Over the year since they opened, the FECs have gradually built up calendars of these regular group meetings and events. When I visited the centers during daytime hours, though—when no particular events were happening—the spaces were fairly empty. A handful of people were there to use the computers; one or two curious passersby dropped in to ask what the centers were. At one center, an older gentleman sat watching the television news; staff said he was a common fixture, using the FEC as a way to get out of the house during the day. At another center, a girl came by after school to grab a snack and wait for her mom to pick her up. For these people, the FECs are clearly meeting an important need, but the centers may have more work to do to find the niches they can fill between events, to make sure the spaces are utilized as fully as possible.
The centers are continually trying to spread the word and bring more people in the door. As they reach out to people at community events or through neighborhood organizations and businesses, Center leaders carefully navigate the relationship between the FECs and ACS. The three FECs are in communities with high levels of ACS child welfare activity, and many residents are wary of anything with a connection to the agency. The FECs don’t advertise their ACS affiliation—there are no ACS logos in the buildings or on brochures—but they say they’re not hiding the connection either. Ultimately, staff hope that as people attend events or activities and get to know people at the centers, seeing ACS connected to something good in their community will start to change how people view the agency. “We see ourselves as part of healing people’s trauma with ACS,” says Alida Camacho, director of Circle of Dreams.
Joyce McMillan, a longtime family advocate and activist for change in the child welfare system, doesn’t believe this trauma can be healed until ACS demonstrates that it is taking steps to operate very differently than in the past. She isn’t convinced that the FECs represent a truly significant shift. “They’re doing all these things to change their image, but how does the image change if the practice doesn’t change?” she asks. One particular sticking point is around mandated reporting. FEC staff are mandated reporters, meaning they must report any signs of potential child abuse or neglect to ACS. McMillan believes this erodes the staff’s ability to truly be trusted resources for struggling families.
As the FECs celebrate a year in operation, this tension between how ACS tends to operate and the FEC approach is cropping up in other ways as well. Though at the start ACS kept a certain distance from the centers, as they have developed into active community hubs “ACS has been wanting to have more of a presence, they’ve been wanting to have more ownership,” says Segal from Good Shepherd Services. Though perhaps counterintuitive from a public relations perspective, ACS’s ability to maintain some separation from the FECs’ success may prove crucial to that success continuing.
The idea of the FEC model is not entirely new. A family-centered, multi-service model is where the idea of “preventive services” in child welfare began, says Sister Paulette LoMonaco, executive director of Good Shepherd Services. “Sister Mary Paul Janchill used to do intake into our residential program [for teenagers] and she saw so many young people separated from their families who didn’t really need to be. If they had gotten enough support from early on, then the family would have been able to work with that young person and stabilize.” Janchill’s idea was that the focus should be on the whole family rather than just the child, in contrast to the prevailing wisdom at the time in foster care. Together with several other social service agencies, Good Shepherd Services got a grant from the federal Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to do a demonstration project of a program to support the entire family.
The center that Janchill founded in 1978, the Center for Family Life, is in many ways a precursor to the FECs. It offers a broad range of services, from after-school programs to family counseling to adult employment and education. When it began, the services were clinical and therapeutic, LoMonaco says, with psychiatrists and social workers on staff, but also recreational, with family nights and activities for teens.
The City kept an eye on these developments and, in the late 1990s, began building some of the insights of Janchill’s approach into the formal preventive services system, contracting with community-based organizations to provide locally rooted preventive services. At the same time, ACS began dramatically increasing capacity for preventive services: by Fiscal Year 2002, the preventive services system had surpassed foster care in size, with a daily average foster care census of 28,215 and an average daily preventive caseload just over 30,000.3 Though the number of children in preventive services has decreased somewhat since, to 24,481 in FY 2018, the preventive services budget has continued to grow, from $100 million in FY 1998 to $307 million in FY 2018.4 Accounting for inflation, that’s about a 50 percent increase in funding.
Though City contracts for prevention mean more funding for nonprofits, they also come with strings. Contracts are often built around use of specific and fairly rigid service-provision models, and specify things like the number of contacts a social worker should have with families or the number of home visits to be done each month. Because of this, says LoMonaco, “the budgets don’t allow the kind of open-ended activities that were in preventive services at the beginning.” As the preventive services system became bigger and more formalized, there was less of the flexibility and responsiveness to individual family situations that inspired the original efforts.
According to LoMonaco, the organizations that have been involved from the beginning of prevention are “thrilled” about the return to the more holistic, adaptable model of the FECs. In her view, though, the newer model is missing a few of the things that were important in the early centers. “We don’t have a part-time psychiatrist or psychologist, which we once had,” she says. “We don’t have money for the emergency needs of our program participants. [In the past] You could often avoid eviction, or help with things that are really needed.” While the directors of the FECs are licensed social workers or psychologists, they do not provide formal counseling on site. Staffing of the centers in general is quite lean, with a director, one to two family advocates, and one community liaison per center.