Children's Voice Jan/Feb 2009

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Leadership Lens

Christine James-Brown

In the human services community, the issue of treatment versus prevention--addressing immediate needs and finding long-term solutions so fewer people experience needs--always challenges us. It is especially challenging for those of us in the child welfare community because we are responsible for the safety and well-being of our most fragile and innocent citizens. We know there will be difficult choices to make, especially as human needs increase and the resources to address these needs decrease amid economic instability. In situations like the one we face today, it is tempting to pull from prevention and focus all available resources on required treatment.

A new administration, however, brings new opportunities. In his testimony before Congress, former Senator Tom Daschle talked about health reform and the need to focus our health care system on prevention. He described health care as a pyramid: With primary care at the base of the pyramid, you work your way up to levels of more sophisticated health care, such as heart transplants and MRIs. As Daschle explained, most countries start at the base of that pyramid and move up until funds are depleted. In the United States, however, we start from the top and work our way down until the money runs out--and the money does run out. We need to change that focus to make prevention and wellness pervasive in all departments and all parts of life. This analogy also applies to child welfare.

CWLA's public policy and members service work will need to focus on both the short-term needs of helping our members thrive and continue to improve outcomes, and the long-term issues of how the child welfare community and the nation as a whole can place greater emphasis on prevention. Like the banking and auto industries, we are in a time of transformation; the consequences of our failure, however, are much greater.

We are fortunate to have extraordinary new child welfare legislation, the Fostering Connections to Success Act, which, over time, will improve the lives of thousands of children and youth already in the child welfare system. Budget-challenged states may be hard pressed to take advantage of this new law. CWLA will help our public and private members find more efficient ways to operate and to maximize revenue opportunities created by Fostering Connections in the short-term and especially the long-term.

We will also lend our expertise and voice to those issues that will prevent children and families from entering the child welfare system. Anti-poverty programs, job initiatives, parenting programs, health and mental health care, and education are all critical to supporting families and helping children grow up to be strong and self-sufficient citizens. It is necessary to split our time between pulling children and families out of the water and building dams so that others do not fall in. The reality is that we simply have to reduce the number of children and families in need of treatment. At the same time, the system needs to be retooled so the extraordinary expertise among treatment providers can be applied to keeping families strong. Since we are not likely to get the multi-billion dollar boost the banking and auto industries received for their retooling, we will need to take another path--one we can create together.

The call for the White House Conference on Children and Youth helps people understand the critical link between abuse and neglect and issues like poverty, health care, education, and parenting. Although designed to be viewed through the perspective of our most vulnerable children and families, the desired outcome of the White House Conference is the commitment by all services that touch children and families to work in a collaborative, child-centered, evidence-based way to ensure that all children and families reach their full potential. A nationwide conversation about how all systems can better address the needs of the child welfare system will create a broader base of support and bring more partners to our work. Additionally, if these systems focus on addressing the needs of our most vulnerable children and families, they will in turn improve their service to all children and families. The call for the White House Conference is in fact an important effort to make the focus on child and family well-being and prevention pervasive, as Daschle said. I hope those who are interested in strengthening the American economy, concerned about the breakdown of the American family, or want to address critical issues like poverty and health care will join us in calling for the White House Conference because it effects all of these areas of urgent national need.

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