Resilient families and strong communities build a path to hope

In 2009, Dr. William C. Bell spoke to the National Association of Social Workers Annual Conference held in New Mexico. His talk was titled: “Building Resilient Families and Communities: Challenges and Opportunities for Social Workers in the Next Decade.”


Good morning.

Thank you Lydia. Thank you New Mexico for your leadership and your vision. Thank you for your warm reception. It is my pleasure to address you this afternoon on the occasion of your 30th annual conference – A Call for Solidarity. A call for action.

As a social worker who has spent an entire career on the front lines and leading departments, organizations and agencies comprised mainly of social workers, I am delighted to be here. I am honored to be a part of NASW – the country’s premier organization dedicated to uplifting and professionalizing the field of social work so that we can better serve the many Americans who occasionally find themselves outside the bounds of any safety net – or those who are trapped by the net that was supposed to be their source of safety.

If there’s anything we need at this point in time, it is solidarity. With all the stresses, strains and challenges that have been building in recent years:

  • We need some level of solidarity;
  • We need some level of single mindedness;
  • We need some level of uniformity;
  • We need some level of common practice and understanding about who we are and how we can help people through some of the toughest times of our lives.

If a chain is only as strong as its weakest link and a society is only as strong as its response to its most vulnerable members, what does the future hold for America?

In a time when our children are good enough to spend three and four consecutive tours of duty in service to their country in foreign wars, but are not good enough to be provided the needed mental health and other services when they return home broken physically, emotionally and mentally, we need hope.

In a time when politicians believe that it is more important to fight for control than to provide health care to more than 40 million citizens, we need hope.

In a time when we have nearly half a million children living every day in out-of-home care with no signs of exiting, we need hope.

So much of what we do and why we are here is in service to those who feel their backs are up against a wall; who feel they’ve run out of options; who feel a certain sense of hopelessness.

We need to restore hope in America. Hope is defined as a belief in a positive outcome related to events and circumstances in one’s life – feeling that what is wanted can be had or that events will turn out for the best.

It’s different from positive thinking. In Greek mythology, when Pandora’s box was opened, all the evils were released on the world. But hope remained in the box. The despair caused by the evils was mitigated once hope was released from the box.

Who are we?

I know that we are a diverse group of social workers in this room.

My area of concentration has been in child and family services. In this room we are: Students in schools of social work thinking about their lives after graduation. To those students who are wondering where to focus their life’s work, I suggest that you find that injustice that so tugs at your heart, and dedicate yourself to the eradication of that injustice.

  • We are Children and Family Services;
  • Health and mental health;
  • Aging and gerontology;
  • Politicians and elected officials;
  • Professors, deans and school presidents;
  • We are Native American, Latino/Hispanic, Caucasian, African American and Asian American

Regardless of who we are, we need to create a path to hope.

The U.S. child welfare system is a work in progress – progress toward a system that strengthens, supports and preserves families; fully realizing the intent of the 1993 Family Preservation and Support Act. This bedrock legislation emphasizes permanent homes for children, support to families, prevention and assisting families in crisis.

The evolution of the child welfare system in this country essentially reflects how much government oversight, involvement and intervention we believe is necessary to protect children from harm in their homes and to keep them safe. An idea with the best of intentions, immense responsibility, and considerable drawbacks when it is not done well.

Here we are today, just over 100 years after the unprecedented White House Conference on Children. The conclusion reached at that White House meeting remains a central tenet of child welfare practice today – 100 years later. And that is “every child is entitled to a secure and loving home and children should remain with their birth parents, if possible.”

But here we are one century later and our children are still suffering disproportionately more than any segment of our society – in America, the land of the free, the home of the brave. America – where nearly 1 million children are confirmed as victims of child abuse and neglect each year. America – where children of color represent 37 percent of the total child population, but 54 percent of the foster care population.

While we can celebrate the fact that the foster care population has dropped this decade, we must recognize that this past decade has also brought immense challenges to the American family and to the social workers who seek to assist them. Challenges that leave me asking the question: “Whose America is this and how do we get them to change it?”

  • The U.S. poverty rate was 13.2 percent in 2008, the highest since 1997. That includes 8.1 million families; 14.1 million children.
  • According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual report on household food security last year, 14.6 percent of households – 17 million – were food insecure and had a hard time putting enough food on the table in 2008. This is the highest rate recorded since the department began keeping track 15 years ago.
  • The unemployment rate, at 9.7 percent, and higher if you look at particular populations. Record numbers of people losing their homes. Nearly 938,000 houses foreclosed during the third quarter of last year.
  • There’s no accurate way to count the homeless, but the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty estimates that annually between 2.3 million and 3.5 million people experience homelessness.The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that the current recession will force 1.5 million more people into homelessness over the next two years.
  • The FBI estimates that 14 million arrests were made in 2008 for all offenses, not counting traffic violations.
  • More than 7 million U.S. citizens are either in prison, on probation or on parole. Nearly 2.3 million are in prison, the highest of any country, representing 25 percent of the world’s entire prison population.
  • The United States is ranked 10th in the world as far as high school completion, a pitifully low ranking given our level of development, wealth and resources — 1.2 million students nationwide drop out of school each year and 2,000 high schools produce 50 percent of the dropouts.

That question keeps coming back. Whose America is this and how do we get them to change it?

  • 47 million Americans have no health insurance according to a 2007 Census Bureau report.
  • The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that approximately 26 percent of Americans ages 18 and above — more than one-fourth — suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in any given year.

Whose America is it? It’s our America and we must change it together. We need solidarity; we need hope. Our vulnerable families need solidarity; they need hope.

It’s our America and we must change it.

We the people of the United States of America — we hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and children are created equal and are endowed with certain inalienable rights: Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness,

What is life if you live it in fear, poverty and despair?

What is freedom if your movement is limited by economic deprivation?

And what is happiness without hope?

What We Can Do – Changing Our Perspective to Build Resiliency

First and foremost, we have to change the conversation. We have to change our perspective. For too long, we’ve been looking at children and families in silos; as if they stand alone; wholly independent and disconnected from everything around them.

We have to begin to view children in the larger context of the family and families in the larger context of the community. This means the task of the social worker and that of our social service system becomes one of helping to build resilient families and resilient communities so that they are better able to raise and protect their children. Harking back to my earlier message, communities have to help raise children; not government. Communities have to keep families safe; not government.

If we were to take an intense look at the current construct of our social welfare response system developed to meet the needs of vulnerable children in our society, it would be hard to overlook the connections that still remain to a day when our response paradigm was one based on a concept of child rescue. Even as we have entered the 21st century, we have a system that still far too frequently sees lengthy separations between children and their parents who are too often struggling with the impact of poverty and substance use as being the desired intervention. We still have a system that raises the standard for family reunification far beyond the threshold for family separation and thereby seeing many children who enter foster care never to return to their homes. We have a system that continues to design its social response strategies based on the ages of individuals — child welfare and aging services, for example — or based on particular actions or needs such as substance abuse or juvenile justice.

As we all can attest, there are a number of children, youth and seniors who have been helped by our social service systems. Therefore I do not suggest that a focus on some of the unique needs of each of these categories is unnecessary. I am however pointing to the fact that we as human beings do not live our lives in categories or isolated from the members of our families because of certain needs or actions. When our elders age, they still remain very strong members of our family. When our elders age, they still remain very strong members of the decision making process that keeps our families together. When young men enter into the juvenile justice system, that does not detach them from their role and their status in their family, nor does it detach them from the love and the hearts of those that they’ve left behind.

The various aspects of our lives are integrated and interwoven to form the totality of our existence. Just as we do not live our lives in silos or categories, we cannot adequately intervene to resolve human suffering through categorical funding or silo-based intervention strategies. If we are to find any measure of success in moving from being child-siloed and focused to being family well-being focused and community well-being focused, we must be willing to replace our categorical, individual client response paradigm with an integrated response paradigm.

The Maasai of East Africa seems not to have forgotten that – that the children are central to society; that their well-being is a priority and of concern to the entire community. It is customary for the Maasai to greet each other with “Kasserian Ingera,” which means, “How are the children.” Warriors and even the childless exchange this greeting. For it is understood that everyone of the Maasai, regardless of one’s station or standing in the community, has a responsibility to the community’s future – its children.

Imagine the power of that greeting. Not, “How are you,” but, “How are the children?” How are the youngest among us; how is our future? It’s indicative of the high value the Maasai place on the well-being of their children. It’s indicative of the perspective they have of their children in relation to themselves, and in relation to the larger community. They understand that if you take care of the children — if the children are well — all else is well.

When asked, Kasserrian Ingera, the Maasai typically respond with the words, “Sapati Ingera,” meaning “all the children are well.” The priorities of protecting the young, the powerless, are in place. Can we respond the same? Can we say all the children in America are well? All the children in New Mexico are well? Can we be assured that our communities have all the priorities in place and are equipped to protect the young, the powerless?

Our current response paradigm allows us to see an individual child as our client outside of the context of that child being a member of a family. Our current response paradigm allows us to seek to address the needs of poor families without taking any actions to address the needs of the poor communities in which they are trying to exist. If we are going to be successful in moving from a child welfare paradigm to a family and community well-being paradigm we must be willing to always see children in the context of a family, to see families in the context of their community, and to see any intervention in the context of a family and community support network.

An integrated response paradigm requires us to acknowledge the interconnectedness of children, families and their communities and to design our strategies of intervention with an understanding that if we fail to identify and address causative factors across each of these three spectrums of need then we will fail at our attempt to truly change the human condition of those we seek to help.

Throughout the history of our social welfare system there have been a number of forces that have influenced our strategies for intervention:

  • The requirements connected to funding streams;
  • The limitations placed on what should be included as service options;
  • The larger society’s tolerance level for truly helping those in need

These factors have too often driven service responses more than a comprehensive assessment of the human condition followed by a comprehensive treatment plan.

Some examples include funding for homeless services that allow for significant payments to house families in hotels or shelters, but prohibit the use of these same funds to help families pay for permanent housing.

Or prohibiting felons released from prison from living in public housing. This despite the fact that public housing was created to provide affordable housing for people who don’t have the income to get housing otherwise. Where are these individuals expected to live?

Or the walls of separation that will not allow preventive funds from the corrections system to be used to help improve life outcomes for youth aging out of the foster care system. Even though several studies have estimated that between 12 percent and 25 percent of the current U.S. prison population has spent time in the foster care system and that approximately 30 percent of the homeless population in America has spent time in foster care.

Or the previously mentioned Family Preservation and Support Act of 1993 — passed after the largest increase in the foster care population during a single decade in American history. The foster care population increased by 74 percent, from 262,000 to 450,000. Yet, less than $70 million was allocated nationwide through the Family Preservation and Support Act.

We cannot continue with business as usual. We cannot continue to speak with pride about how successful we are with raising our own children to be successful productive adults, but suggest that effective strategies for raising the 463,000 children in foster care are somehow beyond the scope of our knowledge.

We cannot continue to spend more than $20 billion a year on foster care — $30 billion if you count the $10 billion we spend to incarcerate former foster care youth — but use so little of those dollars to support vulnerable families before children are placed in foster care.

We are the people who must change America. We are those who hurt when we or our loved ones face disease and death, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, deal with mental health issues, deal with personal, family and community violence.

We worry about the future when the economic environment results in budget reductions and service cutbacks. But if you have been around for a cycle, you realize that we have been in this place before. You realize that we have felt these feelings before, and we came through.

The question is not whether we will get through this time in our lives, but how will we be different on the other side. The term “through” connotes a pathway; a transition; a movement from one place, state of being, set of circumstances to another. It reflects in my mind at least three distinct phases:

  • The pain – the motivator to move, to act, to change.
  • The pathway – going through; the steps you take to move to that next place.
  • The progression – the point of arrival at that next place; the new vision; that new way of being on the other side of through.

The most significant element of these three is progression — the place you end up on the other side of through — because it is from this place that you will face your next set of challenges; and if you gained nothing from the pain or the pathway, you will more than likely find yourself repeating the same steps over and over again.

This is true for us as individuals. It is true for families, communities, government agencies, not-for-profits and tribes. We must take an active role in shaping, directing and determining our future — the future of America.

Cynthia Lietz, assistant professor at Arizona State University, wrote an article in 2007 titled, “Families in Society.” In the article she talks about the process of resilience for families and describes the five stages of that process.

Survival: Taking one day at a time, but not stopping. This stage requires that families have internal support and external support to draw on; that they take charge; and that they also have a firm moral and spiritual base.

Adaptation: Making life/behavior changes to adjust to the new situation. This allows you to continue living in a productive manner in spite of your circumstances. You are willing to change something to deal with the reality of how things are.

This stage requires creativity and flexibility, boundary setting and communication.

Acceptance: A conscious acknowledgement that things have changed. Accepting the adaptation because it’s permanent. This stage requires families to have insight, humor, communication, and a strong moral and spiritual grounding.

Growing stronger: The strength gained from the process. This stage requires that families be able to appraise their growth and to acknowledge as a source of strength for confronting whatever challenges may come next.

Helping others: Helping others in like situations. We realize we can’t keep doing the same things hoping for a different result, so we want to help others avoid and learn from our mistakes. This stage requires that families see themselves as part of the community’s giving/social support network.

I visited a kinship care program that prided itself in helping families to find solutions when relatives, mostly grandparents, had to care for their relatives’ children. One of the services that the program offers is helping to file for guardianship to facilitate decision making on behalf of the children. Many of the grandparents raved about how this program had helped them.

However what became apparent during the visit was that many of the families had been referred to this program by the local child protective services agency. They had been referred with the expressed intent that the grandparents and the parents would sign documents transferring the custody of the children to the grandparents and thereby removing their eligibility of becoming kinship foster parents. On the surface the program was keeping children out of foster care, but in actuality the program was not allowing the relative caregivers to have access to the full array of help that is available to them. Further there were no actions that explored the needs of the birth parents or any concentrated effort at reunification.

This experience speaks loudly of the need to examine how we have conceptualized programs and how we have designed interventions considering the question, “how does this affect the day-to-day lives of families?” We must change our government response system from its current construct as a silo-based response system to an integrated response system. An integrated government response system recognizes the connection between the many service needs that may affect any family. An integrated government response system seeks to engage the entire family in a holistic examination of issues and solutions rather than seeking to address any single issue in isolation. And in doing so, we build resiliency – the ability for families to address and recover from setbacks.

Finally, we must encourage philanthropy to adopt an integrated response paradigm as it pertains to their trends of supporting change and improving outcomes for vulnerable children and families.

Philanthropy cannot replace the role of government in serving the people nor can philanthropy do its work alone. There must be a partnership between philanthropy, government, the non-profit sector and the people – children, families and communities.

The need for this in philanthropy becomes quite evident when we think about responses to natural disasters such as the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Greenburg, Kansas, tornado in 2007 and the earthquake in Haiti in 2010. It wouldn’t be hard right now if we were to search Web sites or printed material to find out how many foundations have poured millions of dollars into rebuilding and relief efforts in any of these locations.

Yet four years after Hurricane Katrina, former New Orleans residents are still displaced all over this country, and when you look at current photos and film footage of the city in newspapers and on the evening newscasts leading up to the Super Bowl, you couldn’t help but notice houses in the Ninth Ward still lying in ruin. On the other hand, Greensburg, Kansas, less than three years after a tornado flattened that city, is just about completely rebuilt as a model green city.

What I am suggesting is that New Orleans could be rebuilt as well if we truly sought to do it. Imagine the difference that would have resulted if the heads of all of those foundations had come together and said to leadership in New Orleans, leadership in the state of Louisiana, and FEMA, “We want to sit down with you.”

We have “X” million dollars for education. We have “X” million dollars for rebuilding. We have “X” million dollars for child welfare. We have “X” million dollars for job creation and other needs as identified by the community. How can we use these combined resources to help you move your plan forward for rebuilding the city? How can we make sure that the lives that have been devastated by this natural disaster are improved? How can we make sure that they are not taken back to the level of poverty that they existed in before the disaster, but that we intentionally build a response system that says we value their lives just as we value our own, and that we want to see improved life outcomes as a result of this rebuilding effort?

Imagine the results. Imagine the possibility if that were the paradigm from which we approached this world.

We have to change the conversation. We have to change our frame of mind; our way of thinking. A change in perspective is needed. And as social workers, we ourselves have to be resilient. To be effective in our jobs we have to build resiliency within ourselves and look at challenges, not as insurmountable obstacles and throw up our hands in despair; but we have to look at challenges as opportunities – opportunities for change.

I read an article about the Greensburg, Kansas, recovery and in it, the city administrator expressed what I believe must have been that small rural town’s prevailing attitude – an attitude that I’m sure accounts for some measure of their success and quick recovery. Like most of his neighbors, this man had lost his home and everything he owned.

But he said:
The tornado had a silver lining, for it made this town of some 1,400 people regroup and reinvent itself. It forced people to make change. It forced people to say, ‘You know what we have is an opportunity unlike any other community gets.’ To change the way we are going. To reverse the trend. To not lose the kids, but to bring our kids back. To invest back in the community so that after they graduate they can have new jobs and new opportunities.”

We get to press the restart button. America needs to press the restart button. Maybe we in social work need to press the restart button on how we define ourselves; how we define our role; how we define our place in leading America to a new and better place.

Many, including the president and his administration have come to recognize the power and necessity of strong, resilient communities in the lives of children and families – that the way to build strong families and lifelong opportunities for children is to build communities that provide an escape route from bare self-sufficiency to prosperity. Transforming families from merely surviving to thriving.

A year ago President Obama created the White House Office of Urban Affairs to ensure that a coordinated and comprehensive approach is taken when addressing issues of our urban communities. Eighty percent of Americans live in urban communities. Modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone, President Obama has called for the creation of 20 Promise Neighborhoods in urban areas across America that have high levels of poverty and crime and low levels of student academic achievement.

The underlying premise of the Harlem Children’s Zone and Promise Neighborhoods is that in order for children to do well, their families have to do well; and for families to do well, their community must do well. It’s based on the belief that we must take a community view — a comprehensive, holistic approach — as the only effective counterweight to address the issues that are plaguing our communities, our families and our children.

Harlem Children’s Zone began in the 1970s as a truancy prevention program. With limited opportunities, neglect, poverty and the crack epidemic destabilizing the community and its families in the 1980s and 1990s, much more needed to be done. It became apparent that you can’t effectively address truancy and poor school attendance in isolation from other attendant factors.

In the early 1990s, Harlem Children’s Zone ran a pilot program that brought a range of support services to a single block. The idea was to address all the problems that poor families were facing: poor housing conditions, failing schools, violent crime, chronic health problems.

From that one-block program, the Zone grew to a 24-block area, then to 60 blocks, and then to the 97 blocks it reaches today, providing a network of about 20 support services and programs to families and their children from before birth through college graduation. The spectrum of services include prenatal and early childhood parenting classes; tenant rights and ownership; health, fitness and recreation; sports; healthy eating; dental, medical and psychiatric care; after-school arts and music programs; foster care prevention; early childhood education; and charter schools.

What if we were to do something similar that specifically addressed foster care? Religious organizations, along with charity organizations, used to take a more active and central role in caring for the needs of abandoned and orphaned children. Some still are actively involved in foster care.

The church has on many occasions throughout history served as a platform for change and action in our society.

There are more than 14 million churches, mosques and synagogues in the United States. With 463,000 youth and children in foster care in this country, can you imagine a fraction of those houses of worship “adopting” just one child? Can you imagine the impact if each church took it upon itself to mentor, support, guide and watch over one family, one block, one community?

What if our churches, similar to the Harlem Children’s Zone, employed a seven-block initiative to get at the root causes of children going into foster care? What if each church “adopted” a portion of the community in which it was located – seven square blocks? What would our communities look like if our churches took responsibility for making sure the families living within seven square blocks of its doors were doing well; assisting families who weren’t doing so well; and helping them access public and private services to address their condition?

The impact this could have on foster care would be phenomenal. We could actually prevent the need for foster care because we would be addressing many of the front-end issues that lead to children being removed from their families. And who better to play such a role than the church – a trusted, longtime partner and culturally appropriate institution in our communities.

This is doable.

Preoccupied as it is with other large issues, we have to continue to press our leaders at all levels and in all branches of government for policies that put children and families first. If this nation puts families first, then families would be in a better position for success; a better position to withstand and work through the hardships and stresses that put them in crisis and at risk. If we, in this country, value families and are willing to provide vulnerable families with the tools and means to strengthen and lift themselves beyond their current conditions, then the need for foster care would be drastically curtailed.

Even in this time of unprecedented spending to stimulate change in our economy, the question of cost will undoubtedly arise in the context of developing an integrated response paradigm. There will be those who will declare that this will cost too much. My question and my concern is what it will cost if we don’t. What will it cost us if we continue to do exactly what we’re doing today?

Frederick Douglas once said, “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

Leaving things as they are is not acceptable — not for me, not for you, not for children and families (mine, yours or anyone else’s), not for our local communities, and not for our nation. Not changing the paradigm presents an even more costly scenario.

In closing, I would like to leave you with what American historian Howard Zinn calls the marvelous victory. He was asked, “In this world of war and injustice, how does a person stay socially engaged without burning out or becoming resigned and cynical?”

“Change does not come as one cataclysmic moment,” he said. “Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can quietly become a power that can transform the world.”

We have to change our perspective and begin, bit by bit, changing reality to fit into our newly framed perspective on children, families and communities. When we act, in however small a way, Zinn assures us, we don’t have to wait for some grand Utopian future, because the future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory. Social workers and the work we do are critical components to that marvelous victory.

Thank you and God bless.

At this time, I want to show a 15-minute video. It succinctly underscores much of what I’ve said this morning.

  • Casey Family Programs’ 2020 Strategy for America’s Children.
  • Why 2020 is urgent; why we must work now toward a better vision for America’s vulnerable children.
  • The importance of strong community support structures – real-life testimonials of the difference a network of community support has made in the lives of children and families.

We created this video in 2008. Some of the titles of the people you’ll see have since changed, and the numbers you’ll see cited are based on 2006 AFCARS data, when we developed our 2020 Strategy.