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Some considerations on social services reform based on the vision of the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago

In 1991, four researchers from the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago presented to the city, faced with rising poverty and violence, particularly among young people, an alternative vision of reforming the social services system, with a focus on social services to support youth and families. With funding from an intermediary, the Chicago Community Trust, worth $30 million - $65 million in current values - this proposal was initially tested in 7 low-income neighborhoods in the city, and the experience generated a published report, called “Children, Families and Communities. A New Approach to Social Services"[1]. In this article, we intend to present some elements of this proposal that can contribute to the efforts of creating responsive and supportive communities.

First, there is the analysis of realities perceived as challenges for present and future societies, namely: 1) at the moment, youth are and will continue to be a smaller proportion of the population; beyond, youth are more exposed to poverty than any other age group, and the proportion of the young population who are poor and who belong to minority groups is growing; an increasing proportion of young people will be at a disadvantage because of poverty and the reduced number of educational and employment opportunities available to these groups; in the face of these challenges, each young people today will have to play a significant role in adulthood to sustain and improve our social, economic and political institutions; 2) profound changes in the structure and functioning of families, reducing private resources to care for the youth; due to marital instability, the percentage of young people living with one parent increases; an increase in the number of young people living in homes where the only parent or both work; reduction in the size of families resulting in reduced opportunities for intergenerational relationships and support; greater geographic mobility leading to periods of isolation, both for people who move and for those who stay in communities; 3) existing social services are only problem-orieted, in a fragmented and narrow way, and when these have already become chronic or severe; the bureaucratic structures through which these specialized services are offered make it difficult to recognize and respond to the totality of young people's needs; overall, federal and state laws, funding, and practice have reinforced these trends.

We live, therefore, in a society that is both obliged to support new generations and interested in nurturing their ability to contribute. This requires, say the researchers, “a fundamental shift in our conception of services, from one concerned only with curing or preventing problems for some children and parents, to one that is also concerned with promoting the development of all children and the functioning of all the families". That is, two dimensions are needed: “organized opportunities that build skills and adequate response to problems”. As the four researchers remind us, a reform of social services is just one of the many resources needed to support the development of children and families – such as the presence of at least one responsible caring adult, jobs for these people, housing, education, health, leisure etc.

How to reform social services? The report mentions that many of the reforms being proposed and tested are aimed at changing the unidisciplinary focus, fragmentation, as well as the centralization of planning, financing and control of existing services. But while these questions are necessary, they are not enough. The issue to be tackled is that, given all the changes we discussed in the previous paragraphs, related to the demand on parents and the challenges that children face, social services for youth and families need to face the mission of training these youths, both with regard to training for work, in a context of rapid social and technological changes, and with regard to their training for citizenship and civic participation. An example of this type of redirection comes from health services, which in addition to responding to critical and chronic health problems, have begun to address health promotion; in this conception, programs and practices that promote development and those that solve problems are interdependent.

Here are three central ideas of the study.

The first of them is to promote the so-called primary services, which are composed of organized activities and associations existing to some extent in all communities, and without special qualifications; therefore, offering direct help in ways that are neither categorical nor stigmatizing. In addition, primary services can strengthen the benefits of specialized and problem-oriented services that youth and adults are using. Primary services include playgrounds and day care centers; sports teams; art, music and after-school programs; youth volunteer opportunities; telephone warm lines and mentoring programs; drop-in and support programs for parents; as well as the resources of museums, parks, libraries, community centers and settlement houses.

The second is to give primary services a central role in a larger service structure for youth and families, with primary services, with their development orientation, as full partners with specialized services, with their traditional problem orientation.

Third, connections between citizens and people service providers needed to make this happen can best be created and sustained at the community level, where families first look to sources of improvement and support. It is at this level that planning and service delivery can be most responsive to youth and families, and where primary and specialized services can best function together. It is important to emphasize, according to the researchers, that the creation of this broad infrastructure of services depends on the engagement of communities in planning, together with service providers, in addition to the development of mechanisms that facilitate access and make the services work together as a system for each child and family.

Finally, the researchers remind that the application of these ideas in different communities can present different strategic challenges, depending on factors such as the strength of citizen and civic leadership within a community, the level and quality of existing primary and specialized services, the urgency of particular goals for children and families, and the extent to which organizations and individual leaders have a collaborative or combative history. In addition, underserved communities where the needs of children and families are compelling, and where there is likely to be little or no infrastructure for primary or specialized services, will present the greatest challenge.

The above considerations were made based only on the Introduction and the first chapter of the mentioned report. In its other three chapters the following subjects are treated in detail: in the second chapter, the role, function and importance of primary services; in the third chapter, how primary and specialized services can work together to achieve the objectives of the proposed vision, and the issue of what needs to happen within communities; the fourth chapter discusses implementation issues and strategies to be considered in assessing the vision.

[1] I would like to thank Dr. Daniel Bassill, a great activist for the rights of youth, for having made the aforementioned report available.

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