a new Pack ’N Play for her that we paid for using TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] funds and prevention grant funds from the county. I see that as possibly preventing a removal or death…and I love that she knew where to go.”
Initially, I thought this anecdote captured a precious moment when our child welfare colleagues got out in front of a crisis and a professional helper earned more neighborhood trust. It highlighted the value of accessible, highly regarded services, the involvement of community residents and volunteers as partners, and the use of flexible dollars. It was a proactive approach, more relational, less transactional. These stories give us hope.
But my friend and I had a similar observation: Shouldn’t this type of common sense interaction happen so frequently as to not be inspiring? Many of us have spent countless hours in the past year talking about the implementation of the Family First Prevention Services Act, which will boost investment in evidence-based services to prevent the use of foster care. But after years of advocating for accessible, family friendly approaches, supported by federal funding and policies, why are we making it so difficult to develop and implement these? Why are we missing the richness of what happens every day in these discreet neighborhood spaces?
Are we setting the bar too high for ourselves, creating a mega-child welfare to-do list to address every intractable social problem that is beyond our scope? Instead, why not consider expanding these small-scale approaches that embody both community collaboration and a social justice component?
Compared to what we know is possible, we have few enduring accomplishments and we have not gone beyond what we envisioned with other pieces of legislation. The track record on task completion and sustainability is poor. We have lived through every cycle of big-picture solutions — orphanages, foster care, family preservation, permanency efforts, enhanced risk assessments, alternative response, kinship care and primary prevention — but we remain stalled in our efforts to enhance child safety and family well-being outcomes.
Systemically, we are still struggling to distinguish between chronic neglect and short-term family stability issues based on poverty. If you ask a skilled professional in a community-based family support setting, they will make the distinction in a moment.
The small tests of change happening every day in communities provide us with a solid foundation for understanding our future. They might not have all of the answers but they do contain the collective wisdom of local change makers. Wouldn’t it be wiser to build up from those models and see where that takes us? The reality is that we could learn how to scale and sustain this work in the same way that other successful innovators have done — taking each informed, trial-and-error step after another.
It is not possible to build one transformational system for everyone because families, and the social forces and history surrounding them, are too complex. There is no single fit for every community. Public child welfare alone has neither the capacity nor the political clout to effect that level of change. Nor is it clear that philanthropy or nonprofits have that ability to unravel the web of complexity. But they can be the ideal investors in local innovation.
I’ve heard a good deal in Family First planning meetings about large scale transformation. But few people seem to grasp the time and intentionality for organizational change to filter through a large statewide child welfare agency. At the planning level we might be certain about the answers, but people in the community have doubts.
As decision makers we also have privilege and authority that come with no instruction manual. Families living and community providers don’t have our level of access. Their lives won’t be enhanced with carefully worded reassurances from state officials. Ask people who manage family support programs — this level of trust comes slowly.
Communities often question the sincerity of large child welfare systems in part because we continue to use language that misrepresents our intentions and capacity. Families need us to be useful, practical, relevant and respectful. That’s why they trust and collaborate with local helpers who share a common language for well-being.
Child welfare is at a crossroads, but not for all of the reasons that we have discussed over the past few years. The field is suffering from self-inflicted levels of grandiosity, confusion and clouded perspective, when the innovative solutions we seek are right there in the communities we serve. Without being too Zen, we need to pay as much attention to the process as we do to the product, and that starts with listening, learning, investing and clearing the path for local innovators.
Years ago, an elderly woman in a community where I was working thanked me for the project we were supporting. I carelessly said that I wasn’t sure it was making a difference given the scope of the problems. I’ll never forget her response: “Diminish not the day of small beginnings.”