Community-Building Principles: Implications for Professional Development

By Austin, Sandra | Child Welfare, March/April 2005 | Go to article overview

Community-Building Principles: Implications for Professional Development


Austin, Sandra, Child Welfare


This article reviews a Think Tank meeting among child welfare practitioners at the 2003 Building Communities for 21st-Century Child Welfare Symposium. The Child Welfare League of America's focus on community building is recognition of the vital importance of promoting and fostering collaboration with community members to enhance the well-being of children, families, and communities. The Think Tank participants responded to four questions concerning the knowledge, policies, and strategies that are needed for the development of strategies for community building and child welfare. This article highlights several of the findings of the preconference, which addressed the challenges and opportunities inherent in community-building practices and discusses the key principles that emerged from the Think Tank. The article emphasizes implications for professional education and cites selected examples of innovative community-building initiatives with families.

The challenges facing children and families involved with the child welfare system cannot be solved by child welfare agencies alone. They require the concerted efforts of community members and collaboration among a range of human service agencies. Community building offers just that opportunity.

The Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) recognizes the importance of community building. CWLA began to address this issue by forming an advisory committee on community building to advise its membership on engaging in community-building activities. In 2003, following the release of its Making Children a National Priority: A Framework for Community Action (Morgan, Spears, & Caplan, 2003), CWLA joined with the Boston Children's Institute, one of the oldest and largest child welfare agencies, and the University at Albany's School of Social Welfare to cosponsor a symposium, Building Communities for 21st-century Child Welfare, to promote community-building activities in the country. This article highlights several of the findings of a preconference meeting called a Think Tank, which addressed the challenges and opportunities inherent in community-building practices. Forty Think Tank members, who represented child welfare administration, policy, practice, and education, convened to outline promising community-building models and strategies. This article discusses key principles that emerged from the Think Tank, emphasizes implications for professional education, and cites examples of innovative community-building initiatives with families.

Community building is defined as an opportunity for families, communities, and agencies to work collaboratively to enhance support for families in communities (Naparstek & Dooley, 1997; Weil, 1996). Community building focuses on developing and strengthening social networks in a community to support families' emotional, social, and economic needs. One of its objectives is to create an environment that fosters members' participation in issues of community concern. Equally important is the creation of local leaders who can partner with external institutions to enhance the well-being of the community (Hirota, Brown, & Martin, 1996). CWLA and many other groups working with vulnerable families concur that child welfare involvement may be reduced when families are less socially isolated and more involved with neighbors and their community (Halpern, 1999; Morgan et al., 2003; Schorr, 1997).

Adoption of a community-building approach with families requires that social service professionals have requisite skills and knowledge. Professional development is a critical element in the successful adoption of community-building skills for work with vulnerable families. Social work's historic mission has been to help individuals and families in communities mobilize and support the well-being of those in need (Specht & Courtney, 1994). Consequently, community building is not a new principle, but it has a long history in social work.

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