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Chicago Model Seeks To Broaden Definition of Family Services

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Washington

As it tests an unusual new model for strengthening services for children, youths, and families, an ambitious Chicago-based project is facing challenges familiar to service-reform efforts nationwide, participants at a forum here last week suggested.

The Chicago Community Trust three years ago launched a $30 million, 10-year effort, led by the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago, to coordinate and expand families' access to a wide range of social and recreational services.

Issues the project is struggling to resolve in "rebuilding communities''--ranging from who should govern such efforts to how to measure their success--were the subject of the gathering, which was hosted by the American Youth Policy Forum, a nonprofit group supported by a consortium of foundations.

The Chicago Community Trust, which marked its 75th anniversary in 1990 with a commitment to children's issues, launched the Children, Youth, and Families Initiative in July 1991.

The effort is guided by the belief that the existing system of "specialized'' services focuses on specific risk factors--from juvenile delinquency to disabling conditions--rather than on building on family strengths.

While most attempts to make family services more accessible try to spur collaboration among disparate child-serving agencies, the Chapin Hall project adds to the mix community programs with the potential to draw families in "nonstigmatizing'' ways.

Such resources include parks, libraries, sports teams, day-care and after-school programs, parent-support and -education programs, and local settlement houses and community centers.

The project's goal is to boost the role of these "primary services'' in helping develop the interests and skills of youths and families, and to fuse them into a unified system with traditional specialized services for at-risk youths.

Redefining Family Services

Under such a system, a coach might direct a troubled team member to social services, while a special-education teacher could "send a kid to Little League'' to boost social skills or a child in speech therapy might be referred to a drama club to prod her speaking ability, explained Harold Richmond, Chapin Hall's executive director.

The aim, he said, is to redefine family services "to include a much broader set of opportunities.''

The project so far has invested about $7 million in grants. It operates in eight community "clusters'' in the Chicago area, six urban and two suburban.

Among the project activities:

  • In the Uptown Edgewater community, one of the most ethnically diverse in the city, an umbrella group of community organizations has developed a grassroots network of after-school programs.
  • In the West Town/Logan Square area, a mainly Latino community, settlement houses and other agencies have set up buses between organizations providing cultural and recreational activities. They also have sought to foster service coordination, for example by having a mental-health counselor lead a basketball game.
  • In the Southwest Side neighborhood, a demographically representative governing body is operating various teenage and youth-employment programs.

The other urban sites are North Lawndale; North Town, which includes the Cabrini Green housing project; and Grand Boulevard, where the Robert Taylor Homes are located.

Despite its distinctive focus on primary services, the effort is confronting issues "shared around the country'' by those trying to unify family services, noted Joan Wynn, a research fellow at Chapin Hall.

Such questions, she said, include defining the "limits and role of authority'' and accountability in project governance; training and making effective use of community organizers; and resolving the "enormous tension in how we think about results.''

Tension About Results

The evaluation of the Children, Youth, and Families Initiative so far has focused on documenting the process of reform and asking "how closely does it resemble the intended system,'' Ms. Wynn said.

While acknowledging a need to "clarify outcomes and define markers of quality,'' Ms. Wynn cautioned against measuring results too early in the process.

"It will take years, money, and effort to create the kind of infrastructure and supports we are talking about,'' she said.

But some at the forum argued for more "outcome based'' data to guide policymakers. Collaborative projects generally could make better use of data on school performance and family well-being already collected by schools and health agencies, they said.

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