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Children's Voice Article, November 2001

Rural Child Welfare 101

by Kelly Mack and Steve Boehm

A great disconnect exists between rural and urban areas, resulting in misconceptions and misunderstandings. Many people believe, for example, that rural areas are purely agricultural, though only 6.3% of rural Americans actually live on farms. And this is only the beginning of what the nation's urban citizens don't know about rural America, despite the fact that a significant portion of the U.S. population lives and works in rural areas.*

Of course, rural and urban families, and the communities they live in, are probably more similar than not. Their basic needs remain the same: Rural families and children need jobs, housing, and education. They want to be safe and happy. Rural and urban communities also face similar challenges-among them, child maltreatment, substance abuse, crime and violence, and poverty-but the way in which these problems manifest themselves differs between urban and rural communities, and they often require different solutions.

For example, the rural economy is fragile and dominated by low-wage jobs; rural workers are more likely to earn minimum wage and generally have lower incomes than workers in cities or the suburbs. In 1997, the median rural wage was $9,000 less than the median urban wage. In 1999, during the height of the nation's economic boom, more than 25% of rural hourly and salaried workers over age 25 earned full-time wages below the federal poverty level of $17,000 for a family of four. Of the 250 poorest counties in the United States, 244 are rural.

Poverty is only one issue that many people tend to paint in urban colors. Child welfare workers in rural areas grapple with abuse and neglect, adoption, education, health, and crime-just like their urban counterparts. With the added complexities of rural geography and resources, working in rural child welfare means being a jack-of-all-trades.

The Rural Landscape

Using Montana as an example, Chuck Hunter, Director of Child and Family Services in Montana and Cochair of CWLA's National Advisory Committee on Rural Social Services (NACRSS), highlights the differences between urban and rural communities, and the impact on services.

Montana is primarily rural, with only seven cities with populations of 20,000 or greater. This translates to a vast expanse of land with low populations, which raises the expense of services because of the distances between clients. Because only a few people are available to implement a limited variety of services, such distances make job specialization nearly impossible, as well as the ability to provide the assortment of services available in highly populated or geographically small urban centers.

Hunter also describes how the different norms of rural communities can affect child welfare. Distances between neighbors tend to heighten a sense of self-reliance and privacy. Because, traditionally, rural populations have been more stable than in urban areas, many people have known each other for long periods, leading to a strong sense of community. This, and an agricultural tradition of helping others and cooperating to make due with limited resources, often means less reporting of abuse and neglect.

Frustrated by the lack of many basic services in rural America, NACRSS Cochair Charlie Baker, CEO of the Presbyterian Child Welfare Agency and Buckhorn Children's Foundation in Buckhorn, Kentucky, notes the irony in the fact that the first action by the U.S. military in Haiti was to supply fresh water, while many rural communities in the United States are struggling to develop that infrastructure.

"It's a crime we don't have drinking water, crime protection, fire protection, or trash pick up," Baker says, opining that the government and most urban dwellers use rural America as a supplier of food, energy, and resources and as a dumping ground for trash. "[They] see rural areas as places to exploit."

CWLA and Rural Child Welfare

Although rural child welfare is complicated by a lack of resources, one resource that does exist is the leadership emerging from rural communities to advocate for change. Tapping into that resource, CWLA is engaging in discussions with rural child welfare leaders to better understand the situation from the perspective of rural experts.

CWLA Deputy Director Shirley Marcus-Allen says the League's efforts in rural child welfare began with informal discussions about 10 years ago. The National Advisory Committee on Rural Social Services, which met for the first time at CWLA's 2000 National Conference, is surveying the League's rural members to gain a better picture of services available in rural areas, identify challenges to rural service delivery, and map out next steps. NACRSS is a vital part of CWLA's activities, considering 23% of its member agencies serve communities with populations of fewer than 10,000 people.

Mike Cumnock, Executive Director of the Arkansas Sheriffs' Boys and Girls Ranches, in Batesville, Arkansas, explains that standards that work in urban communities aren't always realistic for rural areas. For instance, weekly supervisory visits to foster homes aren't always possible because of the large distances and the amount of traveling involved. "The whole country is not urban," he says. "We are diverse." Understanding this is key to working with the differences in rural areas. "Policies sometimes don't take into consideration that a standard cannot be applied the same in New York City as in Lake Woebegone, Minnesota."

"The notion of cultural competence takes on a different meaning" when working in rural areas, Marcus-Allen says. "It's the dynamics of how people relate and interrelate. Outsiders cannot easily understand; it takes time to understand and appreciate the functioning of rural communities and respecting what they bring."

Convening the expertise of the NACRSS is an important step in raising the awareness of CWLA and its membership, beginning the journey of expanding rural child welfare and educating government and the public about what rural communities need.

Marcus-Allen recalls a visit she made with a social worker to a Native American community, also known as a "remote community." They traveled an hour and a half by car to visit a family where sexual abuse was reported. When they arrived, the mother wasn't there. This often happens because families may not have telephones or workers cannot be reached while travelling because cellular phones don't have reception in many rural areas. To make the most of the trip, social workers must plan several visits, so if they miss someone, they have other places to visit in the vicinity.

Problems and Policy

One of the more frequent problems in rural areas is policies that hurt the constituents they are meant to help. In the Native American community Marcus-Allen visited, child welfare workers were struggling to change a requirement that adoptive homes have electricity and running water. Because so few homes on reservations meet these requirements, children were being placed in homes hundreds of miles away, despite the fact that otherwise more appropriate homes were located closer to the children's cultural and social supports. Although no one would argue that electricity and running water are preferred living conditions, workers questioned whether such factors were inappropriately prioritized in a region where they were scarce.

As diverse populations move to rural communities, they face unique challenges. Gabriella Lemus, Policy and Legislative Director at the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) in Washington, DC, points out that immigrant families struggle with making a home, becoming part of a community, and gaining services. Because they move frequently, families of migrant children are not as focused on becoming part of a community but rather on finding services and coping with location changes.

Leaving records behind as the family travels is a problem. If the family loses children's immunization records, children may have to be revaccinated to enter school, causing health concerns. The children are frequently caught between clashing cultural demands and face language and cultural problems because they are learning English and serving as communicators for their families.

Children may drop out of school to care for younger siblings or to help the family earn enough to stay afloat. These conflicts become harder to cope with if children and families don't have access to appropriate resources. To complicate matters, Lemus says, "a lot of these kids don't have strong advocates at the national level," particularly because migrant and immigrant children are not considered to be members of American society.

Making the Most of Resources

Rural child welfare professionals know that rural people have strengths to combat the challenges. Cumnock explains that although, historically, they have had fewer resources, "rural [areas are] much more efficient with what they have." This often means one person wears several hats and may be more able than an urban counterpart to understand how issues connect and interrelate to affect a situation.

It also means "referrals for services are made people to people," Cumnock says. People are not referred to agencies but to another person, someone they may know and feel comfortable calling. A downside to the closeness of rural communities, however, is that because everyone knows everyone else, some people may fear being stigmatized and not seek the help they need.

Kathleen Belanger, Director of Rural Education Access for Child Welfare (REACH) at the Stephen F. Austin State University School of Social Work in Nacogdoches, Texas, says, "Social capital is a real key to success in rural communities. [They] have the ability to trust and build systems based on trust. [They are] a very resourceful people because they are disadvantaged." She warns, however, that policies implemented by urban centers reduce this ability to rely on trust, a core value of rural areas, causing backlash against the people and government trying to help them.

Belanger says the lessons and accomplishments of rural child welfare workers could greatly benefit their urban peers and be adapted as creative solutions in urban areas. But getting the word out about rural successes is not easy. The press, she notes, "is an urban press in urban centers and [provides] access to urban things." Rural thought isn't often represented in the media, so policymakers make mistakes when crafting rural policy because they don't get an accurate picture of what rural areas need or want.

With its survey of rural agencies, and a special issue of CWLA's Child Welfare journal on rural child welfare in 2002, NACRSS is focusing on getting the story of rural child welfare and the successes of rural communities publicized. It also wants to increase rural membership in CWLA. Currently, more than 75% of the League's members are from urban areas, thus promoting an urban focus. By building understanding among CWLA members, NACRSS hopes to increase public awareness about the importance of child welfare in rural communities.

Listening and Learning

Stressing the need to understand the cultural differences of rural regions, Kentucky's Baker points out that diversity is not only about race and ethnicity, but also geography. He tells of an organization working in Appalachia that asked Buckhorn for help because, although it worked well with women and various racial groups, it had no experience with Appalachian cultural differences.

Listening is key to developing "cultural safety," where people feel they are included and respected, Baker says. "Any time you provide care, the responsibility is on you not to offend their culture so they can feel safe." Baker stresses the importance of child welfare workers doing their homework to learn about cultural differences, but above all they need to sit back, listen, and learn.

Chuck Fluharty, Director of the Rural Policy Research Institute (RUPRI), Columbia, Missouri, sees a "significant gap in public policy awareness and constituency for rural children and families." RUPRI conducts policy research and promotes public dialogue on such rural issues as child welfare, education, health, and transportation to help policymakers understand the rural impact of public policies and programs. RUPRI also works closely with the Congressional Rural Caucus and other rural groups to collect and disseminate information.

Fluharty says rural children and families lack a strong voice. NACRSS excites him because CWLA is a respected national organization. Having CWLA raise awareness about rural child welfare issues, he asserts, will be a great resource for improving the lives of children and families in rural areas. "It is critical that CWLA take a lead," he says. "This is one of the most important things to have occurred in the last few years in rural public policy."

Fluharty is further encouraged by what he sees on the horizon. The Senate Finance Committee has a decidedly rural perspective, which he hopes will help when determining how and where money is spent. With several committee members from western states, he also believes Native American interests will be better represented.

As 2000 census data is analyzed, Fluharty says we will understand more about who rural families are and what their needs are, making action to improve the lives of rural people more effective. The bipartisan Congressional Rural Caucus just celebrated its second anniversary as a voice for rural communities, and there is a growing national rural network of nongovernmental organizations and associations working on building rural constituencies and supporting informal communication, advocacy, and discussion.

In July, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) created a Rural Task Force to examine how federal programs can improve health care and social services in rural communities. The task force will search for regulatory and statutory barriers to serving rural people, examine how HHS can strengthen existing programs, and explore ways to enhance service delivery at the state level. CWLA submitted recommendations to HHS in September.

Equally important, organizations such as CWLA have started rural components (like NACRSS) that let rural workers know they are not alone. Fluharty says this is important because "discouragement is worse in this sector than any other. The framework has tended to not be there."

The Big Picture

Although many of the problems facing families are the same, rural child welfare work involves different complications and solutions than in urban areas. Sani-tation, running water, and electricity are part of the mix because lack of these key ingredients can threaten children's health and safety. Rural child welfare also involves other challenges, such as lack of resources, large distances, and communication problems.

Urban methods don't always translate well to the realities of rural life, and it's important to continue educating each other about the uniqueness of rural regions. But experts in rural child welfare agree rural communities have great strengths and offer creative solutions to their unique challenges.

"CWLA is engaging people like Chuck Hunter, Charlie Baker, and Kathleen Belanger in an effort to learn from their experiences, but also to incorporate the concerns and needs of rural America into the greater child welfare agenda," says Jorge Velazquez, Director of the League's Cultural Competence Division. "For many years, rural issues have not generally been part of 'mainstream' child welfare advocacy. If we're going to say we are culturally competent, rural child and family issues have to be part of the picture."

Belanger describes the ideal she imagines for rural communities. "I'd like to see rural children, families, and people have equal access to the goods of this nation and thrive without living in poverty, working two jobs, making ends meet, and leaving home for a quality education and a decent living."

Kelly Mack is an Associate Editor for CWLA. Steve Boehm is CWLA Assistant Director of Publications and Editor-in-Chief of Children's Voice.

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