Children's Voice Mar/Apr 2007

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Launching CreatingParenting-Rich Communities

CWLA's Program Director for Parenting reflects on lessons learned from piloting a national initiative.

By Jo Johnson

First of two articles After several successful years of working together on positive parenting issues, CWLA and the Prudential Foundation expanded its parenting efforts in 2003 by launching the Creating Parenting-Rich Communities Initiative (CPRC).

The initiative came about when CWLA member agencies asked the League to advance best practices to strengthen parents' abilities to raise their children well. Members who for decades had looked to CWLA for direction in intervening when families fell apart and children were removed from their homes wanted the League to advance the support of all parents before tragedy struck.

Confident in CWLA's ability to develop and disseminate needed parenting resources, the Prudential Foundation responded to this call for positive parent support with a three-year, $1.35 million grant for CPRC. The foundation asked CWLA to develop a way to guide communities in becoming rich in the resources necessary to promote the development of children and youth birth to age 20 and to create a national CPRC model based in part on work at pilot sites in Jacksonville, Florida; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Newark, New Jersey.

In leading this effort for CWLA and working with the pilot cities, I made two important discoveries: Many communities don't have data on parents, and using a one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work when rolling out a national initiative in different areas of the country.

Although all three pilot communities had data on the well-being of their children and youth, none could answer two simple questions: Who's raising kids here, and how are they doing? Data on a community's adults often is scattered across city and county departments and nonprofit agencies that have little interaction with child-serving agencies and counties. The data rarely distinguishes adults raising children from adults who are not.

Working with the three pilot sites, I realized that building parent support networks requires very different strategies in different communities. Across the field, we lack strategies that work within the community's stage of development. Though we give lip service to "beginning where the community is," we don't have the knowledge and tools readily available to allow us to do this effectively in diverse communities. Without this information, we cannot accurately plan for the successful implementation of initiatives across the nation.

Every how-to manual I reviewed about beginning a national initiative listed the same standard steps: starting with a community assessment, building a leadership team, taking action, and evaluating outcomes. Few guides addressed the thorny issues that often arise along the way, although many mention in general that obstacles may come up and should be addressed.

Since launching CPRC, we have developed an array of resources, including two different guides--a process guide that explains how to implement CPRC, and a design guide that outlines effective programs, practices, and policies when building parents' capacity to care for their kids. This information and more is available online at www.cwla.org/parenting.

In addition to our continuing work with the pilots, we are hearing from other communities interested in participating in CPRC, including Syracuse, New York, and we hope to hear from more.

Understanding the Strengths and Needs of Parents

Data Gathering

Having limited information on parents makes the task of developing comprehensive parent supports difficult. How do we know what to do for parents if we don't know who they are? And what data is important to consider?

When the CPRC leadership team in Jacksonville took on the task of learning more about their community's parenting population, they discovered three significant issues:
  • The rate of domestic violence calls and sexually transmitted infections was much higher in their county than in surrounding areas.

  • The community appeared to have no mental health issues, because no mental health facilities for adults existed in the county.

  • The vast majority of kinship care providers were concentrated in the poorest neighborhoods.
The effort required to gather this much information was overwhelming--and even when it was found, the information on adult well-being clearly was not connected to outcomes for children and youth.

To help communities better understand their parent populations, CWLA has developed important parent indicators to consider. Each indicator reflects either a risk or a protective factor involved in child abuse and neglect, risky youth behaviors, and domestic violence, or indicators that have been identified in parent surveys as an essential component in raising children.

We hope cities, towns, universities, and nonprofit organizations will add a parent page to their community reports on conditions for children and youth, with information reflecting both numbers and percentages. For cities and towns with very little data on parents, CWLA has added links to its online CRPC resources about ways to estimate numbers of parents, based on the best thinking of national organizations, to help communities create an accurate profile of parents.

Community Strengths and Needs

An online search for community needs assessment information will yield a range of tools and resources. Some will focus on inventorying existing programs and supports for specific neighborhoods or populations. Some will direct you to identify strengths of community residents, faith organizations, and grassroots organizations. Others will guide you in collecting information around social issues or target populations to gain an understanding of specific problems in one's community.

Although each of these approaches is helpful in learning about aspects of a community, none creates a big picture from which to begin. For instance, one of the most common approaches involves inventorying existing programs and services. This is helpful in identifying where services are needed and what gaps exist for different groups of people. If, however, you use this process to assess community needs and strengths, information will emerge that creates solutions around developing more programs, which may or may not address the social issues fully.

From our work with the CPRC pilot sites, we recommend communities take stock of existing programs and supports after they look at how their parents, children, and families are doing, and after selecting a focus for action. Knowing how that focus area is already being addressed is essential when planning for positive change. If you conduct this inventory when rolling out an initiative, you may have to repeat it when developing an action plan.

Community Readiness

Many initiatives prompt communities to consider how ready they are to roll out a particular initiative. If a community determines it is not ready, moving forward is not encouraged. This may be sage advice for some communities, but does it apply to all of them?

Most community readiness models direct communities to examine aspects of social capital and organizational capacity. Others consider the levels of awareness and readiness to act to promote change. All three areas are important to understand when beginning work with any community. The information can help determine next steps, identify outcomes, and estimate timelines and costs for making change. If used fully, community readiness information can potentially guide organizers in strengthening community and organizational capacity as they roll out initiatives.

Working with Communities at Different Stages of Development

Most of the current available information on community building is based on work in poor neighborhoods where families are in tatters, few resources exist, and residents are pessimistic about the possibility conditions will improve. Although this body of information is useful to our work in extremely challenged communities, it does not guide our efforts in the wide range of communities we engage in change.

All of the guides on how to replicate national initiatives are based on work with pilot sites selected for their ability to take on specific projects with a likelihood of success. In identifying local partners, national organizations solicit proposals that are screened for strengths and readiness. The process evaluations of such efforts tell us a great deal about how to work with communities that have these internal and external capacities in place.

The resulting materials and guides work well for like communities but, again, do not prepare or address the strengths and deficits of the range of towns and cities interested in replicating an initiative.

The good news is that we have developed strong resources for working with communities at two stages of development. The bad news is that we don't understand that our current body of knowledge is limited, and many of us are trying to apply it to the places where we live and work without understanding its limitations. When initiatives and programs fail or have limited success, we are not questioning our approach, we are blaming each other, holding individuals and organizations responsible for poor results--sort of like blaming your feet for poorly fitting shoes.

Differences in communities became evident from CWLA's very first meetings with the CPRC pilot sites. To work effectively with all three cities, we had to review the existing knowledge and explore new ones. Two especially helpful sources have been an understanding of community life cycles, as developed by the Harwood Institute of Public Innovation, and the research on building social capital, advanced by Robert Putnam at the Saguaro Seminar at Harvard University. [For more on building social capital, see Management Matters.]

In the account of our initial contacts with pilot sites, you can see how each city differed in the relationships between people, or social capital.

Launching the Pilot Sites

The Prudential Foundation provided generous funding for CPRC with few strings attached. It gave us unheard of freedom to transform a concept--building a network that supports parents--into community action, stipulating only that we pilot this work in three cities where the foundation maintains regional offices and a large workforce.

By designating the pilot sites for CPRC, and foregoing a request for proposals (RFP), the Prudential Foundation gave CWLA the opportunity to develop an initiative in such a way that it could work with communities at very different stages of community life. We had to move this work beyond the usual one-size-fits-all approach to implementing an initiative tailored to each pilot site. Although it would have been much easier for us to follow the typical RFP process to select our teams, having designated cities forced us to integrate diverse concepts and bodies of knowledge from the very beginning of our  work.

Months before hosting community meetings, CWLA staff made dozens of phone calls to member agencies in the three cities. CWLA's extensive network of member organizations and regional offices connected us with many topnotch public and private nonprofit agencies involved in supporting parents of children and youth. We asked about local conditions and contact information for key community leaders.

During these conversations, we identified existing collaborative groups and their meeting schedules, and planned for additional meetings to reach a range of professionals across systems. We also reached out to individuals and organizations to begin building buy-in within each community, and mailed and e-mailed CPRC materials before and after these calls.

To launch this initiative, we followed the best advice of existing guides and organizations on community building, but we were totally unprepared for what happened when we hit the ground.

In Jacksonville we met with more than 40 organizations in two days. We joined established meetings of professionals, and had lunch with key community leaders. It was a whirlwind of activity welcomed by everyone. People heard about comprehensive parent support and were eager to sign on. There was a sense they could work together and take on any issue, including this one.

Jacksonville's initial meetings were so positive that the responses we received in the next two cities were completely unexpected. In Newark, we again tapped into CWLA's network of member agencies, asking questions about the city and its families, and mailing informational materials. We joined existing meetings and hosted our own gatherings, including a catered luncheon. In one day, we met with professionals and community activists from more than 30 organizations. We introduced the CPRC Initiative in much the same way as we had in Jacksonville, but received a very different response.

At the Newark luncheon, people seemed polite with one another, but a bit cautious. They noticed who sat next to whom and what organizations were represented at the table. No one interrupted a gentleman from a local foundation who dominated the introductions with his ideas on how New York City solutions should be transplanted to Newark. Although I had very little time remaining to present the initiative, the meeting seemed to go fairly well. Foundation representatives voiced interest, and we detected some subtle jostling among professionals for consideration as our local partner in the  work.

Later that day, we joined a meeting of the Save the Children Task Force, a key group in Newark representing professional agencies and community groups. After sharing materials and walking through our Power Point presentation, we asked for questions, but we got rage. We were accused of coming to Newark without regard for what the city needed, as well as taking advantage of recent increases in funding attached to a court-ordered state child welfare reform plan. We were also cited for not providing enough funding for local partners. Each participant, one after the other, voiced strong objections to the CPRC Initiative. Nothing we could say would assuage their anger, and they weren't mincing words in expressing their concerns.

We felt like we had stepped on a beehive.

One woman in the group must have taken pity on me and my other CWLA colleague, because she asked the group to calm down a bit. She didn't seem to like us much either, but she wasn't feeling the need to run us out of town--at least not yet.

With a break in the tension, we stopped being professionals with an agenda to achieve. We sat down and began talking with members of the Save the Children Task Force in as straightforward a manner as we were receiving. We acknowledged that people were angry and had a right to be.

Unknown to us at the time, we were not the first national organization to offer help, and many believed we were only interested in cashing in on local tragedies to promote our own agenda. The people at the table were tired of being the focus of assistance only as long as the funding continued, and they refused to be helped in ways determined by national organizations.

Although this initiative allowed local partners in each pilot city to identify and address the needs of their parents, people in Newark were suspicious. We were aware of the recent deaths of children in foster care in the city, and the broad child welfare reform plan, but we didn't realize how people felt about these events. We backed up and began again by first hearing them fully. Very gently, we noted how this initiative was to be defined and driven by the local partner. Then we asked for their help, despite their skepticism that the CPRC Initiative could be of any use to the families of Newark.

Still smarting from the angry reception of Newark, we moved on to Minneapolis. Again, we made phone calls and contacts through member agencies, and we determined meeting locations ahead of time. The first meeting was sparsely attended. Only three people came to the table that morning, and there was little positive energy or interest in the CPRC Initiative. Folks were gracious, but unimpressed.

In the second meeting, I was pleased to see that eight to nine people had joined us, though we had expected a larger crowd. After lunch, I presented information on this initiative and held my breath for their response. After Jacksonville and Newark, I should have been prepared for anything, but this community's response caught me off guard.

Professionals in Minneapolis are some of the brightest I've seen. They have a long history of successful collaboration resulting in incredible networks of support for children, families, and youth. They could see that, in its infancy, CPRC was a concept in development. They knew the cost that would be required to move this initiative forward and were openly skeptical of the initial funding available. Each person in the room could identify reasons why CPRC would not be of value in Minneapolis.

Although I knew abut recent state budget cuts to human services in Minnesota, I didn't realize that decades of work had been dropped and entire support systems cut. Overnight, they had lost crisis nurseries and parent education, as well as many other major advances for which they had fought long and hard to put into place. The CPRC Initiative did not appear to meet the needs they faced after such severe cuts.

I left Minneapolis stinging from their honesty and amazed at the skill and knowledge of every person I had met. I returned to Washington, DC, to regroup, wondering if I had made the right career move by taking this on. Determined not to fail, I set out to try to understand why each community had reacted so differently to my invitation. How were these three cities alike? How were they different? And how might this initiative be adapted to fit each one in a meaningful way?

Advancing the Initiative

Although the atmosphere at the initial meetings in each city was very different, all three communities have made great strides in strengthening parent supports over the past two years under the CPRC Initiative. I have made dozens more trips to each site to facilitate the process, keep the focus on parents, and provide technical assistance.

The two-year process these cities have gone through is an example of how if we tap into the experience of others from multiple disciplines and systems, we can advance our work in rolling out community initiatives. What they have learned may help all of us spend less time making the same mistakes.

Jo Johnson LCSW is CWLA's Project Director for Parenting. Read more in the May/June issue of Children's Voice about how Jacksonville, Minneapolis, and Newark have tackled the CRPC Initiative and what they are doing today to reach out to parents.

What Is a Parenting-Rich Community?

A parenting-rich community values families and the roles of parents and caregivers. It supports parents and caregivers from all backgrounds raising children from infancy through young adulthood.

Resources, information, and supports are abundant and readily available in parenting-rich communities. Public perceptions of parents and parenting expand to recognize that parents need support throughout their children's lives. Investing in parents is seen as a wise use of resources, not only because it prevents many serious problems for children and youth, but because it recognizes what all parents want for their children, which is the very best.

A parenting-rich community is aware of how systems affect parents and their children. The community takes responsibility for building on its strengths and remedying its weaknesses to build a comprehensive support network that nurtures parents and helps all children thrive. Public policy decisions on such topics as economic development, zoning, education, and social, recreational, and cultural services are made with an understanding of their effects on parents and their parenting role. It is a community where supporting parents in the wonderful, difficult, and challenging task of raising children is seen as fundamental to the community's social and economic well-being.


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