• November 2020
  • Vol. 21, No. 8

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Primary Prevention: Reimagining Human Service Delivery

Written by Assistant Secretary Lynn A. Johnson, Administration for Children and Families

If you've been in the field, then I imagine you've been in this situation, too. You have a child, or a couple, or a family sitting in your office, maybe in tears, needing one lifesaving service or another. You connect them with a resource, and as soon as you find time to breathe, there's someone new filling that seat. Sometimes—when you're not swamped with paperwork or new clients—you probably sit there and wonder how that problem—whether it be child abuse or extreme poverty—could have been prevented. I know how frustrating—how exhausting—that feeling can be, and, frankly, it's one of the reasons I do the work I do now. Of course, our nation's vulnerable children, families, and communities need the services we provide. But on the other hand, we need a holistic reimagining of our human service delivery system. We need to invest in preventing social issues as much as we care about ameliorating them. We need primary prevention. Moreover, we need you to use primary prevention to imagine a better America.

Most importantly, our nation's children need primary prevention. As the Assistant Secretary of the Administration for Children and Families, I've spent the last 2 years tirelessly fighting for our nation's children, especially those who are waiting to be adopted. We're already seeing results from the "ALL-IN" Foster Adoption Challenge. Leaders from around the country are saying enough is enough; children shouldn't have to grow up without safe, loving families. At the same time, we can do something to prevent kids from being in that situation in the first place.

Reimagining our human service system takes boldness. Boldness looks like President Trump's historic Executive Order, aimed at strengthening our child welfare system. Through this Executive Order, we're acting boldly to improve our partnerships, improve our resources, and improve our oversight. First, we need to focus on partnerships. Complex problems require creative solutions. We must listen to those we want to help—parents whether biological, foster, or adoptive; children and youth; and those in the system or those who have left the system. We must partner with courts, churches, nonprofits, communities, and anyone else who is invested in the welfare of our children. We all have to come together to fight for our children and families.  By coming together, we also hold ourselves accountable. Second, we need targeted resources. We need to provide better resources and training for our families. Third, we need more effective accountability. This looks like providing better guidance to states as they utilize flexible funding and encourage legal counsel for parents. These initiatives are bold, and they're already having a profound effect on our system.

Boldness also looks like putting our nation's vulnerable children first. Every day, we do this when we tell children they are worth it, that they deserve a safe, loving, stable family. I did this when I recommended that our children should be back in school in person this fall. This was a tough decision that schools should have the right to make on their own, but, with the principle that our vulnerable children should be put first, I recommended that schools should go back to in-person teaching. For many of our kids, education is one of the few pathways out of poverty. For many more, school is one of the few safe places in their day—a place where they can get a warm meal and encouragement from mentors. A decision like this takes boldness to put our children first.

Reimagining and improving our human service systems take boldness and out-of-the-box thinking, and the responsibility to do this rests with us all, from my office to the field.

Furthermore, reimagining the human service systems will take common-sense reform. The people who know best how to make our systems better usually have actual lived experience with those services. If we're engaged with those we serve—if we listen to what they have to say—then we can transform our systems to be the most effective that they can be. To accomplish this in child welfare, I brought Joshua Christian-Oswald, who spent nearly two decades in the child welfare system, into the team and created our first youth advisory board. This team of young people, who have been in the child welfare system, are using their firsthand experience to improve the system. Once we engage with those we serve, we can implement common-sense reform. We need common-sense reform like keeping families together, keeping sibling groups together, and paying attention to the importance of place-based attachment.

With boldness, creativity, and common-sense solutions, we can reimagine our human service systems. We can improve the services that empower millions of children, youth, and families. We can build a better world for our country's most vulnerable children and families. I challenge you to help me reimagine this world and then to construct it.


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