Leadership Lens

Christine James-Brown

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In this issue of Children's Voice, you will read about the work that CWLA and other organizations are doing to support a child welfare system that operates in partnership with families and communities. The starting point for our National Blueprint for Excellence in Child Welfare is the first of its core principles: "It is the responsibility of all members of society to work toward the shared goal of advancing the fundamental rights and needs of children." As an organization that has worked for close to a century to address the needs of the most vulnerable children, we see the direct results of society's failure to do all that it can to ensure its children's well- being. The children and families in the child welfare system are "the birds in the mineshaft," who demonstrate the consequences of not working together with a singular focus of ensuring that all children meet their full potential. The foreword of the National Blueprint states that "Unless the community has what it needs and takes ownership for ensuring the well-being of all of its children and families, neither children nor families who are vulnerable nor children and families in general will flourish." The National Blueprint returns CWLA to our roots of advocating for a multi-system, community-based approach to protecting children and supporting families. It demands that we rise above any singular focus or concern to recognize how interrelated problems--and therefore solutions--might be.

There is no question that we have known for decades, even for centuries, about the importance of working collaboratively. As far back as the 1800s, scientist Charles Darwin noted that "In the long history of humankind (animal kind too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed." All of us who work with vulnerable children and families understand, in our guts, the critical importance of serving children and families in a collaborative way. We also know that lack of collaboration has been our biggest failure. When I first started my career in social services, one of my responsibilities was overseeing a generic information and referral service; one major effort was to help often-distraught people navigate through the maze of 67 specialized services. When I worked on an early childhood initiative, I was astonished when I realized that a meeting I had called for the heads of the four major programs--all of which were serving the same target population--was the first time that those dedicated professionals had met one another.

So how do we close the gap between what we know is required to best serve children and families? Siloed policies and funding streams--private and public--are clearly part of the puzzle; so is the tendency for specialization to be a prevalent survival and service strategy in the world of child and family services. Even Charles Christian Carstens, the first executive director of CWLA, said that he wanted all of our member organizations to shape up and launch a program that would make each agency respectable and worthy of the confidence of the community and the giving public. Cultivating and leveraging the passion, commitment, and interests of a specific issue or service is an important, but not wholly sufficient, strategy for meeting the interrelated needs of children, families, and communities. Domestic violence, substance abuse, trauma, mental illness, depression, poverty, violence, and child abuse and neglect are all interrelated. Adoption, foster care, residential treatment, kinship care, CPS, housing, mental health services, health care, youth development, mentoring, and education are all a part of the array of services required to advance safety, permanence, and well-being for children and families, especially those that are the most vulnerable. True collaboration will require that we make connections across the various specialty areas, and across organizations, political points of views, race and ethnicity, and sexual orientation. And, as is reinforced in the National Blueprint, we must also prompt those impacted to take action.

For CWLA to advance the National Blueprint requires a still imperfect and incomplete (and extremely challenging) transformation of our organization from top to bottom. How could we promote integration when we operate multiple committees and services, each focused on a specific region or practice area, and when our membership strategy focuses primarily on child welfare organizations? We must bring into our work everyone serving vulnerable children and families so that we can share knowledge. We must ensure that we find ways through vehicles like our National Commissions for Policy and Practice, our conference, and our various publications, to hold holistic discussions about children and families while still acknowledging and valuing the specialized expertise of agencies and individuals-- especially parents and youth.

This is not easy to do. Our membership was built on our ability to bring organizations together around their areas of passion and commitment--the 20-plus program advisory committees and six regional committees. Intimate, trusting relationships were cultivated in these committees; for many, their involvement with these committees was the value-proposition for their membership in CWLA.

English musician Mike Rutherford has said that "Being in a band is always a compromise, provided that the balance is good. What you lose in compromise, you gain by collaboration." CWLA has to demonstrate that the compromise of focusing on a holistic, collaborative view is worth the gain. The various articles in this issue of the Voice point to our understanding that we will need to continue to learn from the specialized work that is being done by our members. For instance, the work that the New England Youth Coalition is doing to keep siblings together should inform how we work with all children. Using what we learn from them and from others, both to develop a set of practice briefs relating to siblings and to inform the development of our practice standards, is an example of how we plan to do our work going forward.

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