The following blog was modified from a speech given at the New York State Joint Senate Standing Committees on Social Services and Children and Families on September 17, 2015. The speech was given by Associate Executive Director Nina Piros on the challenges facing social service providers and the need for reform that keeps the success of the whole family in mind:
Our system for provision of services to children and families is fragmented; we have many different pieces of the puzzle, but we have not put the puzzle together. There is duplication within the early childcare and family services system, and there are many obstacles preventing families from accessing the resources they need in order to be successful in their role as parents, workers, and contributing citizens. That many programs are spread across a variety of different agencies within the government and the disparity in funding are obstacles that service providers seek to overcome to provide comprehensive services; at times, those obstacles are insurmountable and prevent us from reaching our goal.
It is well documented that the parent/child relationship is vital to the success of children for life, especially school success; in spite of this, there are very few systems that provide even minimum resources to support this vital relationship and provide appropriate supports that are sensitive to each family's unique experience. We know that families in poverty face many challenges and that at the very base of those is the need to provide food, shelter and security; families cannot focus on other needs when they are preoccupied on how they will feed their children or pay the rent. We also know that these factors place the parent/child relationship in jeopardy, as families are unable to focus on their children when they are concerned about keeping a roof over their heads. Working families face many obstacles as well; in many cases, the key to their success is the availability of high-quality, affordable early childhood services.
As you may have noticed, I used the phrase early childhood services – not child care - because our child care system is not the best model for supporting families and children in breaking the cycle of poverty. In fact, the current child care system penalizes families when a caregiver receives a salary increase at work or gets a promotion; they risk losing their child care subsidy and facing the tremendous challenge of paying market rates for early childhood services.
We do have successful models of collaboration and integration of services, but often their impact is limited due to constrained funding and inflexible mandates that cannot be met with the resources available. University Settlement, at a small internal scale, has been successful at integrating services for families regardless of their entry point. Families gain access to the wide range of services provided by the organization, including prenatal and parenting services, early childhood services, youth services, family literacy (including English as a Second Language), clinical and consultation services, services for older adults, advocacy opportunities, and more.
Throughout all our programs, we seek to provide embedded mental health and wellness supports that are fully integrated into our work with families, including daily interactions, early childhood curricula, universal screening, individual planning and clinical services. Extensive evidence in the field points to the fact that social-emotional wellbeing is key to children's success at school; yet many service systems lack the resources to gain the expertise, train staff, and implement preventive measurements within these services. Referring families to an outside entity for mental health services is rarely successful; families are less likely to access those services. This is very different when mental health and wellness supports are integrated into the services families and children are already receiving at their early childhood center, school, after-school program, community centers, or other locations where they access resources they need. There is plenty of evidence that when mental health services are fully integrated into these systems, they are more accessible and do not carry the same stigma than when those services are provided externally.
University Settlement's Butterflies Program, a children-under-five mental health program, has allowed our early childhood services to implement early preventative services by engaging teachers, social service staff and families in screening children's development, which notably includes social-emotional development. Routine and universal screenings help us support children's strengths and needs in collaboration with the teachers, social service staff and families under the guidance of clinicians with expertise in parenting and infant/child mental health.
In my years in the field, I have seen some progress, but it is, at times, slow. We still have a long way to go until every child has universal access to quality early childhood services that support parents, engage families in the provision of those services, collaborate with families in improving their communities, and provide integrated services at all levels. I am hopeful that by working together, we will all contribute to the integration of fragmented services and put that puzzle together. Within our small universe, made up of highly committed organizations in partnership with the government, corporations and foundations, we have made great progress and have proven models of success. We need to overcome the barriers that prevent us from providing comprehensive and integrated resources to families. We know what we need to do. Do we have the will power to work across systems to overcome those challenges? Are we willing to make the investment? We know that the investment pays off long term and that every dollar we invest in early childhood and family services has a significant rate of return. We know that every dollar invested provides a strong foundation for children and families for a more vibrant, opportunity-filled life ahead.