By Leslie Newman, CEO, Children and Families First

First I recently was invited to participate on a panel at the National Governors Association human services meeting with Stephanie Berkowitz, president and CEO of Northern Virginia Family Service following remarks given by Alliance for Strong Families and Communities President and CEO Susan Dreyfus and Tracy Waring, president and CEO of the American Public Human Services Association. They challenged the group of human services policy professionals to consider generative partnerships—government working with our social sector toward common goals. Needless to say Susan and Tracy did a great job and stimulated some great discussion.

Prior to our presentation, we had the privilege to hear from Jerry Milner, acting commissioner of the Administration on Children, Youth and Families (ACYF) and associate commissioner of the Children’s Bureau. Having formerly served as head of the child welfare system in Alabama, he talked about guiding principles or values that will shape the work of ACYF in their mission to strengthen families in our country so they, in turn, can protect/care for their children:

  • Primary prevention must be integrated into child welfare. We should focus on preventing the first occurrence, rather than recurrence and need to help parents deal with their unresolved trauma. In addition, our child welfare system often inflicts more trauma when children are placed in foster care by removing children from their community, separating siblings, and promoting only weekly visits by parents.

  • When foster care is necessary, it should be a support for families not a “rescue” of children. Milner cited the Family to Family model as an example that avoids re-traumatization of children and families. This model can build a relationship between the birth parents and foster parents while the children are placed and continue when the children return home.

  • We need to focus on the well-being of children and families by changing our practice. Too often we keep children safe at the expense of their emotional well-being. Milner emphasized that engagement is more than being at a team meeting. We need to work toward a trauma-focused system.

  • We need to build the capacity of communities to support families. He emphasized that these improvement initiatives need to be local and gave the examples of Live Well San Diego, Casey Family Program’s Building Communities of Hope, and Family Resource Centers in rural areas.

  • We need a stable and healthy child welfare work force. To accomplish this, our trainings should reflect how adults learn and address the trauma workers face. This will require visionary leadership.

I came away energized, even hopeful that this administration has its eye on the right target: Families. We in child welfare care about kids—their safety and their well-being. Our collective challenge is to find ways to keep them safe and healthy in their families as we find ways to support the varied composition of all families who come to our attention. The work is hard. We know from the brain science that the impact of multigenerational poverty and trauma makes the work even harder. Prevention counts, only by getting it right from the beginning can we make lasting change.

About the Author

Leslie Newman has led Children and Families First in Wilmington, Delaware, for the past 11 years and served as the agency’s director of development for 15 years prior to her appointment as CEO. She is a commissioner for the Child Death Review Commission and a member of the Delaware Early Childhood Council, serving as chair of its Health Committee. Newman has chaired Delaware’s Home Visiting Community Advisory Board since its inception in 2008. She is a member of the Healthy Neighborhoods Committee, part of the Delaware’s Health Innovation Plan, and a member of the Division of Family Services’ Advisory Board. Newman also serves as president of the Milton & Hattie Kutz Foundation Board of Directors.

Newman has been a true leader in the social services sector for many years and has been a valuable contributor to the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities. Children and Families First helps children facing adversity on their journey to adulthood. They offer a wide variety of programs that cover a lifespan, use a trauma-informed lens, and help children build resilience so they can reach their full potential. For the past two years, Children and Families First has been a cohort member of the Alliance’s Change in Mind initiative and continues to lead Delaware in leveraging advances in neurosciences to achieve better outcomes for children and families.