In “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald captured the idea that in America, our historical class divisions always influence, linger and manipulate the present. He wrote in the novel’s last paragraph:
Gatsby believed in the green light … that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther … So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
I was reminded of this on a recent trip to Lake City, Florida, where I had been asked to facilitate a community conversation for an emerging neighborhood-based family support program.
Like many jurisdictions, Lake City is planning a family support program and also re-imagining their child welfare system. A common theme appears to be the persistent challenge of child safety and the constancy of crisis intervention. And like Gatsby, all of us are energized by our best hopes while saddled with the weight of our history and circumstances.
Participating in many of these exercises over the years, I’ve noticed that successful collaboratives have a transcendent significance and depth, because they are rooted in the lives of community residents. Their shared history defines the path forward and defies the experts who believe that there is a prescriptive formula for these types of family support efforts. Lake City fits this description.
This project is one of several funded by the federal Administration for Children and Families as a demonstration site for community-based family support programs. It is sponsored by Partnerships for Strong Families, one of Florida’s Community Based Care agencies, a part of the state’s privatized child welfare system. They are also the parent agency for the highly successful neighborhood-based Library Partnership in Gainesville.
Everyone met at the former Richardson High School, now serving as a community center for kids and families. The residents of this neighborhood have a great deal of pride in the building.
The lobby of the once segregated school is a shrine to past accomplishments — sports trophies, testaments to distinguished principals, newspaper articles and pictures of graduates who had gone on to serve in the military or the state police. The images were compelling.
These accolades are the legacy of those who wanted to belong, to be recognized no matter how badly or unjustly they were treated. They were a community who found solace and support with each other — hope in spite of the odds. To an outsider like myself, I saw a community that has been the embodiment of its persistent belief in a horizon of greater good, while dealing with daily crisis and injustices.
The meeting was well attended, managing to abide by all of the COVID-19 restrictions. Pastors, police and parents were there. Local professionals, educators and employment specialists participated, along with many others. It was a multi-racial group asking how they could get involved so that they could drive the work forward and create a family resource “system.” They understand the challenge that lies ahead requires more than a building. This space will be the hub of activity that will somehow have to defy several generations of history.
To be sure, the challenges are significant. The historical impact of poverty and segregation has been ever present. Close to 20% of families live with food insecurity. The city has a 35% child poverty rate. In addition, there are high numbers of reported neglect and inadequate supervision cases to child welfare.
Fortunately, there are many promising and practical approaches to supporting kids and families in this community that have stakeholders excited. By the end of the meeting, there was an added level of enthusiasm for all that is possible. Still, the participants in the conversation were clear that there has been an unrelenting level of challenges for families, especially for kids whose safety and well-being is in constant question.
During the meeting, community partners voiced their expectation that those entrusted with the role of child protection should respond without hesitation. They were simultaneously concerned about the need to reach families at an earlier stage, prior to a crisis.
For these stakeholders there was no denying the immediacy of child safety, nor the circumstances that make parenting so difficult. Neither dynamic can be ignored. Most families, who are socially isolated, marginalized and mired in a web of disadvantage, have a strong desire to belong and thrive and simultaneously have their own concerns and priorities related to the safety and well-being of their kids. Planning for the future implies security in the present. Family support programs need the common sense and dexterity to accommodate all those issues.
It is impossible to separate our nation’s history and the arc of our child welfare system. Both are defined by remarkable accomplishments and shameful incidents. The common acts of care and compassion by social workers cannot be separated from the social landscape in which they occur. This is the push for future well-being concurrent with present child protection demands that pull us into a hyperbolic level of response.
The stakeholders in Lake City reflect our culture and belief systems. Our success in re-imagining child welfare will depend on our facing the currents of the past and present while remaining hopeful and resourceful.