Raising the bar for children and families: William C. Bell delivered the opening keynote address to the 2013 CWLA Conference

At the 2013 Child Welfare League of America annual conference, President and CEO William C. Bell said that to raise the bar for children, we have to raise the bar on our level of thinking and frame our approach to serving children and families more in terms of strategies and less in terms of programs.

Nearly 400 child welfare practitioners and leaders gathered at this year’s conference, where Bell delivered the opening keynote address last month in Washington, D.C.

Speaking on the conference’s theme, “Making Children and Families a Priority: Raising the Bar,” Bell said, “Raising the bar means that we will stop investing in individual programs, and we will start to invest in the strategies that we know help to produce stable productive adults.”

“Programs are simply vehicles for strategy implementation. If our programs are not producing improved outcomes and increased well-being, then maybe we don’t have the right strategy, or maybe we have no strategy at all.”


Good morning, and thank you.

(Thank Chris James-Brown, Joe Costa, CWLA board and staff for your leadership, members of the panel for making the case, and families and youth in the room.)

As someone who has dedicated his entire career to child welfare, I very much respect the work CWLA is doing.

I am honored to be part of this year’s conference as CWLA seeks to engage us all in this conversation about Raising the Bar in the creation of a better future for children and families in this country.

As an organization that has continued to evolve and chart new territory in response to rapidly changing times, CWLA, for nearly a century, has set standards for child welfare services and practices. Now, with its National Blueprint for Excellence in Child Welfare, it is once again raising the bar for increased well-being and improved life outcomes for our most vulnerable children.

I am convinced that raising the bar begins with raising expectations. We must raise the expectation for what every child born in America deserves as a right of birth.

Every child should expect that as their birthright they will live in a community where they can grow, develop and thrive. Every child should expect that they will live in a safe community and not a war zone. Every child born in America should expect that as a birthright they will have the chance to dream.

We cannot continue to foster two Americas, one that has endless hope and promise for its children and one where the hopes and dreams of its children must be delayed and deferred because every day of their lives is too focused on survival.

We must raise the bar.

Langston Hughes asked, “What happens to a dream deferred?”

But I have a different question: What happens to the dreamer?

I have spent too many years witnessing what happened to dreamers when their hope is challenged. What happens to the dreamer when he or she can’t walk through a park without fear of being shot?

What happens to the dreamer when they know that they will be more severely punished and may be expelled from school for the same infractions for which other students are barely reprimanded?

What happens to the dreamer when they believe that they are more likely to be dead or in prison by age 25 than they are to have a college degree?

We must raise the bar.

Raising the bar means that we — those of us who claim to be acting in service to children and families — we must change our expectations of ourselves. We must change the expectations that we have of those whom we serve. We must expect that one day they won’t need us to keep doing for them because they will be able to do for themselves. They will be able to be the directors of their own destiny.

Raising the bar means that we will stop investing in individual programs, and we will start to invest in the strategies that we know help to produce stable productive adults.

Programs are simply vehicles for strategy implementation. If our programs are not producing improved outcomes and increased well-being, then maybe we don’t have the right strategy, or maybe we have no strategy at all.

Raising the bar for children and families means that we ultimately have to build communities of hope for all of America’s children and their families.

  • Communities where all children are safe and have the support they need from the adults in their lives to grow up healthy and to succeed.
  • Communities where all families can find the strength and opportunities they need to build a better future for their children and for themselves.
  • Communities where all the institutions that touch the lives of children and families — public, private, philanthropic, civic, faith-based and others — commit to working with a common purpose and shared responsibility to improve outcomes and opportunities for those they serve.

We must focus on communities because we know that where children live has a significant influence on the type and quality of opportunities they are exposed to and where they will end up as adults.

In King County, Washington, where the city of Seattle is located, there are two communities separated by a body of water that is one mile wide across (South Seattle and Mercer Island). A child born today in South Seattle has a 10-year shorter life expectancy than a child born a mile across the water on Mercer Island.

This cannot continue to be our reality. I am sure that each of you knows of two communities within close proximity of each other that have similar or even greater disparities.

We must raise the bar. Because every day that we continue with more of the same, we are losing more of our children.

On average, every 24 hours, in communities across the United States:

  • Approximately 2,000 children are confirmed as victims of child abuse and neglect.
  • Nearly 700 children are removed from their families and placed in foster care.
  • About four children die as a result of child abuse and neglect, most of them before they reach their fifth birthday.
  • More than 7 million children woke up in households where they and their families survive on less than $8 a day for each family member; this is referred to as extreme poverty as though if they had $10 per person per day, it wouldn’t be so bad.  This is unacceptable.
  • Approximately 13 young people between the ages of 10 and 24 are murdered.
  • About 12 young people under the age of 25 take their own life making the statement that death is a better option to them than to live one more day of life as they know it.

That is the reality in communities across our country every day — every 24 hours.  Since this time yesterday.

In this land of the free and home of the brave, one of the greatest nations in the world, we have too many communities where pathways to opportunity are littered with landmines of disappointment and detours that lead to dead ends. The necessary support networks in these communities are either insufficient or they don’t exist at all.

However, one thing that I am convinced of is that we know how to raise stable productive adults in America. Just look around you in this room. We simply need to commit to do so for all of our children — to do so for somebody else’s children and not just our own.

We must raise the bar.

And we have been making progress.

Since 2005 we have seen a sure and steady decline — approximately 20 percent — in the number of our nation’s children living in foster care, and there are about 32 percent fewer children in care since the peak of 567,000 in 1999.

Jurisdictions all across the country, like Virginia, are achieving promising results as they adopt innovative practices to augment their service delivery models to better meet the needs of vulnerable children and families. Virginia has declared as policy that  no children will age out of foster care in their state.

But across this country we continue to focus a lot on child safety, but it is neglect that makes up the vast majority of child protective services cases. Child victims of neglect comprised about 79 percent of all confirmed child abuse and neglect cases in 2011.

What that tells me is that in many cases we can best serve the needs of children without removing them from their homes if we are willing to make the necessary investment in improving their communities.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, of the nearly 1.1 million cases, both substantiated and unsubstantiated, that were opened by Child Protective services in 2011, the overwhelming majority — 869,000 — needed in-the-home services as opposed to 223,000 children who were placed in foster care.

It is clear we cannot address the needs of all of our children if our primary investments are being made in out-of-home solutions. The majority of federal and state child welfare resources pay for foster care — and we get what we pay for.

We must begin to address the needs of vulnerable children in the context of their families and address the needs of the families in the context of their communities.

We have to step outside of how we have traditionally thought about and approached the issue of child abuse, neglect and other family challenges. We must strengthen and transform our communities.

If we say we want to foster improved well-being for vulnerable children, we have to help their families achieve well-being and we have to ensure the availability of communities’ support for those families, making their communities stronger, with pathways leading to opportunities for children and families to improve their present and future lives.

As with any building process, building communities of hope for children and families requires a blueprint for creating the change we seek.

CWLA’s National Blueprint for Excellence in Child Welfare provides a context within which to frame child welfare’s role in building communities of hope for children and families.

  • Ensuring that a child’s right to develop, grow, thrive, dream and become are not infringed upon and are safeguarded by their parents and other adults entrusted with a child’s life. Every child has the right to be safe, to be educated, to be given the best opportunities available to succeed in life.
  • Engaging youth, families, communities and appropriate systems for comprehensive and holistic solutions.
  • Having available the appropriate mix of support services and resources to families when they need them.
  • Continuously measuring outcomes against goals, targets and our vision of what life should be for children, and using data to guide decisions and practice.
  • Seeking diverse funding streams and advocating for comprehensive child welfare finance reform to fund a broader and fuller array of services, including in-home, prevention, reunification and post-foster care services, not just out-of-home care.
  • Finance reform that will allow us to allocate dollars to purchase the desired results we believe all children should achieve; financing that allows us to purchase the impact and the outcomes that we say we want for all children.

Building communities of hope means that we use existing programs and services in a smarter, more community-engaged way — in a way that allows us to be more strategic, flexible and intentional in providing the services that families need as opposed to only the services supported by categorical funding structures.

The opportunity for success is in our hands. We must commit to seize it and we must do it now. Every 24 hours we are too late for 29 young people under the age of 25. By the end of this month — the next 15 days — we will lose enough young people — 435 — to fill the U.S. House of Representatives.

We must work together — government, not-for-profits, philanthropy, communities and families — to:

  • Focus on building families.
  • Focus on strengthening and expanding the array and quality of community-based family support services.
  • Ensure that every child in every community in America has a strong positive relationship with an adult that they believe would give their life for them. We must help each child to understand the value of his or her life.
  • Ensure that every child in every community in America has access to a globally competitive education.
  • Ensure that every family has the skills and access to employment that pays a livable wage.
  • Integrate all of our social response and community support efforts across disciplines and ensure that they are focused on reducing the impact of long-term exposure to the trauma that is the everyday lived experience of far too many children and their families.
  • Focus on the strategies that have been proven to change lives and improve adult outcomes as opposed to finding the right program.
    • Engaging community members in the conversation about well-being
    • Understanding and addressing structural drivers that impede well-being
      • Food desert
      • Poor quality schools
      • Chronic unemployment
      • Unaddressed chronic violence
      • Lack of personal connection to children and families by public officials
      • Poor housing opportunities
      • Lack of access to mental health and other family support services
      • High incarceration and the lack of sustained efforts to maintain community connection and foster re-integration
      • History of trauma
      • Extreme sense of feeling unsafe

Langston Hughes asked, “What happens to a dream deferred?” I ask you today, what happens to the dreamer who is so busy trying to survive that they don’t know how to dream?

Ultimately, our work has to be about building communities of hope for all of our children; building strong communities that offer families and children a better chance, viable choices, stronger voices and life-enhancing opportunities.  Because all of our children deserve a community of hope.

We must raise the bar.

Thank you, and God bless.