In Jacksonville, the full potential of Family Resource Centers is on display
Over the past 13 years, I’ve spent a great deal of time consulting in Jacksonville, Florida. As one of the original Casey Family Programs Building Community of Hope sites, it was among the first jurisdictions to achieve a 60% reduction in out of home placements. Jacksonville is the largest city by area in the contiguous United States. And like most big cities, the health and well-being disparities are significant.
Florida’s child welfare services are mostly privatized with lead community-based care agencies doing the lion’s share of the daily tasks. On any given day, it’s a system that reflects Dickens’ famous line about the best and worst of times.
My modest contribution has been helping them to nurture a comprehensive, neighborhood-based, family support approach with the goal of improving the safety and well-being outcomes for families. One component of that has been the development of family resource centers (FRCs).
In turn, my work there taught me a critical lesson that is worth sharing. FRCs cannot be the singular “go-to” approach for prevention — primary or otherwise. They can be an essential component for strengthening families and the communities in which they live. Their real value comes when they are part of an agency’s organizational culture, policies and practices — not just an individual program or strategy.
I’ve recently returned to Jacksonville to help its lead agency, Family Support Services, develop a new family resource center in one of the city’s most challenged zip codes. It has taken the agency’s team and its local partners several months to lay the groundwork for this new site. The agency’s solid reputation, its attention to the detail of building relationships with stakeholders and patrons, and its plan to make this FRC fit with the overall belief system regarding child safety and family support make the likelihood of success much higher.
I’ve seen great things happen at FRCs, influencing the safety and well-being of families and decreasing social isolation. They also have their limitations. As the lead agency in Jacksonville, Family Support Services has demonstrated, safety and well-being improvements are dependent upon a full range of supports for families.
Thirteen years ago, their visionary leaders called it a system redesign. They questioned the quality of each interaction with families who lived in neighborhoods that were under every form of siege. The agency committed to an approach that fully enhanced family safety, stability and strength. It was a cultural shift that cleared a seat at the table for all partners and moved away from placing children outside of the home, except as a last resort.
I know there have been questions raised about whether the data around family resource centers is all that impressive, or if they are a feel-good distraction that can’t be scaled, not really the game changer we need. Despite my involvement with FRCs for three decades, I’m still not convinced that we have enough clean data on the specific child welfare outcomes of individual centers. As a stand-alone program, an FRC can only do so much. It’s the systemic culture and context that creates the measurable change.
Still, when I listen to community partners around the country and compare their FRC experiences to child welfare business as usual, I wonder, when was the last time any family “felt good” about their interaction with the child welfare system? Frankly, for a family struggling each day to survive, when almost everyone else treats them disrespectfully, they deserve “feel good.” It’s the foundation for hope and healing.
Parents and other neighborhood stakeholders place a high value on trust, respect and practical accessibility. Most every time, they will choose a service that encourages them to return for assistance before a crisis occurs, helps them set a proactive path to a healthy family life and makes it easier to see a neighbor. Let’s take the win here: it’s an agency’s version of “be the change you want to see.”
We can probably argue about the data points, but that would lead us down a rabbit hole. The neighborhood partners in zip code 32209 don’t have the luxury of dueling “experts.” My sense is that families crave more kindness and creativity, and less rigid prevention formulas.
FRCs are more than a physical space or program. An FRC is an agency’s proxy for its broader values, that children generally do best when they are with their families and in a community that is familiar to them.
Long ago, Family Support Services recognized that the consequences of community and personal trauma, poverty and racism are enduring. What distinguished their practice model was the renewed values around child safety and permanency, which is our system’s primary responsibility. Rarely are they achieved through coercion or separating children from their parents. Instead, this agency committed to meeting families where they live, in partnership with them and with community stakeholders.
The new FRC in Jacksonville represents the enduring nature of a multi-year cultural transformation. My friends in Jacksonville understand there is no “one door” for services, or single way to prevent repeat child maltreatment. There is a constant ebb and flow in family capacity. Our responsibility is to create a continuum of support for families. Some parents are experiencing a short-term crisis, others are fragile to the point of harming their children. We should be respectful and prepared for all possibilities.