By The Gazette Editorial Board
Four Oaks’ TotalChild program just might be the type of bold, broad community initiative we need to put local at-risk kids on the path to a successful future and help restore neighborhoods.
Most children served by area non-profits are dealing with multiple issues. By bringing together a coalition of dozens of local social service programs, TotalChild aims to target client families’ basic needs and efficiently address myriad factors — from education to mental health, family relationships, to decent, stable and affordable housing — that can interfere with a child’s development.
“It’s about the child being successful in all areas of life,” Anne Gruenewald, Chief Strategy and Operating officer at Four Oaks, told us this week.
We’re excited by the potential. At the same time, we worry the project might carry with it a tendency to overserve families in need. We can’t help but remember last year’s institutional analysis of child protective services in Linn County by the non-profit Center for the Study of Social Policy.
That report described a “culture of caution” among child protective workers that caused excessive intervention into family matters — especially among African-American families. Similarly, we wouldn’t want social service agencies to encourage a culture of dependency.
Program leaders say TotalChild expressly addresses those concerns by offering concurrent services with a targeted end date for the most active stage of participation. If it works as intended, TotalChild could strengthen families and our community and transform the lives of hundreds of at-risk children.
As the project moves forward, project leaders must be open and transparent about how well the boots-on-the-ground program is meeting that ideal.
TotalChild takes a holistic approach to helping children who are in need.
The voluntary program calls for partners to work intensively with the child and his or her family for one year. Rather than simply treating the presenting problem or most immediate concern, TotalChild case managers assess a child’s access to basic needs — such as health care, housing, food and clothing — and family relationships, community resources, education and work.
Working with dozens of community partners, they seek to shore up those deficiencies not only in the short-term, but also in long-term, sustainable ways.
After a child’s needs are met, caseworkers will periodically check in with clients, offering “booster shots” of services if the child or family is having difficulty. Their involvement only truly ends on the child’s 18th birthday.
COSTS AND TAX SAVINGS
Four Oaks also believes the pilot will help transform the organization into a high-performance, outcome-based culture that will better protect children and families whose cases are becoming more complex even as resources to address them are becoming scarcer. The project will be financed through a combination of grants and private funding and will cost about $2,000 per family per year. If this type of holistic intervention succeeds in keeping kids in school and away from drugs and other crime, organizers estimate it could save taxpayers up to $1.7 million in public assistance over the life of the child.
More than 300 Cedar Rapids kids already are participating in Total Child. In this year, organizers hope to bring that total to 600. If everything goes well, they’ll continue adding 300 kids per year.
Gruenewald said the first step is engaging parents in the process.
A number of the services offered through TotalChild address family issues — such as parenting skills or housing instability — that have an effect on the child’s well-being.
One of the most visible initiatives is taking place in the Wellington Heights neighborhood, where Affordable Housing Network Inc., a subsidiary of Four Oaks, is purchasing blighted properties to rehab into decent, affordable rental units and homes eventually to be purchased by qualifying households.
Organizers hope the Wellington Heights Initiative will transform the neighborhood into a place where more families want to live. It’s an attempt to address broader environmental factors to help keep children safe and successful.
At the same time, partners are launching the state’s first supportive housing program designed specifically to serve families whose involvement in the child welfare system is rooted in substandard housing or homelessness. With help from a five-year, $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families, they hope to give those families safety and stability by providing quick access to safe, stable housing.
It’s a broad approach that, while still rare, has been successful in other areas. A pilot program in New York, for example, found that supportive housing’s reduction in the actual and potential use of foster care and shelter services, alone, nearly covered the cost of the program.
And it is a good example of the type of synergy TotalChild stands for: A housing-insecure family is matched with decent, affordable housing stock. They’re offered credit counseling services and, once they have saved a certain amount of money for the down payment, are connected to a city program for first-time homebuyers.
Because of the partnerships being forged through TotalChild, what could be a seemingly insurmountable step to homeownership is made simpler, and thus a child’s living situation that much more stable. The same dynamics can be applied to other types of services.
By working together, TotalChild partners bring the potential of having a much greater impact on the lives of Cedar Rapids children than they do alone.
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