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How Collaboration Fosters Safer Communities for Kids

October 15, 2018

By Martha Davis, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

The original version of this post by was published in RWJF's Culture of Health Blog and can be accessed here.

Collaborative approaches can help ensure kids grow up with a solid foundation of safety and with a support system for those who are affected by violence.

As the executive director of Philadelphia Physicians for Social Responsibility in the late 1990s, I worked closely with the local police department, the Women’s Law Project, and the district attorney. At the time, these forward-thinking professionals were frustrated. They were arresting the second and third generation of families involved in the criminal justice system. I knew some of these same individuals, and their histories as survivors of childhood trauma.

We were witnessing the downstream effects of unaddressed trauma in early childhood. Children who grew up traumatized landed in the juvenile justice system first and eventually within the criminal justice system as adults.

As a result, we knew we needed to find ways of building communities that would better support young children. Could we invest more upstream, in early childhood education, for example, and in doing so help prevent violence in our communities in the long-term?

Thanks to innovators like these and reams of new research on how early trauma and later violence affect individuals over a life course, we now understand that community conditions that impede children’s healthy development can impact everyone’s safety down the line.

We’re working alongside others to continue building evidence for and examples of communities that support the well-being of children and families. There is growing momentum to implement what we know—that early adversity like extreme poverty, violence, or neglect has long-term ramifications and that early stable and nurturing relationships have lifelong benefits. One example of this effort: Cradle to Community: A Focus on Community Safety and Healthy Child Development.

A collaboration between the Prevention Institute and the Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP), the project connects two fields that rarely work together: community violence prevention and early childhood development.

Six Strategies for Working at the Intersection of Community Safety and Early Childhood

This work led to six recommendations for communities that are developing collaborative, place-based approaches to ensure that all of our children have a solid foundation of safety and to build a comprehensive support system for children affected by violence at any age. The Prevention Institute and CSSP developed these recommendations through the UNITY City Network and Early Childhood LINC.  

  1. Build the capacity of youth, parents, and other family members to advocate for healthy communities for their children. Healthy communities enable members to live their healthiest lives possible through access to important factors such as healthy food, quality school, stable housing, jobs with fair pay and safe places to exercise and play. Community members and those directly affected by violence must be active participants in making change within their own communities to create these conditions.

  2. Educate the community on the impact of unsafe neighborhoods on children. A basic fact sheet on the brain science of child development was very helpful for local leaders, who used the information to make the case for combining work in community safety and child development.

  3. Provide training and technical assistance for providers in community safety and early childhood development to enhance their ability to work across sectors. Options include convenings, a learning lab, peer learning forums, and technical assistance to identify opportunities for change. Fact sheets, profiles, and briefs help to guide practice, policy, and innovation.

  4. Build partnerships and coalitions. Partners can include those in community development, criminal justice, education, employment, and the health care sector. Community safety and early childhood development practitioners often use different approaches in their work and sometimes literally speak different languages. Bringing these diverse groups together helps build important shared understanding of each sector’s role and opportunities to work together and builds comprehensive systems of support for all children.

  5. Change organizational practices to focus on health equity and racial justice. The Prevention Institute facilitated conversations between leaders from both sectors to help them better understand the community conditions that shape behavior and to identify areas for change. For example, community members identified changing norms about fathers and fatherhood as one area of focus. Practitioners discussed offering support to men in their roles as fathers by changing language to be more inclusive, embedding fatherhood supports into early childhood programs and violence-interruption programs, and supporting their role as fathers among men who are incarcerated.

  6. Change policy, especially state and local policy, to support safe and healthy families and communities—policies that reduce poverty, improve access to education and training for all ages, curtail the cradle-to-prison pipeline, and enhance the economic and educational environment in neighborhoods. Polices that make it possible to blend different sources of public funding are also key.

The best thing? Efforts are already underway in reform-minded locales around the country to create great places for kids. In Baltimore, for example, the city health department is building on the success of B’more for Healthy Babies, a maternal and child health strategy. They are expanding comprehensive youth safety, wellness, and health programs for children from birth to age 5.

Housing this work in the health department helped leadership see the connections between child development and outcomes for children in the public health system. In California, First 5 Alameda County is supporting a comprehensive, place-based approach to supporting children in East Oakland’s Castlemont neighborhood. The project is taking a trauma- and resilience-informed approach and is connecting violence prevention with early childhood programming, housing, career opportunities, and education.

RWJF is also supporting several other comprehensive, place-based approaches to building communities where children thrive. Raising Places, for example, is using human-centered design principles to build healthier, child-centered communities. And the Mobilizing Action for Resilient Communities program brings together locales working to translate the science of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) into policies that foster resilience. Because communities that are good for children are not just good for children, they are good for everyone.

Consider how lessons from the report can benefit your community, and share what you’re already doing to create conditions where children and families can thrive in the comments below.

About the Author

Martha Davis joined RWJF in 2014 as a senior program officer. Her work focuses on the root causes of violence, including child abuse and intimate partner violence. She seeks to address violence through her work in strengthening families to create nurturing, healthy environments that promote children’s positive development. Read her full bio.

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