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April 2020Vol. 21, No. 3My Community Cares: A Multitiered, Multidisciplinary, and Neighborhood-Driven Approach to Preventing

Written by the Honorable John C. Davidson, 9th Judicial District Court, Alexandria, LA, and Michelle Gros, J.D., special projects coordinator, Pelican Center for Children and Families and Louisiana Court Improvement Program

Parents with lived experience with the child welfare system are informing and codesigning prevention efforts in four Louisiana parishes (Caddo, East Baton Rouge, Livingston, and Rapides). They are being asked, "What would have helped prevent the child welfare agency from getting involved with your family?"

Two parents replied with the following:

  • "Before they went and just took my kids, I just needed someone to sit down with me and help me problem solve how to get out of the cycle of poverty, substance abuse, and depending on the government and get my life on track so that I could care for my kids."
  • "Resources are hidden in the community even though there seems to be a lot out there. If you're lucky enough to find one, you either don't have transportation to get there or aren't bad enough off yet to be eligible. I wish I would have had something like a CASA for parents before my kids were taken from me. Someone who could relate to me and help me find what I needed to have a good home for my kids."

When setting out to prevent child abuse and neglect, it's tempting to choose a one-size-fits-all prevention program that works in one place or pile on the services communities appear to lack. But in Louisiana, local judges, the court improvement program (CIP), the Department of Children and Families (DCFS), and child welfare stakeholders decided to take a different approach through an initiative called My Community Cares (MCC). MCC allows parents with lived experience with the child welfare system, foster parents, youth formerly in foster care, and residents of neighborhoods with the highest concentration of entries into foster care to inform and codesign strategies to prevent child abuse and neglect in their community.

MCC is one of Louisiana's innovative program improvement program strategies created in response to the Children's Bureau's challenge to shift from a child welfare system that is reactive to one that is proactive in addressing child abuse and neglect. The overall mission of MCC is to prevent child abuse and neglect and the entry of children into foster care by partnering with communities to build their capacity to connect Louisiana's most vulnerable children and families to the supports and services they need to be safe, stable, and self-sufficient.

MCC is a multitiered, multidisciplinary, and neighborhood-driven approach designed to give equal power and decision-making to all community members at neighborhood, parish, and state levels. Evidence shows that the safety, permanency, and well-being of families is improved when the community itself becomes a resource, and community members are stakeholders in prevention efforts and child welfare system improvement. MCC is premised on assumptions that communities know the best solutions to their unmet needs and problems, each community has unique barriers to accessing services and supports, and one prevention approach will not work for all communities.

Judicial leadership is critical to the success of MCC. Judges are in unique positions of authority to convene and rally the communities they serve. The following is an account of  MCC's impact in Rapides Parish from the Honorable John C. Davidson of the 9th Judicial District Court:
Even though the support of DCFS and the CIP is essential, in Rapides Parish, we are taking personal ownership of MCC to prevent child abuse and neglect from the ground up. Too many of our children are removed from their homes for abuse or neglect, and we are tired of not having the resources in place to address the true needs of the families that end up in our court. Once families are in court, the choices to help them are more restricted, and, in many cases, our best efforts are too late. For these reasons, our main focus is primary prevention. While foster care proceedings are confidential, MCC allows judges to bring the safety and health of children to the forefront of the community. It allows them to raise awareness around the root causes of child abuse and neglect seen over and over again in court and to do something about it.

MCC provides a structure for anyone to partner with us. Our partners have included DCFS, local government, mayors, police, parish and city council members, the Rapides Parish School System, the Louisiana Department of Health, service and health-care providers, nonprofits, district attorney's offices and other legal partners, the faith-based community, court-appointed special advocates, service providers, community members, and many more. MCC is impacting our discussions in court and in the community and changing our philosophy around how to truly serve and help preserve families before they hit that critical point that results in child abuse or neglect.

We are identifying needs by listening to people in neighborhoods where children are most vulnerable to child abuse and neglect. We ask them about the gaps in services and accessibility barriers they face; the unmet needs they have; and what they know families in their neighborhoods need to be safe, stable, and self-sufficient. We do this by conducting family needs assessments with residents and hosting block parties and community events and conversations in these neighborhoods.

From there, we identify service providers and community partners who can partner with the neighborhood residents to connect the needs of the community to the services, resources, and supports that can fill those gaps. We are also focusing on and codesigning one to two strategies and solutions with neighborhood residents and community partners to address gaps in services and accessibility barriers. In essence, we are starting small so that the community can look back and confidently say, "Yes, we did that together." At the same time, we set up a centralized and shared online platform to provide a resource directory, helping us identify gaps and providing collaborative space for community partners to organize teams, plan activities together, and communicate with one another.

Part of the success of MCC is the commitment of numerous partners to step up to the plate. A nonprofit called Fostering Community volunteered to help coordinate MCC, and the Rapides Parish District Attorney's Office and United Way of Central Louisiana volunteered to lead in implementing MCC in our priority neighborhoods. The superintendent of the Rapides Parish School System opened up the schools for the project to conduct family needs assessments and facilitate community conversations and events and started piloting a program in schools so that services and supports are readily available onsite for children and parents.

The most rewarding part of MCC is listening to the needs of the community—asking, "what can we do to help you?"—instead of telling them what they need. While preventing child abuse and neglect is an enormous goal, our efforts cannot fail because we are building trusting relationships with community partners and residents from the ground up, breaking down silos, and working more collaboratively and strategically than ever before to prevent child abuse and neglect in Rapides Parish.

If you haven't yet, it's time for you and your community to partner together and start somewhere.