Experts Eye Vital Benefits for Children

panel participantsRep. Edolphus “Ed” Towns, second from left, joins the panel participants, from left: Richard Buery, Emma Jordan-Simpson, Vincent Guilamo-Ramos, Mary McKay and Joan Levy Zlotnik.

Social workers in the New York City area must get more involved in their communities and in politics to enact policies that benefit at-risk New York City youth struggling to overcome poverty and steep budget cuts in education and social service programs, according to social workers and other experts who spoke at a Sept. 16 symposium in Brooklyn.

The Symposium on the Future of New York City’s Children and Youth was sponsored by NASW and the NASW-New York City Chapter, in conjunction with the Congressional Social Work Caucus, which is chaired by social worker U.S. Rep. Edolphus “Ed” Towns, D-N.Y.

“We have Ed Towns (in Congress),” said William Pollard, president of Medgar Evers College of The City University of New York. “We need more social workers in Congress.”

Towns convened the symposium to generate ideas that could benefit children, not only in New York City but across the country. The event was held at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, and president of the University, Jerry Hultin, opened the event.

“Children are 24 percent of the population,” Towns said. “But they are 100 percent of our future.”

Some of the leading social workers in the region were on symposium panels, including Pollard; Dr. Vincent Guilamo-Ramos and Dr. Mary McKay, professors and researchers at the New York University Silver School Social Work; Zeinab Chahine, managing director for strategic consulting at Casey Family Programs; Dr. Katharine Briar-Lawson, dean and professor at the University at Albany, State University of New York; and Dr. William Meezan, director of policy and research at Children’s Rights.

In addition, New York City Councilman Robert Jackson; President and Chief Executive Officer of The Children’s Aid Society Richard Buery; Executive Director of the Children’s Defense Fund in New York City Dr. Emma Jordan-Simpson; and Deputy Commissioner of Youth Services in New York City Bill Chong participated in the panels.

The half-day symposium was divided into three panels: “Educating New York City’s Children,” which was moderated by social worker Irwin Garfinkel, professor of Contemporary Urban Problems at Columbia University; “Positive Youth Development for At-Risk Children and Youth,” moderated by social worker Joan Levy Zlotnik, director of NASW’s Social Work Policy Institute; and “Protecting and Enhancing Investments in Children,” moderated by social worker Mary McCarthy, director of the Social Work Education Consortium, University at Albany, State University of New York, and lead principal investigator for the National Child Welfare Workforce Institute.

The panels generated a number of ideas to improve the educational and economic outlook for New York City children and youth. For example:

  • Social workers should become more involved in the community in order to engage citizens in activities that help youth, Pollard noted. More social workers are also needed in the U.S. House and Senate.
  • The nation - conservatives and progressives - must come together to create jobs, which would make families more economically stable and in turn benefit youth, Briar-Lawson said. “Until we do, we lose group after group” of young people, she said.
  • Social workers need to evaluate existing child and youth programs to determine if they are really effective in the context of the communities where they are implemented, Guilamo-Ramos said. In fact, some of the best programs that benefit youth occur when social workers and others collaborate with youth and families in communities, McKay said.
  • Social workers should not try to “fix” at-risk families but, instead, work with families to find ways to support them, Chahine said. That way both sides become partners in the process.
  • There should be greater coordination between the myriad public agencies and nonprofit groups that help at-risk children and youth and their families, Meezan said. The way social programs are funded should also become more transparent and flexible, said Meezan, who stated that since funding is often done in “silos,” it is difficult for the people who run social programs to apply for and get financial support. “This strangles our time and energy,” he said.
  • The United States needs to adopt a comprehensive child welfare and family policy in order to concentrate more attention and resources into these issues, Meezan said.

Towns said his staff will use transcripts from the symposium to inform policies. He said it will also be important to convince lawmakers that investing in at-risk children and youth before they engage in problematic activities is far less expensive than incarcerating them after the fact.

“I think we have to make a case to spend money on the front end instead of the back end,” he said.