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August/September 2020Vol. 21, No. 6A Better Tomorrow for Families and Communities

Written by Teresa Rafael, M.S.W., executive director, Children's Trust Fund Alliance

At the Children's Trust Fund Alliance, we help parents and communities provide a quality childhood and a strong start for children. Recent events have challenged us to think more deeply and move swiftly to meet unprecedented challenges.

The COVID-19 pandemic shows how suddenly lives can change. The pandemic uncovered serious problems already facing many families—racial and social injustice; serious and constant economic challenges; lack of access to needed resources, such as health care and food; gaps in access to technology; and other concerns. In the past few months, we have seen innovative strategies to meet those challenges being implemented by children's trust funds, prevention and family support programs, schools, courts, child welfare systems, and others.

The Black Lives Matter movement and videos documenting police brutality have also raised awareness of the vastly different life experiences of people across the United States. We are all more aware of historical and structural oppression faced by generations of Black Americans. For years, we have known about the disproportionality of Black children and youth in the foster care system. It is time to address these disparities without delay.

Just as there have been breakthroughs in technology and medicine, we know a great deal about what helps strengthen families so children can thrive. We have a better understanding about the risks of adverse childhood experiences and the impact of community conditions on families. We also know the importance of protective factors for families, the power of partnering with parents, and the importance of working across the social ecology to support families.

This knowledge shows us the best way to serve children is to help their parents provide them with a safe and nurturing home. Permanency within the child's own family is the primary goal. For many years, there has been a debate about whose rights take precedence—the child's or the parents'. We know now those rights are intertwined. Parents have a right to do the best they can for their children, and children have a right to be with parents who are supported in the context of a caring community.

A recent Alliance a relationship-building guide quotes Kodi, a foster care alum, "I didn't want the system to save me FROM my parents; I wanted the system to help my parents FOR me." Yet, our current system expends most of its resources on protecting children from their families rather than supporting their families. 

We must work together to implement a collective vision to help every family in this country be as strong as possible and work with our communities to provide safe, stable, and nurturing homes for families. Achieving this vision requires the committed engagement of policymakers, service providers, parent partners, and leaders in all systems that touch the lives of families. A better normal for our future would include the following:

  • The ability for families to meet their basic needs for housing, food, medical care, transportation, education, and all elements that are provided for children in foster care but may be missing in their own family homes  
  • Systems where parent and youth voices are highly valued and formally supported
  • Eliminating racist and discriminatory policies, which create and preserve structural inequities by distributing power and resources differentially across lines of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, gender expression, immigration status, and other dimensions of individual and group identity
  • Helping families impacted by structural racism move beyond the challenges created by that system
  • Stronger enforcement of reasonable and active efforts standards to focus on meeting the needs of the family as a whole and defining success as stability and permanency within a child's own family
  • Flexibility to meet the needs of diverse families and changing situations, which we have learned is possible during the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Networks of peer-support opportunities, learning and educational resources for parents, and opportunities for those who have received help to provide help to others
  • Strong, well-funded, culturally appropriate, and easily accessible systems of community-based preventative and early intervention strategies in every community to meet the needs of families (often provided via family resource centers.)
  • Universal home visiting programs offered during a first pregnancy and following birth for families to welcome new babies to their communities and to support new parents in taking on this most important role (with additional home visiting programs for each additional pregnancy and birth upon request)
  • Access to quality internet services at little or no cost and technology tools provided to those who cannot afford them so every family can fully participate in educational, work, and other activities
  • Well-trained and supported staff who are equipped with knowledge, tools, and resources to support families effectively
  • Warm-line phone systems for family resources and support so families—and others with concerns for families—can access support in a nonthreatening environment 
  • Broad political will to support investments in families and communities

We have the beginnings of a strong prevention system in this country through the work of children's trust funds and the community-based programs they fund, as well as Prevent Child Abuse America chapters and the Community-Based Child Abuse Prevention programs funded under the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. For example, the Massachusetts Children's Trust is implementing an initiative to build prevention communities. They envision working with leaders across the state to build family-centered hubs of supportive services that are universally accessible to all families with children. They will pair these services with their effective home visiting model. In other states, many children's trust funds are supporting statewide networks of family resource centers that provide a range of services.

State children's trust funds are ready to continue building this new infrastructure and helping lead prevention systems in communities nationwide. They have the needed expertise and often already serve as hubs to bring together researchers, practitioners, policymakers, parents, and community members to help design, implement, oversee, and evaluate systems to better support families and communities.

Our future depends on our ability to come together to ensure a system that promotes family well-being and prevents child abuse and neglect. The Alliance is a leader in prevention strategies, helping families build protective factors; partnering with parents who use their life experiences to educate and inform policymakers; and providing training, written materials, and virtual communications to help unite our field. We are eager to work with you to recreate this new normal.