This is how we roll in our community!
June 17th, 2009Here's a sneak preview of my article for our Summer issue of Current - GRCF's quarterly journal:
Our community is known for its collaborative nature, public/private partnerships, "we can do this" spirit and compassion. Grand Rapids Community Foundation does not shy away from key issues. We use our influence and funds to take action.
In 1992 the Community Foundation convened a task force, Perspective 21, to define community priorities for the 21st century. The 200 people at a community forum we hosted identified Kent County's high child abuse and neglect rates as their biggest concern.
For eight months, a 34-member community task force met weekly to gather data from the community and reach consensus on 16 broad-based recommendations. The Perspective 21 process marked a significant step in opening Kent County's child welfare system to community involvement.
The key recommendation was to provide services to at-risk families before parents abused or neglected their children.
What has happened because of Perspective 21?
What emerged from that convening is a great example of how this community works together to respond to and anticipate problems. Before 1992, free services to relieve parenting stress were not available for families. The Department of Social Services (now called Department of Human Services), nonprofit child welfare agencies, other county departments and private funders crafted a system of prevention services.
A key component of this effort is the nationally recognized Early Impact program, which provides voluntary prevention services to families at-risk for child abuse and neglect. These prevention services include individual and family counseling, housing assistance, parenting skills and substance abuse counseling. Currently the program is offered at Arbor Circle, Bethany Christian Services, Catholic Charities West Michigan, Family Outreach Center, and Lutheran Child and Family Services of Michigan. This carefully developed system involves constant cooperation of agencies, the county government and others to assure that families can receive services voluntarily.
Grand Rapids Community Foundation, along with United Way, Steelcase Foundation, Sebastian Foundation and many others, has invested more than $2 million to provide these services. A few years ago, the Kent County Board of Commissioners decided to allocate nearly $2 million a year for prevention services, besides what was already being spent.
We know this system works for families
In other counties, government entities directly provide family services. Kent County is unusual in its close cooperation with local nonprofit agencies. The Department of Human Services (DHS), network 180 (our county's mental health authority) and the county Health Department are key funders, and they issue contracts to local nonprofit service providers. Private sources previously noted also provide funds.
Kent County Family and Children's Coordinating Council helps to keep this prevention system working and reports to the county commission. Agencies are working together and talking with one another. Kent County commissioned an evaluation study three years ago to measure prevention services effectiveness. Not only did the evaluation show accountability, it also showed the services are working for families who choose to receive them.
The issue at hand
Michigan's Department of Human Services (DHS) recently agreed to a settlement agreement with a children's rights organization that sued the State over mishandled cases that ended tragically for some children. None of those cases was in Kent County. Yet the agreement recommendations affect five urban counties, including ours. This means that precious County resources need to be expended to ramp up training for State caseworkers and to hire 800 new State staff.
Presently, we find ourselves dealing with the potential dismantling of the effective child abuse prevention services described above. This isn't just the typical "you need to tighten your belt" scenario. A series of missteps created this situation, and contracts with local private child welfare agencies are being terminated.
We've had many emergency meetings with our county commissioners, area legislators and State leaders of DHS. We are working on ways to remedy this situation. I hope that by the time you read this, we see brighter days ahead for continuing our community's prevention services.
Leading significant social change is a key strategic goal for Grand Rapids Community Foundation. We are at the forefront of influencing change and encouraging collaboration. I hope the next chapter in this saga includes that we successfully influence the State to let us continue our successful program and to use Kent County prevention efforts as THE model for other counties across Michigan. The lives and well-being of our children depend on it.