The Importance of Community in the Lives of Vulnerable Children

Decentralizing child welfare services has proven to be better for children, families and community. This has been good child welfare practice for decades.  Last week, Commissioner Ambrose announced the final community umbrella agencies (CUAs) selected to advance her goal of system decentralization for Improving Outcomes for Children (IOC). In practice, it means greater community attention, resources and support for struggling families at risk of or already involved with the Philadelphia Department of Human Services (DHS). 

This week I was invited to attend the Community Oversight Board meeting. This independent advisory body of child welfare experts and advocates monitors the progress on reform implementation. Also in attendance were all 10 CUAs selected to carry out the important reform work. I was struck by the genuine comradery and peer learning occurring among these agencies as they shared their progress toward becoming fully able to serve as the functional community agency focused on improving children’s safety, permanency and well-being.  Their obligations under this new structure are considerable. As such, they will prioritize keeping children safely in their homes and with kin. When necessary, they will remove children and be required to place them in their community: either with foster or therapeutic homes.  They will do this with a focus on minimizing placement moves and keeping children in their neighborhood schools to ensure their overall well-being and educational success.

Best practice has proven that by remaining in the community, the child is able to retain critical bonds with friends, family, and school personnel and it helps to reduce stress for an already traumatized child. While CUAs are accountable to DHS for child and family outcomes, they will also receive guidance, advice and additional supports from a community advisory board including representatives from faith-based organizations, nonprofit agencies, neighbors, and other institutions. IOC’s strong emphasis on community engagement should be lauded as critical to its success as it is everyone’s responsibility to help improve outcomes for vulnerable children and families. It is true that there is still much work to be done as the agencies restructure themselves administratively, programmatically and financially, but they are moving quickly and thoughtfully in the urgent need to better serve children and families.  It is no wonder that DHS Commissioner Anne Marie Ambrose received the United Nations Public Service Award in June 2013 for this great innovation in child welfare. 

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