Discovering a path to hope
We often talk about child abuse and neglect as a national problem. This is true insomuch as it is found in communities across America.
But viewing child maltreatment – and mental illness, drug abuse, failing schools, violence-related deaths and a host of other challenges that worsen the lives of children and their families every day – at a national level obscures a critical factor apparent to anyone who has helped a child or family in need: Meeting these challenges is different within each community.
That is not to say common elements and common challenges don’t exist. They do. It simply means that effective solutions must match the specific needs and tools within every community.
What works in Portland might be different than what works in Baltimore or what works within a specific tribal community. Cultural norms, customs, resources, languages, infrastructure, attitudes, politics, economies and a host of other factors mean that each community is unique.
This fundamental reality is at the heart of 2020: Building Communities of Hope. Cities across America share the common goals of protecting children from harm and helping them succeed.
Yet the reality is that each city deals with a different set of issues affecting the health and well-being of children and families in its communities.
The challenges that families face are complex and they require complex responses.
Four of the core principles and beliefs underlying 2020: Building Communities of Hope are:
- Local leaders must lead our efforts to work with and empower families and communities to make the decisions to improve their life outcomes.
- We must improve our utilization of data to drive our decision-making and improve the capacity of communities to support their most vulnerable members.
- We must change our federal, state and local funding structures to support more effective investments in sustainable change, improvement and hope.
- The philanthropic and business communities must rethink their approaches to giving so that they are more aligned with supporting and leveraging the enormous annual investments made by federal, state and local governments to improve life outcomes for our most vulnerable citizens.
Our social welfare response system still operates with many of the vestiges of the child rescue approach on which it was founded.
Unless this reality is changed, any gains on behalf of vulnerable children are likely to be short-lived in the face of the deep-set challenges that still exist in far too many families and communities.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Research shows that child abuse and neglect can be reduced by working with families to strengthen parental resilience, social connections, knowledge of parenting and child development.
The same is true for communities as a whole. New research in the journal Pediatrics suggests that the degree of income inequality in a county has a significant association with maltreatment rates, even above and beyond the degree of child poverty in that area. Similarly, children who experience maltreatment in their home are also more likely to be exposed to violence in their communities.
When you see the safety of children as directly related to the strength of their families and the support of their communities, the dialogue around child welfare begins to change. New questions about our collective responsibility begin to arise: How can we keep more children safe from abuse and neglect? How can we ensure children grow up in safe, permanent and stable families rather than in foster care? How can we strengthen families – and extended families – so they are better able to raise their own children successfully? How can communities provide the resources and support that families need to raise their children in safe environments – both in and outside their homes? And how can we ensure that no child ever ages out of the foster care system?
The answers to these questions are evolving along with the dialogue. They are being informed by the power of data to reveal new insights into the specific needs of children in foster care. They are being enhanced by advances in brain science and new approaches, such as trauma-informed care, that are helping to heal the often hidden and painful wounds of adverse childhood experiences. And they are being shaped by a richer understanding of how policies and practices need to keep pace with advances in our understanding of child development, so we can invest resources more effectively at a national, state and local level to better prevent abuse and neglect in the first place.
The power to build hope rests in the collective will of a community and its families. Because of this, we need to understand the interdependencies among families, neighborhoods, schools, local businesses, law enforcement, churches and nonprofits.
Answering these and other challenging questions will bring us closer to our goal of ensuring the safety and success of every child in America. But it is also clear that the child welfare system cannot be the sole entity tasked with building hope. No single system can possibly address every challenge facing children and families.
The power to build hope rests in the collective will of a community and its families. Because of this, we need to understand the interdependencies among families, neighborhoods, schools, local businesses, law enforcement, churches and nonprofits. We also need to acknowledge the importance of coordination among governmental sectors such as the judiciary, education, health and human services, as well as the role that philanthropy and business play in supporting strategies that improve the lives of children and families.
Across the nation, we’ve seen people and programs that are taking action in new ways, with new allies, and creating a shared sense of purpose to build hope for children and families. This approach isn’t relegated solely to issues involving child welfare. This approach can also be effective in the related web of challenges that have ensnared too many communities for too long.
These community collaborations point the way toward the ultimate goal of ensuring the safety and success of every child in America.
Leadership, measurement, investments, giving – each has the power to transform lives. When they work together under a collective vision of success, they can transform entire communities and sustain results across generations.
That is the lesson we have learned in working with government leaders, human services systems, families, policymakers, foundations, community leaders and many others across the country.
Children are growing up safer. Families are growing stronger. Communities are becoming more supportive.
Together, we are building hope.
But the work is not easy. For every success, new challenges arise. For every obstacle overcome, new barriers present themselves.
Creating a nation where all children are free from physical and emotional harm will require solutions that reach children within their families and those families within their communities. This means encouraging the design, evaluation, funding and implementation of intervention strategies that take into account the interconnectedness of children, families and their communities. It also means helping these communities – especially the community members themselves – increase their own capacity to define, implement and track progress toward their goals.
Too often, we respond to child victims of violence within the narrow confines of child-centered intervention strategies. We fail to recognize and deal with the factors that affect the families and communities where those children live.
Just as we do not live in silos or categories, we cannot resolve child maltreatment and its related issues in silos. To make any lasting headway in preventing child abuse and neglect and in treating its devastating effects, we must consistently view children in the context of their families, view families in the context of their communities, and view any intervention – and its funding – in the context of a family and community-support network.
Through this holistic approach, we will build a solid platform that can ensure the safety and success of every child in America.
It is within this approach that we will create a lasting Declaration of Hope for all of our children.
Our Related Resources below are a closer look at four principles that help build Communities of Hope for children and families. Each one of the principles is important, but when they work in conjunction, the power to transform lives is tremendous.