Enhancing Social Services for Children, Youth, and Families

Article excerpt

The Children, Youth, and Families Initiative is broadening traditional "specialized" services in eight Chicago communities.

The United States is in a mood to fix things: from health care reform to welfare reform to school reform to campaign finance reform to tort reform. The social services - child welfare, mental health, juvenile justice, and others - are very much a part of this reform movement. For example, since 1976, child welfare departments have seen an increase of more than 330 percent in child abuse and neglect reports.(1) In 1994, the national rate of substantiated or indicated reports was 38 percent, representing over one million children.(2) By the end of 1993, the number of children in substitute care was 449,000, up from 340,000 five years earlier.(3) These and other pressures - including media attention, class-action litigation, and federal legislation - are combining to push child welfare agencies toward developing better ways to address child and parent problems and to respond to the caseloads they are confronting.

The reforms now under way generally accept the existing definition of social services and tend to focus on long-standing problems identified with them, including single-problem focuses; fragmentation; and centralized planning, financing, and control of existing services. It is possible, however, to start with a broader and more fundamental view of services for children and families and to adopt a definition of services that incorporates a range of now largely overlooked resources that can support the development and functioning of children and families and enhance the contributions of public welfare agencies.

These resources are activities, facilities, and events provided by organizations that are part of families' familiar social worlds. For children and youth, they include before- and after-school programs, religious youth groups, art and music programs, team sports, community service, and youth entrepreneurship opportunities. They also include opportunities specifically for parents, such as drop-in centers, parent education, parent support, and self-help programs - activities aimed at reinforcing parents' competence and enhancing their satisfaction in parenting and family life. For both children and parents, they offer access to the facilities and programs of parks, libraries, community centers, and settlement houses; local branches of national organizations like Boys and Girls Clubs and the Young Men's and Young Women's Christian Associations; and community-based grassroot organizations.

These resources are available for voluntary use, most often without an elaborate process of certifying need or eligibility. Through their roots in communities and their informal ways of relating to children and parents, they provide opportunities to develop the capacities needed to function adequately in childhood and adult life; they offer natural sources of help to vulnerable children and parents; and they strengthen what the traditional, problem-oriented services can achieve.

The Role and Importance of Primary Services

The Children, Youth, and Families Initiative is a $30 million, decadelong grant-making initiative to improve child and family services. Now in its fourth year and active in eight Chicago-area communities (see page 15), the initiative is testing a broadened definition of social services that includes not only the treatment - or specialized - services necessary for people experiencing difficulties, but also the resources described above, which focus on development. These primary services are a potentially powerful point of access for the existing social services and for a broadly redefined social-service system in which the primary and specialized services operate as full and complementary partners.(4)

Primary services promote individual capacities for coping and resilience. Moreover, some children and parents who can find help for problems early and easily among the primary services are less likely to need - or to need so profoundly - specialized services. …