Children's Voice May/June 2007

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Creating Parenting-Rich Communities: A Tale of Three Cities

By Jennifer Michael

Second of two articles Three years ago, CWLA embarked on a nationwide effort to advance best practices to strengthen parents' abilities to raise their children well. The Prudential Foundation awarded CWLA a $1.35 million grant to launch and test-pilot the Creating Parenting-Rich Communities (CPRC) initiative in three cities--Jacksonville, Florida; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Newark, New Jersey.

As the lead on the project, Jo Johnson, CWLA's Project Director for Parenting, set about traveling and networking within the three cities to find groups and individuals willing to take on the project. In the March/April issue of Children's Voice, Johnson shared the challenges of launching a national initiative in different parts of the country facing different types of issues, and how the process eventually unfolded at each site. In this issue, we take a closer look at how the pilot sites have been engaging parents, and what their goals are for this, their final year of the initiative, and beyond.

Newark: Collaborating to Support Kinship Providers

When Newark, New Jersey, adopted CWLA's CPRC effort, the city was already in the throes of working to improve the operations and profile of its child welfare system following the death of 7-year-old Faheem Williams.

In January 2003, the boy's emaciated body was found stuffed in a plastic container in the Newark home of his mother's cousin. New Jersey's child welfare system had been alerted about the boy's family in the past, but the warning signs got lost in the system's caseload.

Gwendolyn Harris, New Jersey Commissioner of Human Resources at the time, organized a series of "save the children" days across the state. The first was launched in Newark.

"What she said to us, and unfortunately it was true, was that Faheem was not the first death, and he would not be the last death," recalls Marge Woods, President and CEO of Independence: A Family of Services, based in Newark. "And if the community did not wake up and begin to take collective responsibility and action for the children and families they are living next door to, then there were always going to be Faheems. We took that message and ran with it and developed the Save the Children Task Force."

Out of the task force grew the Greater Essex Council of Child Welfare Collaboratives--a group of human service professionals and community leaders who are contributing to the state's child welfare reform plan on a community level. CWLA partnered with this group in the CPRC initiative.

When CWLA first entered the scene in Newark, Woods admits the Collaboratives were leery about yet another outsider coming to examine Newark's problems and using the city as its test tube. But when CWLA's Johnson kept coming back again and again, promoting the CPRC initiative, the Collaboratives began to warm to the idea, says Woods, Cochair of the Collaboratives.

CPRC has not only helped members of the Collaboratives to learn how to work better together and realize the importance of their work, Woods acknowledges, the initiative has helped Newark focus its parenting support efforts on the city's large population of kinship care providers.

Johnson helped the Collaboratives gather and distill data on this population--an estimated 6,000 single grandparents are caring for children in the city--and brought them in touch with the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, a nonprofit organization based in Bethesda, Maryland.

Johnson arranged for Harwood Institute Founder Richard Harwood to travel to Newark and train members of the Collaboratives on how best to reach and engage parents and grandparents in the greater Newark area. He also introduced the concept of "community rhythms" to the group to encourage them to stay on course with their goals, even if their project took longer than originally anticipated.

"I think what Creating Parenting-Rich Communities has allowed us to do," Woods says, " take a look at how real community engagement happens and to realize that if we are going to reach parents and to talk to grandparentsOeyou have to take the time to do some of the down and dirty, on the street, grassroots organizing and infrastructure building."

Once the Collaboratives realized the number of kinship providers in Newark, they began holding community meetings for relatives caring for children, during which they learned just how urgent the providers' needs were. Not only were grandparents 80 and older caring for small children, but also teenage siblings.

The Collaboratives resolved to establish "super support groups" for kinship care providers, and started by sponsoring brunches to bring grandparents and other relative caregivers together. This year, the Collaboratives are holding a series of workshops across Newark's different wards to teach caregivers in the community how to mobilize and become advocates for themselves, on both the local and state levels. Members of the Collaboratives received additional training on kinship care issues in preparation for the effort, and they blanketed neighborhoods with fliers about the workshops.

"We are really beginning to understand, more of us collectively, that we have to look at the parents as the experts, because they are the ones who have to deal with [parenting] on a day-to-day basis," Woods says. "They know their children and their children's needs better than we ever will."

Minneapolis: From Books to Blogs, Helping Parents of Teens

Minneapolis has been on a mission to help parents of teenagers through Shoulder to Shoulder, Raising Teens Together--a project of the nonprofit Minnesota Institute of Public Health.

"All you hear are the horror stories about kids using alcohol and getting involved in sexual activity early, but there are fun parts of raising teens, and this project was started with that thought," says Becky Sechrist, Public Health Program Specialist with the Minnesota Institute of Public Health. "Let's let parents know the good news about raising teens, and also provide them with information so they can be better informed to help talk to their teens about these issues."

For about two years, Shoulder to Shoulder held focus groups for parents of teens throughout the seven-county Minneapolis- St. Paul metro area to get an idea of their challenges and successes in raising teens, and to assess the resources they needed. It established a website and produced a 14-page booklet describing how to talk to teens and suggesting activities to do with their children. When the project's organizers found themselves stuck with where to go from there, and with what funding, the CPRC initiative provided the direction they were looking for.

With support from CPRC, Shoulder to Shoulder went through a strategic planning process to move into more targeted areas with parents and figure out how to use all of the focus group material it had compiled. It decided to expand its resources for parents of teens and analyzed the focus group data so it could use that data to the project's advantage, particularly in determining the kinds of resources parents needed, as well as to show the importance of the project when applying for future funding.

"What the group learned at that point during the focus groups," Sechrist recalls, "is that parents really wanted to be connected to other parents of teens. They valued the resources professionals were putting out and schools were putting out, but they really wanted to talk to parents who had been there, done that."

To better engage parents with one another, Shoulder to Shoulder established parent book clubs, which have been popular and well-attended. The organization is now collaborating with other agencies to host Spanish-language book clubs.

Shoulder to Shoulder is also hosting a blog for parents of teens on its website and sends out a monthly e-newsletter to a listserv of parents of teens and professionals who work with such parents.

"Our hope is that instead of meeting face-to-face, parents can have a venue where they can go and read some information from other parents at a time that is convenient for them," Sechrist says.

This year, Shoulder to Shoulder plans to develop toolkits for its target parent population so parents don't have to bounce from one agency to another to get information on how to parent their teens. Shoulder to Shoulder also wants to evaluate all aspects of the parenting project so it can sustain itself and acquire more partners and funding.

By participating in the CPRC initiative, Sechrist says Shoulder to Shoulder has gained access to timely research that has helped with its parenting project. Also helpful have been the connections she has made to other professionals around the country working on similar parenting projects, including keeping in contact with the other pilot CPRC sites in Newark and Jacksonville, and attending CWLA's National Conference in Washington, DC.

"To be able to, as the name states, create a parenting-rich community where parents are valued and where they are shown the way if they don't know which direction to turn, really was in line with the mission of Shoulder to Shoulder, which is guiding parents using evidence," Sechrist explains. "We are not here to just pick things out of the sky. We want to really give parents information that has a foundation in evidence and a foundation in research."

Jacksonville: Targeting Teen Pregnancy and Domestic Violence

When CWLA visited Jacksonville and proposed launching the CPRC initiative, local service providers loved the idea and formed a child abuse prevention leadership team focused solely on the project. That leadership team's work has since become part of a statewide child abuse prevention program.

Now in its third year, the leadership team has made great progress reaching parents in two targeted neighborhoods--one with a high rate of teen pregnancy, and the other with high rates of domestic violence, large numbers of parents of school-aged children, and limited services for families.

Before they began directly engaging the city's parents, CWLA worked closely with the team to help it gather data on its parent populations and begin working cohesively as a group. The leadership team comprises community leaders and various family-serving agencies, including the Department of Children and Families, the Department of Juvenile Justice, and other local agencies with long histories in Jacksonville.

"Our [initial] experience was a year of taking a lot of people with competing funding interests, getting everybody to the table, and recognizing we would work collaboratively to build supports for parents at local levels," says Julie Besley, an organizer for the CPRC initiative and former Program Director of Parenting Programs at First Coast Family Center, one of the agencies participating in the CPRC effort.

Out of Jacksonville's child abuse prevention leadership team grew two action teams to implement efforts in the two city neighborhoods. For the area where teen pregnancy rates were high, the team developed a user-friendly, colorful toolkit--an actual box of materials users could flip through easily, including information for parents about providing opportunities for their teens, building relationships with them, and talking to them about dating and violence, as well as information about local agencies that can help parents and youth.

In the future, the team would like parents to be able to build their own toolkits with all the information they feel applies to their families. "It's something concrete for the parents to visualize and wrap their minds around," Besley explains.

In the second neighborhood, where domestic violence rates were high and services few, the team took a close look at a new school-based health and social service center being placed at a local elementary school. To maximize this new center's effectiveness, the CPRC action team went into the community to learn more about the issues concerning local parents and assess the needed resources.

The team set up a booth each week at a local flea market and drew in as many parents as it could--handing out free beach towels helped--to tell them about the CPRC initiative and administer surveys. The team also alerted all local social service agencies to send informational materials to the new school-based health and social service center so the center could serve as a one-stop-shop for families.

To address the issue of domestic violence, the action team is planning on organizing classroom presentations to middle school students to teach them about healthy relationships and domestic violence. They are also studying model programs elsewhere in the country where perpetrators of domestic violence are deferred into in-patient batterers' treatment programs rather than being incarcerated.

Besley says the timing of CWLA's CPRC initiative in their community was perfect, and she'd love to see it continue.

"You always have to have a visionary," she says. "You have to have somebody who is beating the drum to say, 'Okay, wake up. What are we doing today? What are we doing this year?' and to just get people out of their silos and on a team that says, 'We can make a difference.'"

Jennifer Michael is Managing Editor of Children's Voice.

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