Stoneleigh Foundation’s symposium: Strategies of the 19th century won’t work with today’s families

President and CEO Dr. William C. Bell was the featured speaker last month at the Stoneleigh Foundation’s symposium, From Child Welfare to Family Well-Being. During the half-day event in Philadelphia, Bell delivered the keynote address and participated in a panel discussion and a conversation with current and past fellows of the foundation.

Bell told the audience America must change its social response paradigm for vulnerable children and families.

“We need to build a community response system that is activated before a child gets hurt,” Bell said. “If we want to change the negative impact of poverty, social isolation, drug use, domestic violence, poor mental health, poor parenting know-how, and many of the other issues that are present in the lives of families who come before the child welfare system, we need early intervention and preventive programs that form the basis of a strong community network.”

Bell explained that the same system that requires professionals and encourages other community members to report children they suspect of being in harm’s way seldom enlists the community’s help in crafting a plan to keep those same children safe, because of confidentiality and other practices.

“If we are to move toward a new paradigm, we must first acknowledge that our current system is built within a context that is inconsistent with the way most children, families and communities interact,” Bell said.

“The child rescue strategies of the 1800s that we are still employing are insufficient as family and community building and strengthening strategies today,” he said.

The Stoneleigh Foundation, based in Philadelphia, serves the needs of our country’s most vulnerable and under-served children and youth by supporting talented practitioners, researchers and policymakers as fellows who work to develop and test new ideas and approaches that will improve the well-being and future for young people with the greatest needs. The foundation focuses on three vital public systems that serve vulnerable children and youth – child welfare, education and juvenile justice.

View Dr. Bell’s complete speech, or read the full transcript below the video on this page.


Thank you, Dr. Bailey, for those words. I, I said to her, as I came up and I didn’t know whether I was miced or not, said you’re gonna have it in front of you. The one thing that wasn’t included in those remarks is that it doesn’t take much for me to shed a few tears and, you know, when I think about this work and what our children have gone through for so many years, I think we all need to shed [OVERLAPPED] a few tears. We need to shed a few tears of regret for the lives that have been lost, shed a few tears of sorrow for the moments that we let slip by without taking action. But shed a few tears of joy for the time that seem to be in front of us because when I look back across history, I believe that there has never been more of a time where this nation was ready for a revolution in the way we respond to the social conditions of vulnerable children, families and their communities.

And I say this even as I am about to share with you some information about how we’ve made improvements by reducing the number of kids in foster care, information about how we’ve made improvements in the outcomes for some children in some places. But even with these gains, what we have not done is reached the point where we’re willing as a nation to acknowledge that the outcomes that we say we want for vulnerable children can only come from a sustained focus on improving on not only child well being but improving the well being of the families where those children come from and improving well being of the communities where those families reside. For those of you who don’t know much about Casey Family Programs, about five years ago, in 2005, we began something that we refer to as our 20/20 strategy for America’s children.

And that 2020 strategy was, at its beginning, a conversation that we were having with ourselves about our level of discontent with what our social response system had become. That 2020 paradigm was a statement of our commitment, a commitment to influencing a 50 percent reduction in the number of children in foster care by the year 2020 in America. And at that point in time, there were over a half million children in foster care in this country. It was also a commitment to improving well being for children in three significant categories, that we believe will have a significant impact on improving any life if we address them and that’s education, employment and mental health. And Casey has committed over a million dollar, a billion dollars of its own endowment to influence this change by the year 2020.

Now, I took my watch off because one of the things that Dr. Bailey didn’t say is that I’m also a preacher. [LAUGHTER] And I have a open mic. [LAUGHTER] With a time frame, that I’m told that if I start moving too far, there’s some signs somewhere across this room that are gonna start flashing. But in looking at the implementation, the first thing we said to ourselves is even though Casey is dedicating a billion dollars over the next ten years, to impact this change, Casey cannot make this happen alone. That Casey had to engage its partners, Casey had to engage systems, Casey had to engage the judiciary, Casey had engage communities and families and everybody who would suggest that they care about the future of vulnerable children and families in America.

And that we collectively needed to say to America, it is time to live up to your promises. And in our public policy language, we made a promise of promoting safe and stable families. We, we’ve made a promise of family preservation and support. But in our action, from Washington to Pace, Mississippi, we have fallen short on those promises and we need to not just put our money where our words are but we need to put our actions where our words are. See, growing up on the farm, sometimes you didn’t have enough money to get what you needed.  So I have a back, recurring back pain that comes from using some, how many of you know what a hoe is? [LAUGHTER] And, and what it means to chop, I mean Alberto Williams style chop, not, you know, that we had to work to get the change that we were looking for.

And I believe that that’s where America is right now, that we have to work to get the change that we say that we’re looking for. And when we started this conversation about change, as I said that there were over a half million children in foster care, and I remember in one of the earliest conversations that I had, around we can make this happen, the first thing I heard was, this is too big. We can’t do that. We’ve never done that. And my response was we have to. Since 2005, we have seen a 17 percent reduction in the number of children in foster care in America, going down from over 500,000 to, in the fiscal year 2009, about 424,000 kids in foster care. And it’s, this chart here shows that we’re on a trajectory, that if we continue to pursue it, we will achieve this 20, 50 percent reduction and in achieving that 50 percent reduction, by the year 2020.

I believe that we can go much further because this number was just a number that needed to be dramatic. People needed to be shocked into the realization of what we had done in America and what we had done in America is convinced ourselves that we didn’t know how to help other people’s children. And so we had to put more and more and more of them in out of home care and let more and more of them linger in out of home care until they became adults. But while at the same time, if I started asking you in this room how, what are some of your greatest achievements, you’re probably gonna tell me about how you raised your children; you’re probably gonna tell me about what a great job you did with raising those children and speak about their pedigree and where they went to school and but yet, America has allowed itself to feel that there’s something so unique about the needs of children in out of home care that we just don’t know what to do. I happen to disagree with that and I think it’s time that more of us began to stand up and, and, and openly disagree with that premise.

When we look further at what has happened since 1998, since 1998, there’s been 135,000 children who have been removed from the rolls of foster care in this country. And, and I would submit to you that that is a significant step in the right direction and not just looking at the country but if you look in the state of Pennsylvania, there’s also been significant movement on the downward trend moving from 23,000 children to just under 16,000 children in foster care and 32 percent reduction and if you look at the years from 2005 to 2009, a 27 percent reduction, not just in Pennsylvania. But if you look in the county of Philadelphia, you’ve seen a similar reduction and with Philadelphia being the largest county in the state, the largest foster care system in the state, the downward trend in Philadelphia has had a significant impact on the downward trend in the state of Pennsylvania.

But as great as this might be, in terms of having achieved a level of reduction, reduction does not necessarily translate into well being. And so we cannot just say we, we’ve done great work because we’ve reduced the number of children in foster care, when we still have so many children and young adults from foster care having such negative life outcomes. This past January, Casey assembled a group of over 70 stakeholders from across the country, state leadership, members of judiciary, former foster youth, foster parents, parents of kids who were in foster care, who are in foster care, staff from Casey, staff from not for profits around the country and many of our partners to begin to change the conversation, to begin to grapple with, I think, the series of questions that if we are going to move to child well being, to family well being and to community well being, we’ve gotta answer these questions as a nation.

And when I look, showed you this chart about the reduction in number of kids in foster care, that doesn’t mean that every state in this country has had significant reductions in foster care.  In fact, there are quite a number of states who have had increases in, in the number of kids in foster care while those numbers have been going down nationally. And we have to find a way to help them to move in the same direction because I just cannot fathom that in this greatest nation in the world, this, I don’t wanna get political, but this nation that seems to always rise when there’s something going on in the, in the name of unrest somewhere in the world, this is where people turn.  Where do we turn when there’s  unrest in our neighborhoods? Where do we turn when there’s unrest in our families?  Where do we turn when there’s unrest in the homes of vulnerable children and families?

In my time in New York City, one of the things that I came to realize was that our issue in New York City wasn’t a city wide issue. Although we had worked for decades to try and run our child welfare system as though as it was a city wide issue, we had 59 community districts in New York City; 18 of those community districts produced 60 percent of the kids who came into foster care. And our first interaction and major interaction with Geoff Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone was when we brought Geoff and other people in Harlem together to say well what’s going on in Harlem? Because in 1997, when there were about 42,000 kinds in foster care, one in ten of those children came from central Harlem.

And I knew that that couldn’t be just because central Harlem had such bad parents. Because some of the greatest folks I know, including Dr. Bailey, came from central, came from Harlem. And so one of the things that we then looked at was it wasn’t just a central Harlem issue. Fifty percent of the children who came into foster care from Harlem came from 24 blocks, fifty percent of one in ten out of 40 plus thousand came from 54 blocks in one neighborhood. And so we have to begin to grapple on that level because I’m sure that if you look in Philadelphia, it’s not the whole county of Philadelphia that you’re looking at. In Staten Island in New York, there are only three community districts. One of those community districts produces the vast majority of the children who come into foster care from Staten Island, New York.

And so the challenge for us is let’s get honest. Let’s get honest and say that we know who these children are. We know where they live, we know where they come from, we know where they have historically come from and if we really want to make a difference, we know how to do it. The challenge is are we choosing to do it? Are we ready to tackle questions like how do we improve child well-being? On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being the lowest, 10 being the highest, how many of the parents in this room would say that the well-being indicated for your children was three or less? Five or less? Right. Mine was a 10. You know why? Cause I chose to make it a 10. Now if you ask my kids, they’ll tell you something else but then that’s a different story.

Even my 4-year-old would tell you something else right now because I didn’t buy her the latest whatever it was that she saw on TV. Even my 18-month-old, who knows who Chuck E. Cheese is, the commercial comes on and she goes, cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese. But we have children who don’t have the nurturing to say cheese, cheese, cheese. And we have the capacity to do something about it. What actions and resources are required to change child well-being indicators? What are the most reliable child well-being indicators? What community support structures must be in place to improve the outcomes for youth who are at risk of coming into care? How do we keep more of those children safe at home in their communities and not ever coming into foster care? How do we reduce the overwhelmingly negative outcomes for adults who were previously in the foster care system? How do we reduce the number of youth who age out of foster care?

You know, the federal government in fostering connections has made it possible now that every state could choose the option of keeping children in foster care until they’re 21. But we have not yet even begun the conversation of what foster care for adults means. Because it’s very different trying to influence life outcomes for somebody who already knows that they’re grown. And I’m sure that a lot of you were saying amen to that. My 24 year old, I’m daddy when she needs a check. I’m that man when I offer some constructive insight into her needed actions. How do we change this? You know, how do we remove the words independent living from our vocabulary? I am 50 something years old and I still don’t live independently. My success is so interdependent with my support system that sometimes I don’t know which one of my neighbor’s houses we live in or where their kids live because they’re always at my house. And that’s the way it was when I was growing up.

If everybody who called my mother “Mama” was actually my sibling, we’d be in somebody’s book of world records. But how do we change this? Because as we look at this important number of change in the system, the exits are going higher and the entries are going lower. But one of the things that we have is the number of older youth exiting the system to adulthood is increasing. Going from 17,000 at one point to over 30,000 in 2009. Why is that? Why is that number almost double as we have had improvements in our system? And what is more challenging to me is that when we look at this trend, and if we don’t change what’s happening with this population between now and the year 2020, we can see as many as 300,000 to 400,000 young adults leave foster care just because they reached an age where they were no longer eligible to remain there.

I often wish that applied in my house. But it shouldn’t. We may feel that way sometimes but it shouldn’t. Anybody stayed at home until you were 24? Somebody was like 25, 26? Anybody wish you were still at home right? That’s who we are. We are people who need to be connected, we’re people to need to have someone who’s gonna be there with us and for us as we move through the stages of our life. And it’s now become, I would say, a point of epidemic of what we’re doing to our children and we need to begin to ask ourselves, what are the steps? And this is what I wanna spend the rest of my hour here with you on. What are the steps that we need to take to, to help to build stronger communities so that our families can grow up in a place where they are supported by the people who live around them?

Where can we find examples of systems that have tried to move in a direction of integrated response in building a community response system? How do we move to having a response system that is no longer categorized as a government response system or if we refer to a community response it’s a grass-roots response system or it’s a public private response system or it’s a philanthropic effort. Why can’t, how do we get to just an old fashioned community response system? I grew up in a time where if a family was struggling, members of the community found a way to work with that family and to help support them and that it was not strange for Miss Sally to say, “Girls, send that boy down here. And he can come back when you are ready.”

Because sometimes parents are wrestling with issues that are so devastating that it impairs their ability to adequately meet the needs of their children. And for some families that decibel level is almost what they would consider normal.  Anybody other than me have found themselves at a moment where you just needed a moment for yourself?  [LAUGHTER] No, no kids, no wife, no, you just, just needed a moment for yourself. And we have families that are so stressed and so isolated that they don’t have a second for themselves. And when the vessel breaks, sometimes a child is standing in harm’s way. But we are in a position to change that and we don’t have to continue to watch the system move as it has moved. But my question then becomes if we are going to change that system, then what’s the role of government in a community response system?

What, what’s the role of community in a community response system? What’s the role of family, what’s the role of philanthropy in that type of a system? Because what we have learned as normal interventions, will have to change if we’re gonna move to a paradigm of community response. And one of the biggest challenges for government is to avoid repeating three of the biggest mistakes that I think have been made thousands upon thousands of times over the last 30 years and especially in those places where we’ve seen significant improvement. Mistake number one, well they’ve reduced the foster care population and things seem to be getting better. I haven’t heard anything in the media lately. So why do they still need all of that money? Let’s reallocate that and move it someplace else. Dis-investment, mistake number one.

I know we have two folks from New York. Anybody else at least spend some quality time in New York? After 9/11, and, and for a few years after that, I started to read the press about the New York City’s police department. And, and don’t go call Ray Kelly cause he knows that I love him but they were billed as the best big city police department in the world, the best. In that same year, there were over 600 murders in New York City and quite a number of them still have not been solved today, the best. Have they fixed crime in New York? The fire department, my former boss at, at ACS and great lawyer, great friend of Rudi Giuliani, Nick Scarpetta, commissioner of the fire department while I was at ACS, improved response time to fires, really make people feel safe, that if something happened that was unavoidable, you could count on your neighborhood fire department getting there in a timely manner.

But have they fixed the issue of fires in New York City? No. And just like we haven’t fixed crime or fire and we still continue to invest heavily in those areas, we cannot fix child abuse. As long as we have families that are living in stressful, isolated situations, dealing with the issues that bring them to our attention, we cannot fix it. We can contain it, we can support people but we, the minute we start to dis-invest, because we believe it’s better, we’ve made a cardinal mistake, mistake number two.

Declaring that the entire system is now broken because of the latest tragedy. I’ve seen it happen time and time across the country. We make improvements, everybody lauds us for the improvements and then a child dies under horrible circumstances. And immediately in order to protect ourselves, somebody, generally either the commissioner or a government official stands up and says, we’re gonna fix this. We got a new 24-point reform plan and, and we’re gonna turn this around because the whole system is broken. We don’t rebuild community policing because kids get shot. And I’m pretty sure in the county and city of Philadelphia you’ve had the experience of kids getting shot, just like we have in Seattle and in New York but we don’t change the entire police intervention strategy and the police department and say that it is broken because somebody got shot.

We’ve got to learn to build a foundation and to keep moving forward and then mistake number three, which is probably one of the most frequent, scapegoating child welfare leaders or parents or, or social workers or criminalizing parents and now social workers just to show that we won’t tolerate bad things happening to kids. Your voices are gonna be necessary to hold people accountable, to avoid going backwards as we go forward. But I submit to you that the starting point for us is asking ourselves if the outcomes and the results that we say we want appear to have any alignment with the systems, methodologies and approaches that we’re using to try and achieve those results. And I’ll say that again. Through the outcomes and results that we say we want have any alignment with the systems, approaches and methodologies we’re using to try and get those results, when, and I ask that in the context of looking at the system that we have.

We have a system that waits for a child to be harmed or deemed unsafe and in need of out of home care before we can access the most significant pot of federal dollars to help children, Title IV-E. You can’t use it until a child goes into foster care and you have to stop using it when the child goes home. Does that sound like it’s aligned with the results that we say we’re looking for? We have a system that allows us to require some professionals and encourages some, all community members to pick up the phone and call when they believe that a child is at risk or in harm’s way. But that that same system very seldom involves  that community in trying to figure out how to keep that child safe in the long term. Confidentiality and other things seem to get in the way. And I know that there are some folks that are moving, trying to move beyond that but that’s the majority of the system that we still have in place and as I turn these thoughts over in my head, I kept thinking, we need to change this.

We need to change this paradigm that seeks to identify the child victim and then save that child victim from these dangerous families. We need to change the paradigm that seeks to identify the perpetrator and move with all legal force to make sure that we hold that perpetrator accountable for what they’ve done to these defenseless children.  Now before somebody in this audience takes that last note and says, he’s labeled, he doesn’t, no. I believe that anybody who commits a crime against a child should be held to the highest accountability of the law. But I also believe that if we want to address the issues that bring families before us, poverty, domestic violence, substance use and abuse, mental health needs, social isolation, devastation in their communities, if we want to address those, then we’ve gotta find a way to build a response system in a community that is activated before a child gets hurt.  And we didn’t just learn this last week.

We also must recognize the need to provide families with family mentors. There are a number of families who grew up in the community with me whose children have benefited from their parents sitting at my mother’s feet and from their parents’ knowledge that they could actually go to somebody who would not judge them, who would not hang the punitive threat over them that most families associated with child protection. I remember a grandmother in Harlem looking me in my eyes and, you know, being a good southern boy, I had to take it, and I talked about all of the improvements that we wanted to make and the community oriented approach we wanted to take and she, she said, you’re a liar. And no matter what I said, that was her position and that was her position because that was her experience with the staff that worked for me. And it took me going into that community Saturday after Saturday after Saturday to even begin to scratch the surface so that they might believe that we were trying to make a shift.

And what I’m saying to you is that here in Philadelphia, Anne-Marie I, I love ya but it comes with the territory. People believe that you are wrong in much of what you do. If you leave a child too long and something happens, how could you have done that? If you remove a child when others think that that child could have been safe at home, how could you have done that? But you have to keep making judgments and decisions and trying to engage people in this conversation so that not Anne-Marie can change Philadelphia but you can change Philadelphia. Because this has to become a community approach to change and I see that, that five minute sign is just shaking in somebody’s hands and I’m only about a quarter of the way done.

You know, one of our biggest challenges is, maybe I’ll get to another slide and not move on, one of our biggest challenges is that we have not yet addressed and acknowledged for ourselves that the child rescue strategies that formed the foundation on which our child welfare intervention was built were insufficient for community building and support then and they’re still insufficient for community building and support today. We built our foundation on a system that believed that it was acceptable to say the child is my client and I need to identify the needs of that child and address the needs of that child and fix that child separate from the family and the community. Our system’s foundation believed that it was acceptable to put parents in poor houses and to put kids on trains and to send those kids on those trains across the country, some of them never seeing their parents again in life.

That’s the foundation that we started with. And maybe that was the best that we could do then. But I’m hard pressed to believe that that’s the best that we can do now. And, you know, some of you may be believing that that was the, you talking about the 1800s, well I’m talking about the 1990s in New York City when we would remove a child in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn and, and put them in a car, not a train, in a car, and, and sometimes they got on the train, and take em out to some city in Long Island and put them in a home that was wonderful and it was a step up from what they had left behind in the blithe of Bedford-Stuyvesant but when they aged out of foster care in Long Island, they came back to the blithe of Bedford-Stuyvesant, with families that they had lost connection with.

If we’re gonna move to a community-oriented paradigm, if we’re gonna make this shift, we’ve gotta challenge every assumption that we’ve used to underlie who we say we are as a response system. And we have to begin to recognize that families and children and communities don’t exist separately. And that any response that we’re going to design has to always see a child in the context of a family and see a family in the context of a community. And when you can do that, you can see any intervention, whether it is government, whether it is philanthropy, whether it is a grass- roots community organization, you can see any of those interventions as a part of a community support network. And that is the way we begin to design this because when I asked the question, what’s the role of government, government of the people, for the people, by the people, unless you happen to be one of the people who’s abusing your child because then government steps in and has quite often designed responses and case plans in the absence of actually engaging parents.

Now thankfully we have family team decision-making, family group decision-making and a number of other methods that we’re using in some places today. We have lawyers for children who interact with lawyers for parents and for lawyers for, for the agency in some places. There are some jurisdictions that don’t have lawyers for children. So you’re in a court room trying to get the best solution but the parent has a lawyer, the city has a lawyer but the child doesn’t. We need to re-think the assumptions that underlie where we say that we’re going but when we begin to see children and families and communities in this context, we are then in a place where we are acknowledging that the five minute sign just rose up and that we cannot separate the poor condition of a child from the poor conditions of that family.

We cannot operate with an intervention strategy that seems to try and disconnect the future of that child from the destiny of the family. And neither can we build a response system that seeks to connect, disconnect both the child and the family from the ills of a community. And if you look at the communities where children are come from, they have, the poorest resources, they have the least amount of, of support, their, there’s a community in Clark County in Nevada, that’s Las Vegas, where most of the kids come from. For the last six to 10 years, there has not been a grocery store in that community. That may sound little. What if you had to take two buses to get groceries? What if to get fresh food and nutrition for your child, like fresh fruits and vegetables, you had to go on the other side of town but there was six McDonald’s, I’m sorry, McDonald’s don’t blame me, if there was six McDonald’s within walking distance, what is your child gonna eat?

There’s more, plenty more, that I wanna say and I wanna tell you that you should, there’ s a document outside that talks about a one city, one community strategy that was attempted in New York that was an effort to try and begin this conversation about integrated response paradigm. And, and please read it, if only the executive summary, please read it and think about how do you have this conversation in Philadelphia. Cause one question that I would ask also, is Philadelphia ready? Are you ready because the biggest challenge for me is leadership. Political leadership, appointed leadership and community leadership. And I will tell you point blank, after being a part of the one city strategy, this is not easy. Because you know why?

We’ve been designed where there was a commissioner for everything in New York City and that commissioner for everything, that’s everything. So every one of those circles had his own mission, his own mandates, his own funding streams and his own challenges and issues and when we would try to come together to see where they overlap and how do we resolve those? Well who’s gonna get credit? Whose staff is the lead staff? We had a instant response team in child protection that involved police, DA and child protection to try and deal with some of the issues and the longest fight was over who’s gonna do the interview. And it had to be the police cause they knew how to do it better than child welfare. It took years for us to try and work out the details but you need to come together and start to work out the details around how do we build a system that is not driven by government. It’s not driven by someone other than the communities that are impacted by it but that we’re all in it together.

And I’m gonna shut down because I’m getting, the sign changed and now I’m getting these stares. Is, but I will end you with where I would typically begin. The Masai tribe greets each other on every day, Masai tribe in Africa. And this is whether you have children or not children, you never expect to have children. Kasserian ingera. Kasserian ingera, asks the question: How are the children? And the tribal response from everyone in that tribe is sapati ingera. Sapati ingera says all the children are well. All of our children are not well. And we need to convince our national government that the issues that we’re dealing with, with vulnerable children and vulnerable families and vulnerable communities is just as important as the issue of national security because it is an issue of national insecurity.  Because the more insecure our children are, the more insecure, more and more of our families are, the more insecure more and more of our communities are, the more insecure America is becoming on the world stage.

And we need to have that conversation. We need to be willing to accept whatever criticism comes because we’re not just doing it for us today. We’re doing it for these kids and their families and their communities for tomorrow. And growing up in Mississippi, there was a, the Civil Rights movement had a song. He who believes in freedom cannot rest until it comes. And I would say to you, he who believes in justice for all, he who believes in equality for all, regardless of what ZIP code you come from, you see, there are ZIP codes that make up prison units across this country. And I don’t know that you, you may know that we spend $20 billion a year to house children in foster care in this country combined federal and state.

But do you also know that we spend an additional $10 billion a year to house almost 300,000 adults who used to be in foster care? He who believes in justice and equal opportunity and equal access for all of our children, not just my children and your children, but all of our children, cannot rest until that is the reality of America. I wish I had another 30 minutes, but thank you and God bless you.