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Fostering Strengths, Not Just Red Flags

Once they learned how to talk like real people, workers with Illinois' child welfare agency started spreading the word of strengthening families.
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The Carole Robertson Center for Learning on the near West Side of Chicago cares for children as young as 6 weeks old while their parents — 78 percent of whom are single mothers, 63 percent of whom live at or below the federal poverty line — are at work, sometimes for as long as 12 hours a day. Babies crawl across the floor of the nursery, a bright room lined with cribs and so fastidiously cleaned that adults must don disposable booties over their shoes just to enter.

The infants graduate across the hall of the $4 million extension to one of four rooms designed specifically for the day care and development of 15- to 36-month-olds, who sit studiously tackling Play-Doh pizza and group sing-alongs. At age 3, those children move upstairs, where the games grow more complex and the wall art more impressive. If they stay with the center, they'll one day move to the older building next door that houses the computer lab, music room, art studio and pool table that cater to elementary and high school students.

On a morning just before the start of the school year, two dozen 8- to 10-year-olds were in the art studio scrawling geometric designs across construction paper. "Some of them have been with us since they were infants," said Gail Nelson, the center's chief executive officer.

The Carole Robertson Center, which has three sites in this neighborhood, was one of those visited by the Center for the Study of Social Policy when it scoured the country for early child care centers that — knowingly or not — seemed to be doing a good job of supporting families less likely to mistreat their children.

"We have always operated on the assumption that all parents love their kids, and all parents want to do right by their kids," Nelson said. "We live in communities at risk of a lot of things that are mostly caused by poverty and family stress, and it's not caused by anyone's bad intentions."

As with many of the sites CSSP studied, the Carole Robertson Center (named after one of the four girls killed in the 1963 Birmingham, Ala., church bombing) did not explicitly think of itself as working to prevent child abuse. But in 2008 when the staff researched its records for the CSSP, Nelson found that the center had made but nine calls to the child abuse reporting hotline in the previous 10 years. And only one of them resulted in the removal of a child.

That, Nelson says now, is remarkable for an organization that cares for 700 children under 18 every day, while employing 185 adults who are required by law to report signs of abuse or neglect. The success is a result, Nelson believes, of preventive involvement by child care workers who know intimately not just every child at the center, but each of their parents as well.

The programs that almost inadvertently support that goal developed organically over time, not with any grand strategic plan or sociological study in mind. The center initially offered after-school programs for middle-school and older children in the mid-1970s. Parents who moaned that they couldn't afford gym memberships later asked to use the center's facilities after-hours for adult volleyball. They took turns watching each other's children in an adjacent room.

Not long after that, Nelson says parental gossip in the hallway got a little bawdy one night, and staff moved parents into an empty classroom. One woman sat down and pulled out her knitting needles, and the center's first parent support group — "stitch 'n' bitch" it was called — was born.

Today, the Carole Robertson Center offers everything from individual developmental assessments for children to adult education classes, family cultural outings and social services — each of which, in an overlapping way, helps build the "protective factors" CSSP has identified that help reduce child maltreatment.

"It all really developed from the ground up - none of it was imposed on anyone," Nelson said. "It just sort of grew in response to what people said they needed. And that's really the description of the whole agency."

The state of Illinois has been one of the most enthusiastic adopters of CSSP's "strengthening families" model, from the early child care centers Judy Langford initially targeted to the state welfare agencies, schools and learning networks to which the ideas have spread.

Erwin McEwen and his eight siblings were raised in the now demolished Robert Taylor Homes public housing project on Chicago's South Side. "I looked at those protective factors," he said of CSSP's research, "and I thought about how they played out in my family as a child that got me to where I'm at."

His parents had the "resiliency" to keep their children isolated amid stressful challenges — a lost job, neighborhood violence — and the "social connections" to get them out of the city to spend summers with family in Mississippi. Today, McEwen is the director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, an agency that has renewed its mission around CSSP's ideas.

McEwen tells people his agency doesn't want to raise children; it wants to protect them by strengthening their families. This is a direct echo of CSSP's mantra.

"It puts into child welfare, and the child abuse equation, protective factors which have never been there before," McEwen said. "It's always been risk factors, risk assessments, predicting harmful outcomes."

The shift is particularly welcome, McEwen said, among caseworkers who lament being viewed simply as antagonists who snatch up children when nothing else can be done. The Illinois DCFS now trains every caseworker and private contractor in the protective factors — in the idea that they must look for and foster a family's strengths, and not just its red flags.

It's not a coincidence, McEwen suspects, that the state has one of the lowest child removal rates in the country.

"What Strengthening Families did was make us look at this thing as an adoptive challenge," McEwen said. "That means folks are going to have to change behavior, are going to have to change how they speak about things, are going to have to change attitudes - which is a lot different than saying, 'OK, here's the new checklist, go out and do it.'"

About five years ago, the Illinois DCFS began funding a campaign aimed at spreading the protective factors beyond agency professionals and child care providers to one group CSSP had not originally made plans for: parents.

CSSP gave a local presentation on the protective factors to an audience that included several parent leaders. Afterward, one father stood up to object.

"They went through a whole beautiful research-based spiel and threw it out there," recalled Letechia Holmes, one of those parent leaders, "and [this father] said, 'I don't get this. You've got something good that's for families. Parents should be a part of this. Just give it to us straight.'"

The "protective factors" had a clinical jargon problem.

As several other states have since done as well, the Strengthening Families Illinois network — which includes the Carole Robertson Center — set about repackaging the ideas into more accessible language.

"We really tried to get underneath what each of these meant, what does 'resiliency' mean, and how would you talk about it?" said Lina Cramer, a Strengthening Families Illinois consultant (and mother). "Nobody talks about how, 'Oh, I don't feel too resilient today.'"

The group settled on six more digestible messages: Parents must be strong and flexible. Parents need friends. Being a great parent is part natural and part learned. We all need help sometimes. Parents need to help their children communicate. And parents must give their children the love and support they need.

Those tenets were packaged under a single campaign framed with the help of a marketing firm: "Love is not enough to keep your family strong."

"We decided to put it right up there — it's not about whether we love our kids or not, because we love them," Cramer said. "But we don't always know what to do, or we're at our wit's end, or life happens."

That message is certainly more forgiving — and universal — than "stats suggest you're at high risk for abusing your child; please come to an intervention."

Strengthening Families Illinois now runs a series of "parent cafés" across the state where trained parent leaders, like Holmes, lead other parents through discussions about the protective factors. The groups talk about parents taking care of themselves, as well as their children. Clinical professionals are replaced by the wisdom of other parents. And there's usually pizza.

About 4,000 parents in the state have so far come through a café. Dara Griffin turned up for one after seeing a poster.

"It said 'free child care' and 'free dinner,' and that's all I needed," she said. "It was the reason I went. It didn't even matter what the topic was. I just needed a break, and other adults, some adult conversation, a break from my kids. A day where I didn't have to cook dinner or think about what dinner was going to be."

At the time, she had three children under 7. Now she leads cafés herself.

Langford never envisioned this outgrowth of a project that at first narrowly focused on places like the Carole Robertson Center.

"The parent side of it was a wonderful, welcome aspect," Langford said, "and I think it has as much potential to really change the way people think about child abuse and prevention as anything that any agency or anybody else could do."