The Evolution of Hope

safe children | strong families | supportive communities

How Communities Across America Are Creating

Better Futures for Their Children and Families

<strong>DAVID C. MILLS</strong> <span style="color:#c1bb00">|</span> Chair, Board of Trustees
DAVID C. MILLS | Chair, Board of Trustees

As we look to the future of Casey Family Programs, hope remains our cornerstone. We know that anything is possible when we foster hope — in the children and families we serve, in the jurisdictions we work with, and in the communities where we partner.

<strong>DR. WILLIAM C. BELL</strong>  <span style="color:#c1bb00">|</span>  President and CEO
DR. WILLIAM C. BELL | President and CEO
David C. Mills, Chair, Board of Trustees | William C. Bell, President and CEO
David C. Mills, Chair, Board of Trustees | William C. Bell, President and CEO

Families find support services – and room to play – at library-based resource centers in Gainesville, Florida.

The evolution of hope:

Finding a better way

Communities across America are rethinking how they can keep children safe and provide the bedrock of support that every child needs to achieve his or her dreams — a strong and loving family.

For decades, communities have relied on foster care as the primary way to protect children from harm. Originally designed to protect children from severe abuse, foster care was never intended to be used widely or for long. Yet today, more than 400,000 children in America live in foster care.

By witnessing the lifelong trauma that can occur when a child is maltreated and then removed from his or her family, and by considering other possible interventions, some communities have begun creating more effective ways to support their children. In this report, you will learn about two fiercely determined communities — Gainesville, Florida, and Johnson County, Kentucky — that are building Communities of Hope and paving the way for others.

Gainesville, Florida

Turning a new page

A community builds strength, support and hope for families at the local library

It’s Tuesday morning, and the lobby of the Library Partnership is filling up — but not with patrons eager to check out books. These northeast Gainesville residents are waiting to see the health care providers who come each week with the Mobile Outreach Clinic. Also in the crowded entryway: A table with Red Cross volunteers offering information. A basket of free sweaters for the unusually chilly morning. A bulletin board with job postings. And a whiteboard listing opportunities for the day written in marker: preschool story time at 10:30 a.m., homework help at 2:30 p.m. and a beading class for youth at 3:30 p.m.

The numerous free offerings — shaped by neighborhood residents themselves — are available at the combined one-stop shop of community resources and services, all housed within this Alachua County library branch.

The Library Partnership is one of three community resource centers serving at-risk communities in Gainesville. Each center offers support and preventive services, such as food and clothing banks, parenting classes and job-readiness training, tailored to residents in areas that historically have had high rates of verified child abuse and neglect.

Together, the resource centers are changing lives. Data from 2009 to 2015 show a decrease of 44 to 58 percent in verified maltreatment in the communities they serve.

Watch: Building a community of hope in Gainesville, Florida

Building a Community of Hope in Gainesville, Florida

Child welfare in context

How did we get here?

To fully appreciate the innovation unfolding in Gainesville, it helps to understand the roots of America’s child welfare system.

Today’s system reflects the social and cultural forces that have shaped our country — and our attitudes about children’s place in society — over the past two centuries. At the core of the government’s involvement is a longstanding goal of preventing child deaths and serious abuse among the most at-risk children in our population.

In the 1800s and early 1900s, some philanthropic and religious organizations pushed to “rescue” children from families deemed morally unfit, a definition that shifted over time and included American Indians and new immigrants, especially poor families. By the mid-20th century, the focus on the so-called “unsuitable home” shifted to a focus on the “unfit parent” — driven in large part by a desire to prevent financial support from going to unwed mothers or parents of color. By deciding to support children but not their parents, the nation adopted a philosophy that equated child safety with removing the child from his or her family.

In the 1970s and 1980s, child welfare agencies transformed from foster care agencies to child protective services agencies. They often used foster care as a primary intervention, even in cases where children could be kept safely at home if family challenges were addressed.

Today’s child welfare systems handle millions of referrals each year involving neglect. Roughly 84 percent of the children who enter foster care do so because of neglect and other causes, not abuse. Still, most federal funding for child welfare can only be used for foster care.

But we know far more today than we did in past decades. For example, we know that waiting until maltreatment occurs exposes children to ongoing toxic stress and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that have been shown to have lifelong consequences, including poor physical and mental health and diminished life outcomes.

We know that preventive, supportive services can help parents suspected of neglect better care for their children. And we know that interventions can be more successful when offered at the first signs of trouble; we don’t need to wait until a family meets a legal threshold of demonstrable harm before providing significant support.

Investing in prevention vs. paying for repair

Most Americans understand the importance of keeping children safe from harm and helping them avoid toxic stress during their formative years. Yet the financial structures that fund our child welfare programs still reflect the outdated child rescue mentality. They haven’t fundamentally changed over the past 50 years.

The federal government provides about $4.8 billion a year under Title IV-E of the Social Security Act to maintain children in foster care. By comparison, about $652 million a year is available under Title IV-B to be invested in practices and interventions aimed at strengthening families and keeping children at home when safely possible. That means that, for every $7 available for children in foster care, only $1 is available to invest in preventive services.

Florida is one of 26 states with a waiver for its Title IV-E funds that provides flexibility in how that money is spent, allowing the state to work with its 18 community-based care agencies to offer prevention services. It was among the first states to take advantage of the waiver, and over the past decade it has placed thousands fewer children in foster care and seen a drop in verified reports of maltreatment.

“I think the flexibility in funding that Florida has had for years now is critical,” says Pebbles Edelman, senior vice president for clinical and community services at Partnership for Strong Families (PSF), the community-based care agency serving 13 counties in north-central Florida. “Every community is different. Their needs are different. Where they’re at in their ability to accept help and recognize what might be helpful — every community’s in a different place. The fact that we can access funding without a lot of rules around it that tell us exactly what that service provision needs to look like makes all the difference.”

Our nation must reform our approach to federal child welfare funding to allow states to more easily adopt and invest in evidence-based and evidence-informed services that provide holistic, preventive support to children and families. Foster care should be an intervention of last resort.

“I can tell you from being in child welfare now for almost 20 years, I think we do more harm to most children by taking them away from their families than we do by working with them,” says Stephen Pennypacker, president and CEO of PSF.

Adopting a public health approach

Some leaders in the child welfare field have encouraged the use of a public health approach to child welfare. But what does this really mean?

Public health programs keep their communities safe from disease and other health risks by focusing on prevention at the population level. They methodically define and monitor health challenges, identify risk and protective factors, develop and test prevention strategies and, finally, work to encourage widespread adoption of effective strategies. Rather than focusing on treating individuals or targeting interventions in a punitive way, the public health model works across the population to look at, and to shape, patterns across an entire community.

A similar approach could help keep children safe from maltreatment. It would start with an accurate assessment of the problem — which might even be visible on a map.

In Gainesville, Partnership for Strong Families (PSF) used “heat maps” created by the Alachua County Sheriff’s Department and the University of Florida to identify the areas of greatest need.

Not long after she started the job in 2006, Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell discovered one of her staff members was running an unlicensed daycare in a converted apartment. “It was well-intentioned,” Darnell says, because the children previously had been unsupervised, but she had to shut it down. That outraged the community, and a petition circulated to oust her. So the department started going door to door in the high-crime neighborhood, asking residents what was important to them. Crime, transportation and medical care were high on the list.

“We started looking at crimes on a thermal map,” the sheriff says.

At the same time, Dr. Nancy Hardt at the University of Florida was making her own heat map, looking at Medicaid births and other health issues. When they compared maps, their “hotspots” were on top of each other.

“It was an ‘aha’ moment,” says Darnell, who speaks knowledgeably about the effects of trauma on children’s behavior and poor life outcomes. That’s when the doctor and law enforcement teamed up with community members to form Southwest Advocacy Group on the southwest edge of Gainesville.

PSF used those heat maps and looked at Gainesville neighborhoods with the highest rates of children being removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect, and that’s where they launched resource centers.

Population-level data, such as those illustrated by heat maps, can reveal patterns in conditions or places. The next step is to emphasize preventing future harm, rather than just responding to it.



Verified child maltreatment counts in two ZIP codes served by the Library Partnership resource center, which opened June 2009





Verified child maltreatment counts in two ZIP codes served by the Library Partnership resource center, which opened June 2009





Verified child maltreatment counts in one ZIP code served by the SWAG Family Resource Center, which opened June 2012





Verified child maltreatment counts in one ZIP code served by the SWAG Family Resource Center, which opened June 2012



Gainesville, Florida

Community spotlight

Three resource centers in Gainesville aim to help families address issues that could lead to a child needing to be removed from the home, says Stephen Pennypacker, president and CEO of Partnership for Strong Families. “If we can address that need that doesn’t start that cycle of what turns into more serious maltreatment, then we’ve done our job. We don’t want to have to remove kids.”

Children in the resource centers’ Courageous Kids program learn about positive relationships with peers and how to resolve conflict.

“Any time you keep a child from entering foster care, you’ve reduced trauma, not only in that child, but in their family … and their neighborhood and in their community.” 

– Pebbles Edelman, Partnership for Strong Families

Supporting families in Gainesville takes many forms, including a mobile health clinic.

Rashad Dunbar took classes on finances and parenting at the Cone Park Library Resource Center. “The library at Cone Park has been the biggest beneficial factor of my life since I’ve been back in Gainesville.”

After-school programs such as the capoeira class are popular at the SWAG Family Resource Center. “I think having ways to connect people to the concrete services and then move to the deeper, more meaningful services really changes people’s outlook,” says Dorothy Thomas, SWAG co-chair. “And it makes them realize they can start making decisions for themselves and look ahead to the future.”

“The Cone Park Library Resource Center was built to empower individuals and families as a whole. … When you address a family in its entirety, you’re changing the entire family dynamic.”

– Erica Reed, Resource Center Manager

Supporting families in Gainesville takes many forms, including homework help.

Johnson County, Kentucky

Healing and hope

From businesses to the bench, local leaders help build a Community of Hope

Some 700 miles northwest of Gainesville, in a rural county of 23,000 in the heart of Appalachia, is another community working to build hope for its children and families. Johnson County, Kentucky, including the county seat of Paintsville, found itself struggling to keep children safe as more families faced overwhelming challenges that threatened to tear them apart.

Families like Tammy Damron’s.

“It took these people to push me and follow me and tell me they loved me,” says Damron, a mother of three who struggled for years with substance abuse and temporarily lost custody of her girls before finding help and support through the Johnson County Community of Hope.

This communitywide partnership grew in an area struggling with unemployment and substance abuse. It brings together social services, the judicial system, community volunteers, mental health services, substance abuse services, public schools, the local library and the business community, all in support of building stronger families. In just under four years, the county has seen the number of children in foster care reduced by about a third.

“These children go to school with your children,” says Judge Janie McKenzie-Wells, a family court judge who has been integral to the effort. “They’re going to be part of your community. And we want them to be vital parts of our community.”

The success of the Johnson County Community of Hope stretches beyond its borders and is opening doors for new partnerships in other communities.

Watch: Building a community of hope in Johnson County, Kentucky

Johnson County Community of Hope builds up families in Kentucky

Child welfare in context

It takes all of us working together to build a Community of Hope

The experiences in Johnson County and Gainesville show what is possible when all of us — business, public, nonprofit, philanthropic and community sectors — work together to create supportive communities that keep children safe and help families thrive. 

“It’s the community’s effort to put the needs of others ahead of their own,” says Susan Howard, services region administrator for the Kentucky Department of Community Based Services. “I think to make a Community of Hope project such as this work, it takes judicial, it takes child welfare, and it takes your community.” 

Pebbles Edelman, senior vice president of clinical and community services at Florida’s Partnership for Strong Families, agrees: 

“Our partners can be from so many different sectors: faith-based, business, social service agencies, local government, our volunteer base. We would not exist without those particular partners. It’s our volunteer base that allows us to be open every day of the week and provide services.” 

Their collective efforts are providing hope in their communities and beyond.

Evolving hope in Indian country

While they share many of the challenges facing other U.S. communities, tribal nations also are among those working to overcome historical trauma. For centuries, ever since European explorers made contact with indigenous people in the Americas, Native American families were broken apart. Their children were sent to boarding schools where they were not allowed to speak their native languages or follow their cultural practices, and they rarely saw their families. During the 1950s and 1960s, the Indian Adoption Project removed hundreds of children from their cultural communities and placed them in non-Native foster or adoptive families, before the passage in 1978 of the Indian Child Welfare Act. The resulting historical trauma has left a lasting legacy — which today includes an epidemic of youth suicide across many tribal nations.

Leaders in the Navajo Nation and the Oglala Sioux Tribe are approaching the issue head-on. The Navajo Nation responded to a cluster of youth suicides in 2015 by instituting a nationwide listening tour that included offering resources to those affected by suicide. The tour was part of the Navajo Nation’s Building Communities of Hope Initiative, aimed at raising awareness and implementing suicide prevention initiatives. The tour visited every high school across the three-state nation, despite a cultural taboo about discussing suicide.

Similarly, the Oglala Sioux of Pine Ridge, South Dakota, declared a state of emergency when they experienced a cluster of youth suicides in 2014 and 2015. They see the need for more support for culturally appropriate mental health services, job creation and economic development to address the fact that, nationally, suicide is the second leading cause of death for Native American youth ages 15 to 24.

As tribal nations work to overcome this threat to their young people, uphold their unique culture and apply best practices, including those outlined in the Indian Child Welfare Act, they are creating hope for many generations to come.

Number of children under 18 in foster care as of September 30, 2012
Number of children under 18 in foster care as of September 30, 2016

Johnson County, Kentucky


“It creates more excitement in our community when a family makes it,” says Susan Howard, with the Kentucky Department of Community Based Services. Johnson County was awarded the inaugural Jim Casey Building Communities of Hope Award in 2017.

“We want to strengthen all of our families. When we do, we have a safer community, we have a more vital community.”

– Family Court Judge Janie McKenzie-Wells

Women in the substance abuse program at Mountain Comprehensive Care Center receive individual and group counseling as well as peer support. The program’s phases align with Family Court so participants can show their progress.

Tammy Damron graduated from Mountain Comprehensive Care Center’s substance abuse treatment program, was reunified with her three daughters and recently remarried. “I feel like a new person,” she says. “I’m so happy the community has pulled together for this place.”

“We want to give [students] the best tools that we possibly can to allow them to be the best employee they can be for any company they might go to work for.”

— Bob Hutchison, business owner and school board chair

The success of the Johnson County Community of Hope depends on broad participation. “There is nothing like having a community that is not giving up and still moving forward." 

— Susan Howard, Kentucky Department of Community Based Services

About us


Casey Family Programs works in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and two territories and with more than a dozen tribal nations to influence long-lasting improvements to the safety and success of children, families and the communities where they live. We learn from and collaborate with communities at local, state, tribal and national levels to nurture the safety and success of every child.



We offer ongoing strategic consultation, technical assistance, data analysis and independent research and evaluation at no cost to child welfare systems, policymakers, courts and tribes across America to support long-lasting improvements that safely reduce the need for foster care. We partner with communities across our nation — communities like Gainesville, Florida, and Johnson County, Kentucky — to enhance partnerships, improve practice and policy, and ensure that these improvements will endure over time.


Direct services

Through our nine field offices, Casey Family Programs develops and demonstrates effective, practical solutions to safely reduce the need for foster care and improve children’s and families’ well-being. Each year, we offer a range of services to more than 1,400 children, youth, young adults and families, with a particular focus on education, employment and mental health services.

We’ve set a bold goal for this work: to secure a safe, nurturing and permanent family for every young person in our care, whether through reunification with their birth family, adoption or kinship care. A 2016 assessment quantified our progress toward that goal, finding that 99 percent of youth who received our prevention services did not experience repeat abuse or neglect in the six months after their case was closed. In addition, 98 percent of the young adults we served had no incidents of incarceration, and 95 percent of young adults had stable housing while receiving Casey services.

As part of our direct service work, Casey Family Programs partners with tribes and American Indian/Alaska Native communities across the country to support their development of effective and culturally responsive child welfare services. Strong sovereign tribal nations keep children healthy, safe and connected with their families, relatives, tribal communities and cultures. We currently have agreements with 16 tribes that honor tribal sovereignty and support nation-building efforts, help build partnerships with the broader child welfare profession and assist in compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act.

We share what we have learned with state, tribal and county child welfare systems, private providers and community partners — working with them to achieve similar results.


Public policy

We also support federal, state, tribal and local governments by providing comprehensive, nonpartisan child welfare information and education driven by data and based on evidence of what works best to improve the lives of children and families. We draw on our direct services and consulting work to help align and improve state and federal child welfare policies, allowing communities to focus on preventing abuse and neglect and improving outcomes for children in foster care.

We share what we have learned with public child welfare systems, private providers and other community partners across the nation to inform policy. We are committed to supporting federal

child welfare policy changes that will provide every state with the ability to invest existing resources in the most effective strategies to safely reduce the need for foster care, strengthen families and improve the safety and success of all children.

Learn more about our leadership, offices, and 2016 financial summary.

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The Evolution of Hope: 2017 Signature Report
PDF: 4.7 MB


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The Evolution of Hope: 2017 Signature Report