Families matter

By Joan Pennell

Civility is something we welcome in our homes and outside of them. In a civil society, members of society and their organizations have a voice that serves to guide and legitimize decisions.

How do we create a civil society?  We need to build the capacity of families, communities and governments for democratic decision-making.

A prime test of civil society is families receiving child-protection services. These families are assessed as failing to protect their children and, thus, requiring state intervention.

Although people of all incomes are known to mistreat their children, far too often those struggling with poverty and racism lose their children.

To get out of this quagmire, we need to bring together a larger group who care about the safety and well-being of children and their families.

The larger group should include public services and family members (younger and older) and their informal network but also community, cultural, and faith-based groups. Together, they can work out plans that build on the strengths of children, their families and communities, and public agencies.

This is what child welfare in North Carolina and many other states are seeking to do. At North Carolina State University, we are providing training in family-centered meetings to child protection and their community partners.

Evaluations by the state Division of Social Services and by the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University both report that family meetings create a respectful context in which to make service plans and promote collaboration among families, community organizations, and public agencies.

We have also heard from participating North Carolina counties that family meetings serve to coordinate services, identify more resources to support families, and permit earlier closure of some cases.

Most importantly, family members feel they have a voice in making the plans, and these plans are more creative and broader ranging than those that public child welfare could make on their own.

Much needs to be done to strengthen family meetings. Nevertheless, this is one promising route, not only for including struggling families in a civil society but also to involve the wider community in making sure that this happens.

Joan Pennell is head of the Department of Social Work at N.C. State University and principal investigator of the N.C. Family-Centered Meetings Project funded by the N.C. Division of Social Services.  She is an affiliated faculty member at the Institute for Nonprofits at NCSU.

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