Following the US Senate Foreign Operations Budget Hearing on Children in Adversity, the Committee directed several written questions from Senators to those who had testified for formal response. I received a particular thoughtful question from Senator Lindsey Graham, which is below. In it, he asks for particular opportunities for effective public-private-faith based partnership on behalf of children in adversity. There are many specific organizations and projects that fit this description, some of which I mentioned in my original testimony. For this question, however, I instead focused on a model that I believe has tremendous potential to help unite the distinctive strengths of the public, private and nonprofit/faith sectors toward the goal of permanent family care for children who lack it. See the full question and response below:
SENATOR GRAHAM TO MR. MEDEFIND #1:
Your organization works with faith based organizations from all over the world with a shared interest in the three core objectives of the Action Plan for Children in Adversity. What opportunities do you see for the public, private and faith based communities to work in tandem toward this common goal?
Thank you for this question, Senator Graham. When it comes to caring for children in adversity, these three sectors—public, private and nonprofit (including both faith-based and secular)—each offer unique and truly complementary strengths. [See “The Permanency Center Model” concept below for a specific proposal on a particularly promising opportunity for public-private-FBO/CBO partnership.]
The three sectors achieve maximum impact for good when each operates primarily from within its core competencies. Effective partnerships enable this to happen, freeing each actor to use its primary strengths while also releasing to others the roles for which they would be better suited. This is perhaps nowhere more true than in seeking to resolve the deep, complex needs of children who lack parental care.
The public sector tends to be at its best when focused on child protection and survival. NGOs also play a vital role in large-scale child survival efforts and in longer-term community development as well. Meanwhile, it is often the local faith-based and other community organizations that best marshal the “relational” elements that children need to truly thrive—committed mentors, foster families, adoptive parents and also empathetic support for these care-givers. Finally, the for-profit sector provides an indispensible third leg to this stool. Businesses offer the only means by which the positive impact of government-and NGO-led initiatives can be sustained for the long-term via jobs, commerce and needed goods and services.
Many of the partnership examples I mentioned in the hearing are successful precisely because they draw upon the distinctive, complementary strengths of each of these sectors. This is seen vividly in the State of Colorado’s success in reducing the number of children waiting for families in foster care, as well as in the child welfare partnerships I mentioned that are now active in Rwanda, Costa Rica, China and Ethiopia.
It’s important to emphasize that government funding is often unnecessary, and sometimes unhelpful, in such partnerships. When driven primarily by government monies, partnerships rarely outlast their funding. Thus, ideal partnerships—even if seeded by government funds—tap the deeper motivations of each sector: the profit motive of the business sector, the philanthropic and faith motivations of the nonprofit sector, and the constituent-serving and problem-solving motivation of government.
Even without government funds, well-led collaborative efforts can designate clear roles and priorities for each partner, enabling them to focus on the things they do best. This enables deeper, more lasting impact from each sector’s contribution.
That said, strategic investments by government can indeed catalyze such partnerships. Government grants, vouchers and/or other financial incentives can help enlist and coordinate the contributions of the other two sectors.
One especially significant opportunity for this kind of strategic investment today pertains to Objective Two of the Action Plan—the goal of prioritizing permanent family for children who lack it.
No factor is more critical to the long-term thriving of children than consistent, nurturing parental care. Yet without robust partnership with the other sectors, government simply cannot provide this. Its child welfare efforts thus must often be limited to a narrower focus on child protection and survival. This is understandable, and even appropriate, given the distinct strengths and weaknesses of government. But it results in an under-emphasis on the goal of permanent family for unparented children.
This gap represents both a critical oversight in U.S. foreign investment and yet also a tremendous opportunity. Objective Two of the Action Plan provides a clear mandate to address this gap. Meanwhile, the nature of the needs of children reminds us that government cannot accomplish this goal alone. Effective partnership is not just helpful but essential.
Toward this end, new or re-programmed U.S. funds can be used to seed pilot projects that build and test strong public-private-nonprofit partnerships centered on the priority of family for children who lack it.
Specifically, I believe it would be tremendously valuable to fund pilot projects testing various expressions of a “Permanency Center” model in in 1) Some or all of the six priority countries designated by the Action Plan; and 2) A modest number of additional countries with strong interest in family-based solutions.
The Permanency Center Model. Although the structure of any Permanency Center would vary by country, the primary mandate would be the same: to create an independent authority capable of making timely best-interest determinations for children who lack parental care.
Permanency Center staff would seek to identify the best achievable outcome for each child. They would aim always for a result for each child that is as close as attainable to the ideal of permanent, nurturing family.
To the fullest extent possible, the Permanency Center’s authority would be independent of influences that could skew best-interest determinations away from the ideal, whether political pressures, quid-pro-quo funding, or other pressures.
While sensitive to the uniqueness of each child and the local solutions available, the Permanency Center would operate with a clear continuum of prioritization. This continuum would always begin with family preservation and reunification, then kinship care and adoption (local if at all possible, international when necessary), followed by less permanent solutions as needed: foster care, small group homes, and larger residential facilities.
While relentlessly seeking the ideal outcome of permanent family for every child, this paradigm is also capable of affirming the many other options that are sometimes necessary as a far preferable alternative to life on the streets or in an abusive home.
Given its mandate, the Permanency Center would become an effective hub for the efforts of the government, nonprofit, and business sectors to serve children in adversity.
For instance, when it is determined that a widow on the verge of relinquishing her child could be aided to continue raising that child, the widow could be connected to NGO micro-finance projects, the sponsorship programs of faith-based organizations, government social services and/or jobs offered by local employers. Likewise, when it is clear that no safe, permanent home can be found with relatives, options for finding a new family via adoption could be swiftly initiated through the Permanency Center—locally whenever possible, internationally when not.
Over time, this model will not only enable more efficient use of existing services, but will also highlight significant gaps in the continuum of options for children. For example, if it becomes clear there are few local families willing to adopt or foster, then government and NGOs may choose to invest in campaigns to recruit such families. If it appears that many impoverished parents are relinquishing children for reasons of poverty alone, expanded microfinance programs may become a greater priority.
Ultimately, the Permanency Center model and the collaborative paradigm it represents offer a tremendous opportunity for the public, private and faith-based communities to work in tandem for the goal of permanent, caring family for children who currently lack it. I can think of very little more likely to prove worthy of our investment.