Community supports to prevent child welfare involvement: Focus on Family Resource Centers


Child welfare advocates have long pushed for deeper investments in strategies that can prevent maltreatment from occurring rather than simply respond after children and families become involved in the system. As these efforts gain ground, SPARC members have been focusing on identifying promising prevention initiatives and the best ways to implement them. Our learning on this topic includes exploring an approach rapidly growing in popularity: family resource centers. 

Family resource centers are a widely recognized way of helping families meet their needs in their communities. However, providing these services in the way families can and want to access them requires thoughtful planning and adequate resources. Sarah Jankowski of the New Jersey Department of Children and Families, Danielle Mitchell of Acenda Integrated Health, and Christina Armstrong of Greenway Family Success Center (managed by Prevention Links, Inc.) shared practical strategies from their work with family resource centers in New Jersey with SPARC members at our December 2023 convening. These strategies include:

Create spaces families want to spend time in.

Rather than an office-like setting, Family Success Centers (the term for family resource centers in New Jersey), or FSCs, are typically in spaces similar to a family home, with clean, bright rooms adorned with artwork (sometimes created by community members or clients), including a kitchen for cooking and nutrition classes, and a living room with comfortable furniture. There are computers, copiers, and other resources participants can use, and often there is a “kids room” where children can spend time while parents or caregivers access services. Creating welcoming spaces also means recruiting and retaining staff who connect families to resources while making them feel cared for and never judged. One panelist explained that when families walk into their center, “they are not talking to a directory, they are speaking with a human being who cares about how they are doing,” which builds trust and helps clients engage with the services they need.

Offer services for all stages of parenting.

While programs on infant care and early child development are common in family resource center offerings nationally, some FSCs in New Jersey offer programming specifically for adolescents, including teen dating workshops; game nights; teen-specific classes, like video game design; peer groups for specific populations, such as teen girls; and classes for parents of teens on how to speak with, relate to, and support youth through typical teen behaviors as well as mental health issues. FSCs also incorporate the two-generation approach, whereby both the parent/caregiver and child(ren) are considered when planning programming for their communities. Within Acenda, an integrated approach is utilized, where referrals can be made to other services, including infant and maternal health, behavioral health and an array of supportive services to meet their needs, if applicable.

Partner with the community.

Many services and educational opportunities are offered on-site at the FSCs, ranging from parenting classes, immigration workshops, and job application support to classes on health issues, budgeting, self-advocacy, and arts and wellness workshops. FSC staff work hard to keep up with what resources exist in the community so they can bring in speakers, collaborate on events, and make the best referral possible when someone needs a service not offered by the FSC (for example, by being able to suggest one or two specific places to go, rather than just handing out a long, possibly outdated list, and describing exactly what a parent can expect from a particular provider). FSCs are well connected in their community, participating in community partner workgroups, coalitions, and other causes that are important to the community the programs serve. FSC staff often attend community events and co-facilitate public activities with other key stakeholders and community partners.

Recognize the value of lived expertise.

The Department of Children and Families (DCF) recently shifted the required level of education for FSC staff from a Bachelor’s to an Associate’s degree to make it easier for FSCs to hire parents with lived experience. They have also supported FSCs in completing national trainings on developing and sustaining Parent Advisory Councils and hosting Parent Cafés in line with DCF’s mission for prevention programs to adopt a transformational engagement mindset in their service delivery. This requires a mindset and culture change from one-sided communication and decision-making to creating shared leadership and co-design opportunities with families and communities who are true partners in the child welfare world. This includes joint and equal decision-making, two-way communication and partnership pathways, co-ownership of outcomes, and relationships of equality and respect for lived experiences and the value it offers. This approach has stakeholders, service providers, and policymakers sitting with and next to the families and community, whose voices remain lifted every step of the way.

Carefully manage relationships with child protection.

One reason families may be hesitant to access family resource centers is because they want to avoid involvement with child protection agencies (i.e., the Department of Child Protection and Permanency, or DCPP, in New Jersey). One FSC shared that while they try to educate DCPP about their services so that DCPP can refer families to the FSC to receive support, they avoid having DCPP staff on site to keep families from feeling uncomfortable and preserve a “neutral space.” FSCs aim to help families meet their own needs and avoid contact with child protective services, but there are times when staff, who are mandated reporters, must call DCPP about a client. In this circumstance, one SPARC panelist shared that her agency would explain to the family in advance that they need to call DCPP and talk through what to expect; when possible, staff will make the call with the family.

In 2023, New Jersey FSCs served over 32,000 families, 44% of whom were Hispanic/Latino, 25% of whom were Caucasian, and 19% of whom were African American. State funds primarily support them, though some receive federal funding through the federal Community-Based Child Abuse Prevention program, and some receive grants, donations, or sponsorships from businesses, foundations, and individuals in their communities.

SPARC’s efforts to support its members in advocating for greater prevention investments and successful implementation of prevention approaches will culminate in the release of a toolkit this spring. Please look for a blog post highlighting that resource in June!