Community Development Corporations (CDCs) and raising children

Community context matters to child development—the number of households in poverty and the ratio of adults to children in a neighborhood influence a child’s social, emotional, and cognitive development. A well-run CDC provides a stable presence in the community, a network of relationships, the ability to build leadership, and experience in planning, managing, and assessing programs. In short, CDCs bring the very strengths that communities need to help young children and families.

The National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) decided to explore the ways that CDCs are promoting the well-being of low-income families with young children, the challenges they face, and how their role in this important area might be strengthened. We identified more than 50 CDCs that address child and family issues and conducted in-depth interviews with representatives of nine CDCs from Oakland to the Bronx, five of whom are profiled here.

A few of these CDCs have taken a formal organizational approach, either appointing a director of early childhood programs or developing a plan that specifically addresses the needs of parents, child care providers, and young children. Most efforts have involved significant help from national or regional intermediaries focused on child care and economic development, but CDCs are typically not linked with other child and family leaders who are working to improve outcomes for young children either within their communities or states.

Whatever their approach, all nine CDCs employ one or more basic strategies:

  • running child development and family support programs,
  • supporting child care providers by rehabilitating homes and providing training in business and child care skills, and
  • including grandparents and others raising young children in their support programs for families.

The challenges that CDCs face in enhancing their focus on activities related to young children and families are considerable. A number of the CDCs in our broader sample (although not the nine we studied in depth) reported an ambivalence about focusing explicitly on young children and families, indeed on human development across the life span. Those who did want to expand activities related to young children talked about the difficulty of getting buy-in from their own organizations.

Several CDCs indicated that expanding their scope to address early childhood was risky, because it involved “stepping on the toes” of other organizations in the community. In general, these CDCs tended to believe that early childhood programs belong solely within the domain of “the professional community”—described by one respondent as those who go home to other communities at night. Those expressing this view perhaps did not recognize the role that community residents were playing as family child care providers and owners of childcare businesses, nor the potentially powerful impact that support groups of parents might have on reducing community isolation.

Those CDCs that are developing new approaches to supporting young children and families recognized that this often involves new partnerships, and that the process of negotiating expectations and goals can be challenging. One CDC official talked about the pressure from a partner organization to get as many family child care providers licensed as possible, when the CDC itself was more concerned with making sure existing providers had viable businesses. Still other CDCs recognized that forging into new territory, particularly regarding young children and families, required the development of new perspectives and expertise. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the strategies employed by the nine CDCs involved the support and technical assistance of regional and national intermediaries.

As with most organizations providing services and supports to young children and families, CDCs are concerned about the twin challenges of finding funds to maintain and expand child- and family-focused programs and dealing with the limitations of categorical funds. They also reported frequent cash flow problems—not only for themselves but, in some instances, for child care providers who suffer when reimbursement for their services is not timely.

Drawing on lessons from existing efforts, we identified a number of ways in which CDCs could improve their overall service to children and families. They can promote greater community awareness about the importance of early childhood through participation in literacy campaigns; more consistently inform parents about benefits, particularly in light of the changing rules regarding Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and other assistance programs; and create “two-generation approaches,” to reach grandparents who are playing a greater role in raising children.

Although there is plenty more to do, it is clear that, with their knowledge of and presence in the community, CDCs are already in a strong position to help identify and craft strategies that respond to the challenges of raising children in low-income communities. The network of organizations concerned with children and their families—including funders, community and state coalitions, service providers, advocates, and policy makers—should reach out and include CDCs. The experienced voices of CDC practitioners need to be heard.

Bethel New Life, a faith-based CDC in Chicago, opened its doors in 1979 to increase the availability of affordable housing. Ten years later, Bethel established Project Triumph to provide more comprehensive services, including a home visiting program for pregnant mothers and parents with children up to three years of age. The program helps mothers and grandparents obtain information about and services for housing, education, employment, child care, and health care. Among other services, Project Triumph provides periodic developmental screening for children and home visits by a child development specialist. In addition, the program holds regular meetings for parents and grandparents, during which a meal is served so that staff can observe interactions with children; after the meal, parents meet in support groups while a child development specialist works with the children.

Two different curricula, Minnesota Early Learning Design and Effective Black Parenting, are used in the program, which operates at two sites and currently serves 160 families and more than 170 children. Overall, child development specialists, case managers, and home educators conduct about 110 home visits per month. The program is funded by the Illinois State Board of Education through early childhood block grant funds. Bethel New Life has no formal system for tracking the progress of participants. However, they informally observe the progress of mothers who remain in the program for extended periods of time because of the birth of another child or because they are acting as parent mentors.

Providers United, a collaboration between two CDCs in the Bronx, aims to improve and expand the supply of child care in the area. Fordham Bedford Housing Corporation (FBHC), a housing organization established in 1998 by local tenant and neighborhood leaders to prevent the spread of housing deterioration, now manages more than 70 tenant- and community-controlled buildings with 1,400 affordable apartments. University Neighborhood Housing Program (UNHP) is a community-based not-for-profit organization created by Fordham University and the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition in 1983. UNHP works to create, preserve, and finance affordable housing through community lending, neighborhood organizing, and technical assistance.

In 1998, the two CDCs collaborated on a grant proposal to the Enterprise Foundation, a national intermediary, to launch Providers United, a network of 50 family child care providers (parents who also take care of other children). FBHC now provides a home for the collaboration, while UNHP provides technical assistance and staff support and holds an annual fundraiser. The network offers workshops and classes on child development in partnership with the Early Childhood Center at the State University of New York. It also helps family child care providers strengthen their skills as small business owners, providing information and training about such issues as tax assistance, obtaining small business loans, and developing contractual agreements.

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Providers United also makes site visits to the homes of child care providers to offer technical assistance on child care and child development issues, offers loans and small grants to purchase equipment, and maintains a resource room and lending library for providers. In addition, the network assists and encourages providers to become advocates, helps steer them through the licensing process, and connects them to other resources in the community. In collaboration with Bank Street College, Providers United is also reaching out to the neighbors and relatives who are the informal providers of child care in many communities.

The Community Action Project of Tulsa County (CAPTC) was formed as a community development corporation in 1973. CAPTC is the largest provider of nonprofit housing in Oklahoma and a provider of other family support services. In 1998, it became the designated community action agency for Tulsa County, as well as the primary Tulsa County Head Start grantee. The nonprofit Tulsa Children’s Coalition, a collaboration of six community organizations, also assigned CAPTC contracts to develop child care programs for low-income families. CAPTC recognized this as an opportunity to create a stronger system of care by linking services for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, and created more than 950 Head Start child care slots for preschool-aged children as well as for infants and toddlers.

In 1998, CAPTC began to rehabilitate houses for family child care providers and help them develop viable businesses. CAPTC pays for the rehabilitation of the homes, which are then made available to family child care providers, who also have an opportunity to work towards purchasing these homes through a home ownership program. Providers can also enroll in the project’s small business development program or join an Individual Development Account (IDA) program to accumulate the money they need to purchase a home. To help them recruit and enroll children, providers are connected with two CAPTC early childhood education programs—Head Start and First Start. Other programs and services offered through CAPTC, such as tax preparation assistance and case management, are also available for providers. To date, CAPTC has rehabilitated 10 homes for family child care providers.

The Mutual Assistance Network (MAN), in Sacramento, California, was created in 1992 with assistance from the Sacramento County Department of Human Assistance to provide neighborhood programs organized around economic development, family services, and welfare reform. In 1998, MAN developed a program to train welfare recipients to be child care providers; funding comes from a grant from the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network. Once trained, the residents receive help in opening their own home-based child care business. At the time the initiative began, MAN had already developed such a successful track record in providing employment services that the county allowed it to administer one of the county’s welfare-to-work programs (Job Club/Job Search). That program has been so effective that the county is exploring the possibility of applying it to other communities. About 80 percent of the residents stay in the program, and 60 percent obtain “good” jobs, defined by MAN as paying at least $8.30 an hour. MAN’s Contingency Loan Fund provides small interest-free loans to residents who need emergency cash to cover start-up fees for small businesses, child care, transportation, health fees, and the costs of materials, tools, uniforms, or—for child care providers—toys.

MAN also developed family support programs for grandparents and parents and peer support groups for children and youth. It initiated the Block Grandparent Program in 1994 in response to community concerns about the city’s high rate of involvement with child protective services, about twice the rate of the rest of the county. In response, MAN developed a neighborhood approach in which local residents would be trained as home visitors. Block Grandparents was funded by the Sacramento County Department of Health and Human Services as a preventive child welfare service. The “Block Grandparents,” who receive extensive training from the county, help families address their challenges and, if necessary, refer them to other services. Over 400 families were served through June 1999, and the rate of repeated reports of child abuse and neglect for families in Del Paso Heights, one of Sacramento’s poorest neighborhoods, dropped from 58 percent to 28 percent.

In 1994, MAN created the Grandparents Support Group to enable grandparents and other relative caregivers to find strength in each other and gain access to needed resources. Spearheaded by a neighborhood resident raising her own grandchildren, the group now comprises 25 women who meet biweekly. The group also offers “respite care” to grandparents for one 24-hour period per month. Recently, support group participants have become involved in legislative advocacy in an effort to increase the stipend offered to relatives caring for their kin. In 1995, group members also established a group for children and youth being raised by grandparents. That group is now open to all youths.

The Parent Support Group was created in 1997 to respond to the needs of the high number of single parents in the community. It gives parents an opportunity to learn from each other’s experiences, strengthen their parenting skills, and develop their own goals. Parents learn about assessing children’s needs, developmentally-appropriate activities for their children, and managing stressful situations. MAN has also developed support groups for children that provide them an opportunity to discuss problems and receive tutoring.

The Portland Community Reinvestment Initiative (PCRI) in Oregon specializes in providing affordable housing opportunities for lower-income households. Three years after it was formed in 1991, residents of PCRI housing identified the lack of child care as a barrier to work and a cause for absenteeism from work. These concerns had also been expressed by residents during interviews conducted by PCRI to recertify residents as eligible for low-income housing. In response, PCRI applied for and received a planning grant from a national intermediary, the National Economic Development and Law Center, to explore child care issues further, building on the experiences of other CDCs that had worked on similar planning processes. One product of this planning effort was the Parent Network, which helps parents become better informed about issues related to child care quality, availability, and subsidies. The Parent Network meets on a monthly basis and shares information about child care subsidies, quality care, and short-term emergency child care scholarships. Other network activities include workshops (in financial planning, stress management, and advocacy skills), and community events, such as a barbecue, with activities geared toward young children, to build connections among residents.

This article is adapted from The Role of Community Development Corporations in Promoting the Well-Being of Young Children, by Jane Knitzer, Ed.D., deputy director of the National Center for Children in Poverty, and Fida Adely, lecturer at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. The full report is available at www.nccp.org, or call 212-304-7561 to request a copy.

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