Leadership Lens

Christine James-Brown

Bookmark and Share


Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow." The metaphoric praise "raising the bar" is being promoted by CWLA in the context of achieving a higher level of excellence in services for the children and families that we serve. It is challenging all of us to live according to Emerson's words.

There is no question that across this country, there are thousands of examples of organizations--private and public--serving children, developing and implementing exciting new ways to improve the quality of the services that they deliver. The articles in Children's Voice frequently highlight these types of efforts. The challenge of pulling together and aligning what can seem like an overwhelming variety of initiatives within a single organization--much less a state, region, or country--is huge for child welfare. It is an even greater challenge when we acknowledge that to truly raise the bar for vulnerable children and families, the nation has to first commit to making all children a higher priority; then, child welfare and other sectors have to align their work on behalf of the most vulnerable children and families. In a committee report presented in 1915 to the National Conference on Charities and Corrections, Carl C. Carstens, who later became the founding director of the predecessor organization of CWLA, said:

"In the development of children's work in the United States, it is the opinion of many who have been active in one or the other phase of the subject, that the time has come for giving shape to some general plan which shall have gathered together the successful experiences of various states and cities, shall weave them into a harmonious whole and make it possible for those who are working at the development of our various institutions in our newer communities, or who are interested in reshaping the children's institutions of the older states, to see what various forms of service it is necessary for communities to provide for the proper safeguarding of the children's interests" (Social Welfare History Project). CWLA's contribution over the years to the development of that harmonious whole has been the Standards of Excellence and the advocacy, education, and training it has delivered to advance these standards. The increased complexity of the children and families assisted by children's agencies, combined with the increased body of research and evidence about how to improve outcomes for children, means that it is necessary to make a hard stop and reset the bar for those we serve. The statistics below, which demonstrate the interrelationship between child abuse and neglect and domestic violence, substance abuse, juvenile justice, health, mental health, and education, make it clear that child welfare cannot do its work alone.

  • At least two-thirds of all child protective services cases involve caregivers who have a substance abuse problem (Small & Kohl, 2012).
  • As many as 90% of the youngest children entering the child welfare system have serious and/or chronic conditions, and concurrent conditions are common (Dicker, Gordon, & Knitzer, 2001).
  • More than 60% of youth who have been maltreated will have mental health problems during their lifetime, 30% to 40% of adolescents are coping with mental health issues, and more than one-third of older adolescents have a chronic illness or disability (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2012).
  • 80% of children under the age of six who enter child welfare are at risk for developmental issues stemming from maternal substance abuse, and 40% are born premature and/or with low birth weight (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2000).

Public and private child welfare agencies, domestic violence centers, schools, health and mental health facilities, judges, and courts must align their work to help children overcome these terrible statistics. As more and more children under the auspices of the child welfare system are being cared for in their homes and communities, and as research validates the impact of the social environments on child well-being, it is even more important to leverage the resources and supports that extended family members, neighbors, faith leaders, and community members will need.

Raising the Bar is more than a cleaver metaphor. It will take commitment, courage, and hard work. The country as a whole is not providing what it needs to provide for children and families. What we might say is a priority is not reflected in our policies and funding priorities. Children in the overall U.S. population are not achieving the outcomes that they should be achieving:

  • The United States was recently ranked 20th out of 21 countries for child well-being, based of factors of material well-being, health and safety, education, family and peer relations, behaviors and risks (UNICEF, 2007).
  • The United States has the third-highest infant mortality rate and the sixth-highest low-birth-weight rate among industrialized nations (Children's Defense Fund, 2012).
  • Nearly 16 million children in the United States--22% of all children--live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level ($23,021 per year for a family of four) (National Center for Children in Poverty, 2013).
  • In 2010, 7 per 1,000 children between age 12 and 17 were victims of serious and violent crimes (ChildStats.gov, 2012).
  • In 2009, 45% of the households with children between age 0 and 17 reported shelter-cost burden, crowding, and/or physically inadequate housing (ChildStats.gov, 2012).
  • 60% of fourth- and eighth-grade public school students are reading or doing math below grade level (Children's Defense Fund, 2012).
  • In 2009, 8% of youth aged 12-17 were reported to have a major depressive episode. (ChildStats.gov, 2012).

If we see these types of realities for children as a whole, it should not be a surprise that the children whose parents are most challenged by lack of money, substance abuse, domestic violence, mental illness are struggling. In upcoming issues of Children's Voice, we will continue our focus on organizations and individuals in our agency network who are working to raise the bar. We will also expand our coverage of people and entities outside of child welfare who are partnering with child welfare organizations, families, and youth to achieve higher quality services and supports.


American Academy of Pediatrics. Policy Statement, Health Care of Youth Aging Out of Foster Care. (2012). Retrieved March 25, 2013, from http://pediatrics.aappublications. org/content/130/6/1170.full.pdf html.

American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Early Childhood and Adoption and Dependent Care. (2000). Developmental issues for young children in foster care. Pediatrics, 106(5), 1145-1150.

Dicker, S., Gordon, E., & Knitzer, J. (2001). Improving the Odds for the Healthy Development of Young Children in Foster Care. New York: National Center for Children in Poverty, Columbia University.

ChildStats.Gov, Forum on Child and Family Statistics. Retrieved March 25, 2013, from http://childstats.gov/americaschildren/famsoc.asp.

The Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved March 25, 2013, from http://www.socialwelfarehistory.com/organizations/child-welfare-league-of-america/.

Small, E. & Kohl, P. (2012). African American caregivers and substance abuse in child welfare: Identification of multiple risk profiles. Journal of Family Violence, 27(5), 415-426.

Bookmark and Share

Have something to say?

Let us know!

Send a letter to the editor at voice@cwla.org.