As states prepare to implement the Family First Act, can community-based agency leaders build trust with families?
Several years ago, I attended a Jesuit Leadership institute. The trainer shared a quote that I found relevant to my work at Casey Family Programs with public child welfare agencies and community-based primary prevention programs. It was from Peter Hans Kolvenbach, a former Superior General of the Jesuits: “When the heart is touched by direct experience, the mind may be challenged to change.”
I related Kolvenbach’s observation to the lessons learned from my consulting projects. The child welfare agencies that had the most success with their community-based counterparts were those who understood the value of genuine partnerships. They made an intentional effort to be present, to listen and to address the issues of mutual trust, organizational culture and shared goals.
I also thought about those public agencies that were not doing so well at community collaborations. They neglected or ignored the more effective strategies employed by their successful peers who changed the rules and roles of their agencies; rethought and redeployed the use of exiting resources, had clarity on common concerns and purpose; created a pool of flexible dollars for family centered prevention models; and designed a two generational approach to family safety and well-being.
As states prepare for a new funding reality under the Family First Prevention Services Act, the hard work for many of the public agencies is right around the corner. The law opens up potentially billions of dollars for agencies to help keep families in crisis together, but the money will be wasted if leaders do not engage with communities whose perception of government agencies is not so positive.
Currently, we are providing states with tools, instruments, and digital three-ring binders on how to create partnerships for prevention and family support. We should also ask ourselves, are all of these checklists for managing the road ahead serving a purpose?
Checklists are created to free up that side of the brain that needs to organize things. I know because I have helped to develop and used many of these tools over the years. They are practical for an agency that wants a shortcut to learn what others have already explored. But what should child welfare leaders do with the time that the shortcut allows?
After three decades of work with community collaboratives and family support programs, I believe there are a few answers to that question. First, child welfare leaders should prioritize the value of relationship building with communities and avoid limiting themselves to the short-term implementation tasks. In turn, build on those new relationships to ensure future opportunities and possibilities. Building and sustaining successful community-based partnerships is never a finite game.
In my experience those child welfare agencies that make the least progress have a few things in common. For example, they act before the partners establish a sense of trust and ownership in a shared vision. They compile indicators and data without identifying community strengths and without a neighborhood narrative. Or they forget to check their egos and jargon at the door.
Prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, I attended a community meeting where one child welfare director began tossing around the term candidate for foster care, a regulatory term meant to help set eligibility ground rules. But at a community event, I wondered, what does it sound like from the perspective of a parent or a family to be a candidate?
I thought by parsing the word, I could understand why it might be offensive to a parent from that community. Does it mean everyone in that zip code is a potential client, suggesting a blanket assessment of that group as “other?”
Candidate shares an etymology with the word “candid.” Are we being candid with people when we say there is a sense of urgency to help them maintain the integrity of their families when the data doesn’t really provide evidence that we are? Does candid mean we are being transparent about our mostly mediocre outcomes, and do we expect people to trust us even when they have seen us take their kids in the middle of the night?
The response of the community that day was polite but not embracing. The child welfare leader seemed to totally miss the implications of the term.
Many community-based agency leaders and neighborhood residents have great instincts and can distinguish between authenticity and expediency. They are careful not to confuse charisma or charm for an outsider’s character and sincerity. And though they might go along for the short run with the “downtown crowd,” they will decide pretty quickly how to manage a marriage of convenience. Unfortunately, those types of marriages will not go very far in breaking the historical mold of the public agency-private provider relationship, which is essentially a vendor-contractor arrangement. To do that, child welfare leaders need to talk (and listen) about poverty, food insufficiency, evictions and race if they want a genuine, enduring partnership with the families they serve.
The fundamental challenge is trust. When public agencies are successful at community collaboration, it is because they have asked themselves this question in one form or another: Can our current level of authenticity, humility, empathy and determination outweigh a historically bleak legacy and narrative of family, community, and even colonial trauma. This is the challenge for collaboration that no tool or manual can prescribe.
Professional helpers should be problem solvers as well purveyors of possibility. But as Father Kolvenbach reminded us, without the personal connection and experience, they remain stuck in their own past.