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Diverse panel shapes progressive family agenda: ideas cross social, economic lines.

A stunning new documentary on the needs of American families premiered at the official opening of the 1992 Congressional City Conference last Sunday morning.

"Families First with Bill Moyers" (which will are nationwide on March 25) combines sensitive photography of troubled families with substantive reporting on the value of intensive "family preservation" strategies to help them.

It provided a "wake up call" to a panel of experts and to the 3,000 municipal officials in attendance, according to panel moderator Ann Compton of ABC News. The panel of five experts participated in a lively and sobering exchange of views on creating and maintaining family friendly cities and towns. The subject matter for this general session was spurred by the NLC Advisory Council's futures process which is focused this year on building family friendly communities.

Panelists agreed that family preservation is a necessary strategy to keep families together and to reduce long-term child welfare costs. However, they also agreed that it is only one part of a mosaic of needed services.

High school teacher and author Patrick Welsh of Alexandria, Va. emphasized that ours is the "first generation of adults to abandon kids across the spectrum." Children in poor, middle-class, and upper-income families alike, he continued, "are devastated--by divorce, lack or loss of income, premature adulthood, and lack of the continuing presence of caring adults."

Social demographer Wendy Baldwin of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development affirmed these as "long term trends which we're just beginning to see--they won't end soon."

Lottie Shackelford, city director from Little Rock, Ark., said, "Local officials don't have the luxury to research what is the best family or to idealize the past family--we must accept the varying families we have in our cities and towns."

Councilmember Tim Owens of Overland Park, Kans. stated that "all variations of families will have an impact" on what local governments do. He suggested that "who is raising the children is one good definition of family," but he also reminded the audience that "the community is raising children, too--like with a block parent program."

Shackelford continued, "I visualize making local services, such as neighborhood safety and sanitation, more family friendly." And she challenged municipal officials to find a comprehensive set of services that local government could provide to support family preservation.

The noted author of Within Our Reach: breaking the Cycle of Disadvantage, Lisbeth Schorr, said that improved outcomes for children "are not only dependent on a range of kinds of services, but also on services with a well-defined set of characteristics." These characteristics include being "comprehensive, flexible, inclusive of two generations, preventive, and supportive of family relationships."

Wendy Baldwin stressed the need for prevention--especially by teaching parenting skills. Schorr agreed, saying "Being well parented is the most important building block for parenting."

Nothing that parent education is often equated with sex education, a questioner from Sioux City, Iowa asked how cities can work with the schools. Welsh described the comprehensive family life program in Alexandria that begins in kindergarten. It includes a parenting skills class from pregnant and parenting teens--including young men, as well as young women.

Schorr went on to observe that "classroom teaching is not the best" method to learn parenting, noting that learning occurs more often by experiencing healthy parenting models and by being with younger children.

"Tear down the walls between parents and schools so that they are on a consistent track," said Owens. Schackelford challenged local governments and all employers "to allow employees time during the day to go to schools--especially nonprofessional employees" who are less likely to have the flexible schedules needed to go on their own.

"Make sure both mothers and fathers have access to such policies," said Baldwin. She warned that this is not just a policy need for female-dominated workplaces, but for all workplaces.

Panelists expressed concern that new programs, such as family preservation need to be cost beneficial. "This information is unknown in too many government programs," said Owens. Schorr described the Washington State family preservation model where the program saved "four times the cost" of traditional services.

Shackelford said, "We really won't know what works until the child reaches adulthood, but we can't wait." She emphasizes using local funds to leverage additional funds from both the public and private sectors.

The lively commentary that continued focused on the relevance of values to municipal programs for children and families with the consensus that the local government's public policy role is in the words of Lisbeth Schorr, "to do what it can do and not try to do everything that needs doing."

Five Things I Can Do in My City or Town

At the conclusion of the session, each panelist gave one example of something to work on at home.

1. Convince your fellow council members to support safe and healthy neighborhoods.

2. Review the ways your local government funds and regulates programs so that your involvement does not get in the way of effective program operation. Government needs in the areas of finance, accountability, and training should not provide problems for the programs. (Lisbeth Schorr)

3. Support intervention strategies that have solid research behind from the use of "hard" indicators. (Wendy Baldwin)

4. Find ways to remove the dead wood on the teaching staff. (Patrick Welsh)

5. Do what you tell others to do.

And then a member of the audience from Alabama reminded everyone to "love them [the children] and let them know you care."
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Author:Kyle, John E.
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Mar 16, 1992
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