Moms Groups and Movie Nights: Can a New Approach to Child Welfare Win Families' Trust?
By Angela Butel | June 2019
O.U.R. Place is a bright, open space dotted with fashionably rustic plywood furnishings. When I arrived on one of the first nice mornings of spring, two neighbors were there, chatting about their efforts to learn sign language. One had recently gotten a hearing aid; the other was teaching her grandson, who she suspects has developmental delays, to sign so that he can communicate. Another neighbor was talking to Emily Lopez, director of O.U.R. Place, about his struggles to connect with his son. “All he wants to do is play Fortnite,” he groaned. “I almost want to put him on punishment just so I can take his PlayStation away and we can go outside.” Lopez suggested someone she knows who might be a good mentor.
O.U.R. (Organizing to be United + Resilient) Place, located in Hunts Point in the Bronx, is a family enrichment center (FEC), a new type of family support being piloted by New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). It is one of three FECs that have been open for about a year. FECs are intended to fit into ACS’s continuum of preventive services aimed at strengthening families and keeping kids out of foster care. As a “primary prevention” strategy, though, the FECs seek to engage families further upstream than mandated preventive services like mental health and substance abuse treatment or parenting classes. Activities at the centers are voluntary, and staff do not keep records on participants. The goal is to establish enough trust that families feel comfortable asking for more intensive support when they need it. The informal conversations I heard at O.U.R. Place are a core piece, not a byproduct, of the FECs’ mission: to foster community networks that can strengthen families before they find themselves in crisis.
With their small size, community input, and variable format, the FECs are in many ways a departure from the existing centralized, structured preventive services system. The model is based in part on the Family Success Centers (FSCs) in New Jersey, where 57 sites are in operation. It also harkens to earlier community-based preventive efforts by ACS itself. ACS plans to expand the program at the end of the three-year pilot period if it is working. But given how differently FECs operate from ACS’s other preventive programs, how to tell whether the model works is not entirely clear. It will be a challenge to measure the impact of a program that, by design, changes regularly and does not collect data on its participants.
Questions of measurement are tied up with questions of trust. In the context of the often-contentious relationship between ACS and communities who fear surveillance in any ACS activity, the FECs are designed to avoid a sense of obligation or monitoring. The pilot centers certainly have the sort of welcoming, home-like ambiance suggested by the model, but at this early stage some big questions remain. Will a promise not to track participants be enough to overcome wariness of anything ACS-affiliated? Can the centers keep that promise and still provide convincing evidence of success? Can a project on this scale meaningfully change relationships between ACS and the communities where it is most active?