Making children a priority: the 2012 CWLA conference

“Restoring hope does not mean that we create millions of new dollars of handouts. Restoring hope means we must purposely and intentionally ensure that a true opportunity to succeed exists for all our children.”

That’s what President and CEO Dr. William C. Bell told an audience of about 500 child welfare professionals, administrators and leaders attending a gala at this year’s CWLA (Child Welfare League of America) national conference.

In his keynote address, Bell emphasized that federal finance reform and the replication of successful intervention strategies are key to restoring hope to vulnerable children, families and communities so that every child is surrounded by a community of hope.

Echoing the conference’s theme, “Making Children a Priority: Leading Change,” Bell said, “To sustain the improvements we’ve already achieved and to ensure continued improvements, we have to lead the change toward building strong communities, strengthening vulnerable and impoverished communities and strengthening those communities where most of our high school dropouts occur, where most of our teen boys die on the streets everyday at an average rate of 16 per day due to murder, where most of our children in foster care come from, and where so much hope has been lost.”

“We have to lead the change toward building communities of hope – communities that inspire and nurture dreams, possibility and opportunity,” he said.


Good evening.

Thank you for your kind words of introduction.

During my many years working with vulnerable children and families, I’ve often referred to a custom among the Maasai of East Africa that illustrates the fundamental value their society places on its children.

It is customary for the Maasai to greet each other with “Kasserian Ingera?” Which means, “how are the children?”

Their response is, “Sapati Ingera” – all the children are well!

The power of this greeting is how simply and succinctly it reveals the value the Maasai place on ensuring the well-being of their children. They do not ask, “How are you?” But, “How are the children?” How are the ones in whom we must entrust our future?

As we stand here today, 100 years after the establishment of the Children’s Bureau, we celebrate all that has been improved for vulnerable children in America. And even as we celebrate, we must constantly push ourselves by continuously asking the question, “how are the children?”

Our improvements in child development, child protection, and community-based services have changed the lives of countless numbers of children. And for that, we are grateful. But the reality is that far too many vulnerable children in America today are not doing well.

It’s time that America adopts the same attitude as the Maasai – that we would dare to proclaim a commitment so deep. We will not rest until all our children are well.

  • We must show concern not only for our own children, but for everyone else’s as well.
  • We cannot continue to act as though America can be strong with two co-existing realities for our children. One that we are proud to proclaim and the other we would sometimes rather not speak about.
  • All of America’s children must be provided with the core tools and opportunities that will help guarantee the best possible outcomes for their future and the future of this great nation.

All of us as a community – parents, youth, local leaders, philanthropy, government agencies, non-profits, houses of worship, and concerned citizens – must share ownership for addressing and resolving the issues that challenge the well-being of children, families and communities.

  • Nearly 16 ½ million children – 22 percent of our nation’s children – live in poverty; nearly 7 ½ million live in extreme poverty. And according to the National Poverty Center, this equates to families living on less than $2 per day for each family member. Right here in America.
  • More than 1 ½ million children are homeless.
  • In October 2008, three million teens and young adults 16-24 years old were not enrolled in high school and had not earned a high school diploma or alternative credential.
  • On any given day in 2010, there were 71,000 children and youth in juvenile detention facilities across the country.
  • And even though, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, homicide no longer ranks in the top 15 causes of death, it remains the second leading cause of death for young people 10 to 24 years old.
  • Suicide is the third leading cause of death for young people 10 to 24 years old.

We must restore HOPE in the lives of our children. For there is no greater statement of hopelessness than when a young person takes their own life because it seems like a better choice than living in the world that they experience every day.

Every child deserves to be surrounded by a community of Hope.

The issues impacting children are not isolated to children. The issues impacting children are directly linked to the issues and challenges faced by their peers, by their families and communities.

If America is going to restore HOPE to its most vulnerable children, we must recognize that we cannot effectively address the needs of vulnerable children by approaching them as if they are disconnected and isolated from the issues their families are facing and that the family’s needs are disconnected from the conditions in their communities.

Historically, we come from a tradition that has allowed us to see an individual child as our client outside the context of that child being a member of a family. This same tradition allows us to address the needs of poor families, for example, without taking any actions to address the needs of the poor communities in which those families are trying to exist and make a living.

If communities are isolated, under-resourced and challenged, the families living in those communities most likely are not doing well, or only marginally so, and the children in those families suffer the consequences.

We have begun using terminology such as low opportunity communities to describe places with high unemployment, failing schools, high rates of diabetes and asthma, crime and child abuse as though that label means there is no hope for change. Or that we can’t change the conditions.

Every child deserves a Community of Hope.

And restoring hope does not mean that we have to create millions of new dollars of handouts. Restoring hope means we must purposely and intentionally ensure that a true opportunity to succeed exists for all our children.

The late soul singer James Brown had a song that included the lyrics, “I don’t want nobody to give me nothing, just open the door and I’ll get it myself.” It’s time to start opening the doors to engage vulnerable families and vulnerable communities in the process of changing their future – being active participants in improving their social condition.

A first step in the process must begin with federal finance reform. The American people, through the federal government, spends billions of dollars each year designed to open critical doors for families, but the impact of these dollars are often limited by siloed funding streams and categorical spending restrictions.

We must begin to make sure that our dollars are purchasing the impact and the outcomes that we say we want.

Funding requirements for homeless services, for example, allow for significant payments to house families in shelters and motels, but prohibit or restrict the use of those same funds to help families pay for permanent housing.

We cannot continue to spend more than $12 billion each year on foster care and use so little of those dollars to support families before their children are removed from their homes and placed in foster care, or fail to use those dollars to ensure that when children return home from foster care that they don’t go back.

As Rep. Davis mentioned, in 2011, Congress passed and President Obama signed legislation reauthorizing waivers for Title IV-E funds. A number of states have achieved great success in the past through the flexible funding allowed by Title IV-E waivers.

But as necessary as I believe the Title IV-E waivers are, they are not the final solution. We must permanently reform our child welfare financing system so that all vulnerable children can benefit. Vulnerable children and families shouldn’t have to rely on waivers that only a few jurisdictions can use.

A second step in the process of making children a priority is to learn about and replicate interventions that are working. Interventions like:

    1. The Prevention Initiative Demonstration Project in Los Angeles County, California. The Prevention Initiative Demonstration Project (PIDP) funded primarily by a Title IV-E waiver, combines primary prevention approaches directed to the whole community, as well as approaches directed to families already involved with the child welfare agency.The hypothesis behind the project is that child abuse and neglect can be reduced if families are less socially isolated and more economically stable, and if activities, resources and support are integrated into the community and accessible to families.
    2. Another successful approach is the in-home program provided by Youth Villages, a Tennessee-based child welfare private agency. This program is also funded by a waiver program, in this case a Medicaid waiver. Youth Villages initially operated like many other private agencies, providing foster care and residential treatment. However, as they began tracking outcome data, they realized that many of the youth they were discharging were returning to foster care. They subsequently implemented a number of changes to improve outcomes by challenging and changing their practice and service delivery. We must ask ourselves if what we are doing is getting us the results we want. If the answer is no, we must be willing to change. Youth Villages began providing Multi-Systemic Therapy, or MST, an evidence-based in-home program serving youth 12 to 17 years old with antisocial behavior. Rather than work with youth in isolation, “MST views the youth as embedded within multiple interconnected systems, such as family, peers, school, neighborhood and community/culture.”
    3. Nurse Family Partnerships is another in-home intervention with a well-established history of improving safety and well-being outcomes for children and their mothers. Nurse Family Partnerships (NFP) is a community health care program that partners nurse home visits with low-income, first-time mothers to empower them to improve their health, education, economic self-sufficiency and parenting. Although NFP was not developed by or for the child welfare system, rigorous research has shown that the program has a positive impact on child safety by reducing the rate of child abuse and neglect by almost 50 percent, and reducing the number of emergency room visits by more than 50 percent.
    4. A final example of effective practice is the Alachua County, Florida Foster Care Redesign System Project.The goal of the redesign was to safely reduce the numbers of children in foster care by:
      • Preventing removal through improved practice and increased in-home services,
      • Accelerating permanency through practice change, and
      • Addressing disproportionality in the child welfare system

To build the will in the community in support of these goals, the Florida Department of Children and Families partnered with a community agency, Partnership for Strong Families, to develop a strategic communications plan. Components of the plan included:

  • Community meeting with non-profit agencies, businesses, elected government officials, foster parents, relative caregivers and the media;
  • A quarterly newsletter distributed across the county; and
  • A community steering committee to garner input from a cross-section of the local community

The child welfare system also built public will and engaged in the community in the new mission of the agency through the Library Partnership Neighborhood Resource Center, a model neighborhood center that is co-located with a public library.

The center co-locates more than 20 government and community-based agencies to provide supports and services to vulnerable families to help strengthen them before issues of child abuse and neglect arise. It is located in an area of Gainesville with the highest concentration of child maltreatment cases, so that the center is accessible and convenient for those families most in need. The results include significant reduction in both incidence of child abuse and neglect and the number of children in foster care.

The well-being of our children has to be anchored in and surrounded by a strong network of support:

  • that vulnerable children and their families can turn to;
  • that is a strengths-building asset in communities;
  • that makes families and communities stronger; and
  • that offers them a sense of hope.

To sustain the improvements we’ve achieved and to ensure continued improvements, we have to lead the change toward building strong communities; strengthening vulnerable and impoverished communities; and strengthening those communities: 1) where most of our high school dropouts occur; 2) where most of our teen boys die on the streets everyday at an average rate of 16 per day due to murder; 3) where most of our children in foster care come from; and 4) where so much hope has been lost.

We have to lead the change toward building communities of hope – communities that inspire and nurture dreams, possibility and opportunity.

Research has shown that where a child lives is a major factor in determining his or her life’s direction.

No child’s dreams should be deemed impossible or limited based on the confines of his or her surroundings. Dreams have no boundaries. That is the essence of dreaming. That is the beauty of dreaming.

All children deserve the opportunity to have unbounded dreams – to dream and dream big – and the opportunity to live out those hopes and dreams. Every child deserves to be surrounded by a community of hope.

But building communities of hope means working with families to prevent the need for children to enter foster care.

Building communities of hope means demonstrating and spreading proven, effective practices that can be replicated in communities across the country.

Building Communities of hope means engaging businesses, nonprofits, philanthropy and faith-based organizations to support children and families.

Building communities of hope means all children grow up with the expectation that they can succeed in life.

It means that no longer will fourth-graders in one school be told that regardless of their fourth-grade reading and math scores, they will be prepared for and can graduate from college; while fourth-graders in another school have their fourth-grade reading and math scores used to determine how many for-profit prisons need to be constructed.

As we celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the Children’s Bureau, we celebrate not only its rich legacy in service to our nation’s children, but we also celebrate the promise of the next 100 years.

We have the opportunity to use the experience and knowledge gained to lead the nation toward an integrated community-driven child welfare response system that achieves its vision of safety, permanency and well-being for all children.

We have the opportunity, now more than ever before to not just speak the words but to take the actions that demonstrate the priority that America places on its most vulnerable children.

We have the opportunity to restore HOPE in vulnerable communities across this great nation. We must make it happen across America… Because every child deserves a community of Hope.

Thank you and God bless.