Posts Tagged Child-Friendly Cities

The 2015 Revival of America’s Can-Do Spirit

Published by EducationNews.org — In 2015, let’s consider policies, decisions, architecture, whatever, in terms of whether or not they’re good for kids.

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A “can-do” spirit seems as fundamentally American as Mom and apple pie.  “Can do” has a super-encouraging tone of voice, the kind that kindergarten teachers use, or my mother when she assured us that “good manners can be fun!”  The “can-do” approach is determined, but light-hearted.  Yes of course Mickey (Rooney) and Judy (Garland) could gather the neighborhood kids to put on a show that raised money for a good cause, and do a bang up job to boot!

But in these cynical times, “can-do” sounds corny, even naive.  As everyone with a brain knows, Mr. Smith certainly does not go to Washington these days, and no, Virginia, there is no Santa.

So, sadly for modern kids, America’s “can-do” spirit feels as though it’s morphed into an appetite for advocacy.  Very argumentative.  If you’re for kids, you must be against someone else, like the taxpayer.  Advocates and the increasing need for everyone to speak in clear, sound-bite slogans can turn issues into impossible polarities — we’re either for Common Core or agin it; for environmentalism or against its costs; for guns or against freedom.  Advocacy definitely has its place, but by nature it promotes head-butting.

Somehow advocacy doesn’t really help kids feel the love.

Actually, “can do” is short for “We can do it,” an idea with a warmer, more embracing nature.  It returns the missing the “we” — who can do the love — and the “it,” the goal.

We can do it.  In 2015, we can surely do better by our kids.  The current situation is ridiculous.  By so many measures, American kids aren’t doing at all well, given their high rates of poverty, drugs, teen pregnancy, single-parent homes, failure to launch, educational under-achievement, etc.  Our kids’ stats are dismal compared with the rest of the developed world.  As with the healthcare crisis, Americans pump a boatload of money into the front end — into schools, juvenile justice, medicating bad behavior, and spoiling kids materially.  And then we get our famously mediocre results.  Kids need at least as much attention and press as healthcare, and I don’t consider obsessing about test scores to be attention to kids.

In 2015, let’s consider policies, decisions, actions, architecture, whatever, in terms of whether or not they’re good for kids.  This is a relatively easy mental exercise that would be useful for parents, political leaders, school staff, social-service administrators and adults in general.

So:  are juvenile-justice facilities good for kids?  Do they do what we want them to?  Do they teach feral kids the impulse control and community-appropriate behavior that we want from all youth?  Do suspensions?  If not, what would work?  How can adults generally inspire more of kids’ enthused cooperation, instead of mere compliance?

Are the parks fun?  Have concerns with safety been carried out to the point that we frighten kids needlessly and don’t let them learn resilience?  (There’s a sign in a local park that says “No running.”  Seriously.)

Is most TV good for kids?  (Who is it good for?)  Is hanging on electronics by the hour good for kids?  If not, is there anything for kids to do in their neighborhoods?  If not, does public transportation allow them to get to more interesting places safely and comfortably?  (It does in much of Europe.)  How about getting around under their own steam on bikes?  Do children and youth have enough autonomy these days?

The questions are infinite.  And when you start asking them, you wonder when was the last time we did strongly consider the interests of kids as we made decisions.

Actually, the international Child-Friendly Cities movement, nearly absent in the U.S., does exactly that:  looks at the world through the lens of the health and welfare of their kids.  They just had a conference in Odense, Denmark.  This year’s focus was on play.

Ask:  “Does this improve things for the kids?”  It’s an excellent sniff test for public and private decisions.  Congress and everyone else should take it up.

So let’s imagine that this coming year we’re going to become peacock proud of our collective parenting, as evidenced by more kids becoming young adults we enjoy sharing the earth with.  We’re Americans.  We so can do it!

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Children and Youth Voices are a Wealth of Information

Published by EducationNews.org — Part 5 of 5 on Leeds’ efforts to become a Child-Friendly City.  (Part 1Part 2Part 3, Part 4)

Last November, the Lord Mayor and Mayoress of Leeds, England invited 10 sixth-graders, 10 and 11-year-olds, to tea at their home.  Annually, for the last 10 years, the Leeds City Council has invited all the city’s “year 6” students to compete to be elected, after a fashion, to become the Leeds Child Mayor.  At that tea the adult Mayor, who is himself a City Councilman elected by his Council peers, was honoring the finalists for the position and announcing the winner of this year’s election: Charlotte Williams, pictured above.

In the past, the Child Mayor election was a learning exercise in civic engagemen leading to a largely ceremonial position.  But in 2011, as part of its work to become a Child-Friendly City (CFC), Leeds surveyed their youth and children asking what it was they wanted from their city government.  CFCs highly value children and youth “voice.”  The survey results were boiled down to “12 Wishes” that include such desires as (#9) having more good jobs and training opportunities for youth and (#8) schools that address obstacles preventing all kids from “engaging in and enjoying learning.”  In 2012 the Wishes changed the eligibility for Mayor.  Sixth-graders now write a manifesto up to 400 words on how he or she, as Mayor, would accomplish some aspect of one Wish.

Charlotte addressed Wish #1:  “Children and young people can make safe journeys and easily travel around the city.”  Her winning essay, Life Cycle of Leeds, promises to promote cycling by developing more bike paths and a city bike-share program.

But here’s the beautiful part:  relevant members of the City Council and their staff are assigned to work with the Child Mayor to realize the goals.  They heard the kids and are committing City resources to improving their world.

Children’s voice is real.

Giving children a say in what affects them is a value held dear by both Child-Friendly Cities and Restorative Practices, the back-stage techniques that help get the loftier CFC goals accomplished.  This column series has looked at both initiatives quite closely, but hasn’t yet highlighted that youth voice is where the two initiatives intersect.  Children’s voice is the vortex of Leeds’ work.

Certainly the Children’s Wishes are a very public effort to hear kids.  But Family Group Conferencing (FGC), a Restorative technique used in child-welfare cases, also invites the perceptions and opinions of the kids in the families involved.  FGC’s success lies specifically in having the members of the family speak for themselves.  Normally professionals decide where to place children whose parents can no longer engage in proper parenting (drugs, mentally illness, abuse).  In FGC the extended family expresses their solutions, as do the highly-trained professionals.  But the statistical odds of children thriving in a new placement go up significantly if the kids are also consulted.  What do they want?  What do they think would work best?  Often they know tons about the situation that no professional could.

Under any circumstance where the children themselves will be affected, they should have the right to be heard, taken seriously, and when necessary, held accountable for their actions or statements.  When age-appropriate, children and youth should be at the table in their own Individual Education Plan meetings (for special education).  If the professionals state their goals — improved behavior, certain academic goals — how does the kid think such goals might be met?  Kids won’t always have great ideas, but sometimes their solutions will be brilliant.

Children are not final decision-makers.  Hear them anyway.  Schools, parks-and-recreation departments, and transportation offices would be more successful in their own efforts if they ask the opinions of their young clients and when possible, work jointly on problems and solutions with them.

Kids are a fund of useful information which we ignore to our peril.

It will take time for Leeds’ kids to trust that they’re actually being heard.  Their Wish #11 is:  “Children and young people express their views, feel heard and are actively involved in decisions that affect their lives — this is what we mean by ‘participation’.”

But Leeds is working on including children’s opinions in every aspect of the city’s inner workings that has to do with them — schools, transportation, workforce development.  Young voices can be creative and highly useful on boards and committees, especially as they get used to adults expecting to hear their thoughts.  What Charlotte Williams wants for her city and herself is a fine goal.  Hopefully she and the City Council will noticeably improve bike transportation.  Children and adults alike will benefit.

Yes, for a year Charlotte also gets to be part of the pomp the British do so well.  But more importantly, the City’s children will see their and her ideas being taken seriously by municipal bureaucrats.  It should be so everywhere.  Kudos to the City of Leeds.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Child-Friendly Cities Are the Goal, Restoration Is the ‘How’

Published by EducationsNews.org — Part 4 of 5 on Leeds’ efforts to become a Child-Friendly City.  (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

In 2010, Leeds, the 3rd largest city in England, filched Nigel Richardson from his post as Director of Children’s Services in nearby Hull.  He’d led the charge to make Hull the world’s first “Restorative City.”  Using restorative practices across Hull’s agencies, both public and private, yielded stunning results after only 5 years.  For example, costs for the youth justice system came down by 3.5 million pounds (roughly $5.8 million) and school exclusions by 80 percent.

Leeds clearly wanted Richardson, so they must have wanted restorative practices.  Interestingly, they didn’t want to become another Restorative City.  Hmm, and why not?  First, the word “restoration” is often associated with restorative justice, which is to say, wrong-doing.  They didn’t want to feel stuck in the mode of fixing wrong-doing.  (For this reason, I too call my own work restorative “practices,” however much wrong-doing it involves.)  And secondly, Leeds didn’t feel it had much former glory to restore.

But Child-Friendly Cities (CFC) offered an unambiguously positive spin on the tough cultural changes Leeds would need to turn around its ugly social stats.  While also joining excellent international company, “Child-Friendly” presents an attractive face to the public, good for rallying support.

Critically, CFC’s goals dovetail nicely with restorative practices, the interpersonal skills that lifted Hull out of the doldrums.  Leeds’ genius, then, is to combine two powerful, internationally-growing movements into one astounding initiative.  The CFC’s goals are exciting, inspiring.  But the gritty, daily work of changing a city’s culture demands handling oceans of interpersonal conflict — from schoolyard beefs to calming entrenched bureaucrats as systems change.  So restorative interactions are the powerful fuel driving the engine behind CFC’s lofty goals.  Richardson says, “The default behaviour of children’s services in all its dealings with local citizens, partners, and organisations will be restorative – high support with high challenge.”

This time Richardson knows exactly how to accomplish the task.

He hired Sharon Inglis, Director of the non-profit Circles Training and Consultancy, to oversee the spread of restorative training across agencies, schools and families, just as she’d done in Hull.

Speaking recently, she said, “Family is the most important resource in the 21st century.  Children are born into families, that make up communities; communities make up cities.  Every day (in Leeds) 175,000 people brush up against children.  How do they think about their behavior when they do?”

Just as Inglis started her new job, one woman’s 12th child was being taken into state care.  Really?  No earlier intervention had either helped that woman become a functional mom or prevented her from bearing kids to be raised by the state.

The problem is that state agencies can become thoughtlessly punitive.  Frightened of bad press and often just lazy, public systems find punishing “bad” moms far easier than working with them.  But public-service punishments only exacerbate the conditions driving large numbers of children into care (and school failure).  Punitive solutions mainly serve to cover personal and agency butts.

“We have to change the relationship between government and the family.”

Inglis notes that a terrific frontline worker might work with an extended family to create a smart, solid plan for wrapping supports around a kid, but her supervisor says, “Oh no, that won’t work.  I didn’t see the family in action, so I don’t believe it.”  The supervisor’s authority trumps.  So forget the plan; remove the kids.  Here the problem is between the supervisor and worker.  They are not behaving restoratively with one another.  Only when Restoration is well established within agencies can workers effectively use the practices with their client families as well as teach families to use the skills themselves.  Inglis asks,  “What does Human Resources look like if it’s restorative?”

She gives the example of an veteran manager who’s highly competent, but harsh to her staff.  One social worker was hopelessly behind in her paperwork.  Normally the manager would berate her, put a letter in her file, or fire her.  But having just been trained, the manager avoided “laying into her, and instead began to ask restorative questions.”  However obvious it sounds, questions are a principal tool of restoration.  Gather information about what’s going on first.  Often people are thrilled just to be consulted.

Still, the manager was sure that asking questions would just lead to a wad of excuses.  Instead, the worker admitted she had no idea how to manage certain things and said flat out she felt unequipped to do her job well.  And lo!  The manager discovered that the worker had never had certain training critical to her work.  Always thorough, the manager investigated and found that the lack of that training was widespread.  Suddenly the landscape looked quite different.  Information flowed.  A flaw exposed can be fixed.

Everyone needs to be more highly skilled at interacting.

Leeds Child Services now requires its social workers to conduct at least 22 family group conferences a year, empowering families to make their own healthy decisions, while modeling calm, restorative interactions.  Foster-care numbers are declining “radically.”

Schools, police, municipal offices all need to become skilled at getting and using information restoratively.  Hull’s story proves that this mindset works.  Leeds’ bet is that when the fabric of the whole city is restorative, and their families are healthier, the economy will also improve.

Next week, in the last of this series, we’ll look at the thing both CFC and Restoration hold most dear: children’s voice.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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The Beauty Of Helping People Feel They’ve Been Heard

Published by EducationNews.org — Part 3 of 5 on Leeds’ efforts to become a Child-Friendly City (Part 1, Part 2)

In 2005, when Nigel Richardson became their Director of Children’s Services, the city of Hull was sometimes called “the Detroit of England.”  Hull sits on the big gash of a river, the Humbert, that cuts towards the country’s mid-section.  For centuries shipping and fishing thrived.  So historically Hull was more tied to the Netherlands, by boat, than to England’s north-south axis, where early railroads passed it by.  The shipping industry’s collapse left Hull with Detroit-like social problems — high poverty, teen pregnancy, drugs, school-drop-outs and the like.

In 2010 I went to a conference in Hull, fascinated by their incredible come-back story.  Yes, it’s seedy in ways, but it has lovely European architectural bones that will clean up nicely as it continues its climb out of dysfunction.  Detroit it is not.

But in 2005, when Richardson came along, the social statistics were dire.  His come-back strategy was to get out to make friends and partnerships among agencies that touch children — police, schools, housing, non-profits.  He explained, “We knew we should be thinking collectively, as a team.  And the question was, what’s it like to grow up in a city like Hull, and how could we make it better?  Children’s Services had already done some really good work using Family Group Conferencing and youth diversion.  But how do you move from being reactive to proactive?  We had a framework.  We had priorities, action steps.  We had all that you’re supposed to have, but we lacked the glue.”

Restorative practices become the social glue.

Restorative practices are a set of simple interpersonal skills and rules that help people hear what each other is saying and maximize the chances of people feeling heard — a sensation in sadly short supply these days.  I think of these practices as sandbox skills: taking turns, speaking from the heart, listening carefully, using “I” statements as opposed to accusatory “you” statements.  (Many versions of these skills are out on the internet; here’s one.)  Hull’s efforts became cumulatively powerful as more and more people used the practices — from agency administrators to front-line workers, from police to social services to schools to families.

Best to illustrate with a Hull story.  Jenny had been the wife and mom of a reasonably healthy family, but over the last 7 years had become a psychological mess.  Messed-up moms are not good for their kids, as you know, but no one’s efforts seemed to help.  She came to the attention of the Hull community police, trained in restorative practices by then, when she threatened to kill herself.

Apparently, 7 years earlier, Jenny’s husband and a neighbor friend got into such a bad fight, the neighbor was arrested.  In the heat of the moment, he’d threatened to kill her.  She’d been terrified ever since, declining mentally and increasingly becoming a worry to her family.  The cop talked her into participating in a restorative conference.  It was also his job to get Jenny’s husband and the neighbors to participate.  In the conference, the neighbor said that the “threat” was an angry throw-away line to which he’d never given another thought.  He was mortified by what had happened to Jenny, but really, it was a misunderstanding.  Jenny heard his sincerity.  The couples mended fences; the women became friends again.  When Jenny ran into that same cop months later, she gratefully reported that the conference had given her back her life.  Imagine the effect on the rest of her family.

Restoratively-trained public officials help families sort things out.

As he developed new partnerships, Richardson got wind of schools also experimenting with restorative practices.

Estelle McDonald, newly-hired head of Collingwood Primary School, was desperate to calm the chaos at her miserable school.  Not thinking anything would come of it, she sent off a plea for help to the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) which she’d found online.  She returned from lunch to messages that “a mad American” Ted Wachtel, founder of IIRP, would love to talk about spreading the restorative gospel overseas.  Mercifully, IIRP had the capacity to help train Hull’s leaders, who could then train trainers in their respective agencies.

Ultimately Hull officials trained thousands of child-serving “professionals.”  Charmingly, that included parents, grandparents, anyone who dealt with children.

Richardson’s growing group of leaders asked:  “What if the behaviors of the adults changed so the children all encountered restorative behaviors?  What if the ideas of restoration, working with the families, hearing their stories and wishes, wrapped themselves around the lives of the children?  What if restorative practices connected all of us across the city?”

With people talking, brainstorming, learning to resolve conflict productively, Hull came to life again.  The simple-sounding skills, shared by janitor, mom and City Counselor, were changing Hull’s culture.  Families became more functional.  School attendance improved.  Juvenile offenders often made reparations side-by-side with those whom they’d harmed, and in some cases, with the police who’d caught them.

For once Hull commanded positive attention by becoming the first Restorative City in the world, with social-service statistics that were stunningly improved.  The 2010 conference teemed with British police, residential heads, social-service officials and others coming to learn the magic that redeemed once-downtrodden Hull.

But that was also the year Richardson took the same job in Leeds.  Hull is Leeds’ back-story.  The twain shall meet next week.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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What Is a Child-Friendly City? Why Should We Care?

Published by EducationNews.orgPart 2 of 5 on Leeds’ efforts to become a Child-Friendly City (Part 1)

In 1989 the United Nations completed a 10-year multi-national negotiation that resulted in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.  To this day, this treaty signed by 193 nations remains the largest international set of agreements ever accomplished in history.  Its preamble and 42 articles state principles that should be obvious truisms, but aren’t.  Like that children and youth should have protection from exploitation and abuse, a loving family, a safe environment, clean water and air, and so on.  As the Preamble puts it, “childhood is entitled to special care and assistance.”

A movement emerged from the Convention called “Child-Friendly Cities” (CFC).  Championed by UNICEF, cities on every continent began working to implement in reality what the Convention lays out as principles in the abstract.  The work was and is vast.  The welfare of children touch virtually every aspect of policy-making from national to neighborhood levels.  So, for example, countries that discriminate against certain ethnic groups had to start the hard political work of changing their laws, regulations, and government services to end discrimination against those groups’ children, per their Convention agreements.  These days annual conferences gather participating cities, of which there are now hundreds, to share best practices, celebrate success and get advice on intractable challenges.

Fortunately, UNICEF has provided a how-to guide for cities.  They’ve boiled down the Convention’s 42 articles to relatively manageable principles, like children’s right to clean water, proper sanitation, a loving family, protection from abuse, shelter, health care, education and the like.  But refreshingly, the Convention also agrees that each young citizen needs to be able to:

*  Walk safely in the streets on their own.

*  Meet friends and play (my emphasis).

*  Have green spaces for plants and animals.

*  Be an equal citizen of their city.

In short, it’s a city-by-city effort to make a world fit for children.

I should note that “Child-Friendly Cities” is probably not ringing a bell because the U.S. and Somalia were the only two nations that refused to sign the Convention.  They reserve the right to execute or incarcerate for life a child under 18, contrary to Convention agreement.  Some U.S. cities have worked on CFC initiatives, but in general, we’ve allowed this encouraging international movement to pass us by.  Our loss.

Crazy-broad CFC partnerships collaborate on unified strategies.

Almost 60% of the world’s children grow up in urban environments now.  Governments at every level divide children’s issues among self-contained public agencies — education, social services, health.  Cities are not in the habit of coordinating their plans with multiple public or private agencies, never mind collectively looking through the lens of what’s good for kids or what kids themselves feel is good.  Children routinely drop between the cracks of those siloed agencies, even though no intractable social problem — take school absenteeism — could be solved by a government agency working alone.

A few examples:  Walking, biking and buses are not safe for kids in most cities.  In 1998 while working towards becoming a CFC, Bogota, Colombia elected Enrique Peñalosa as its Mayor.  As a bicycle nut, personally, he made safe, accessible, widespread transportation a priority during his administration, which required work from all sorts of agencies.

Bangladesh assembled a large CFC coordinating council made up of previously-unrelated groups of all kinds.  Realistically, they knew they couldn’t abolish child labor however desireable.  Instead, they focused on getting each working child two hours of schooling every day, with the aim of accumulating at least two years’ worth of education.  Their strategy conscripted parents and employers to run local learning centers so costs would be low enough the tactic could be sustainable over time.  The project so successfully helped kids use their learning to escape dire poverty, officials supported an expansion effort in 2011.

Leeds’ CFC strategy focuses on three measurable goals they call “obsessions.”

Leeds, England, is using their CFC initiative to drive an economic-development strategy.  (See last week’s column.)  To create a more attractive, healthier city, Leeds’ officials are asking the public to hold them accountable to three “obsessions:”

*  Reduce the need for children to enter care.  (our Child-Protective Services)

*  Reduce the number of people not in education, employment or training (NEET); and

*  Improve school attendance.

These conditions are especially intractable precisely because of how broad the community-wide efforts have to be.  What they all have in common is the need for healthy, high-functioning families, the gold standard of public health.  Leeds officials are tracking these three areas with hard data weekly “obsession trackers” that arrive in regional department heads’ inboxes.  Examples are linked in this overview.  Widely-shared data keeps the subject public and the goals in sight.

Leeds’ efforts are relatively new, but already fewer children are going into care.  Next week we’ll start digging deeper into the “how” of Leeds’ early success with child-friendliness.

We should care because the world badly needs many more places where kids can thrive.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Healthy Families Spawn Healthy Economic Conditions

Published by EducationNews.org — Part 1 of 5 on the efforts of Leeds, UK to become a Child-Friendly City.

If a municipality or state got really serious about investing in the health and welfare of their kids, wouldn’t the economy also get healthier?

I don’t mean political blah-blahing about “the children are our future.”  I’ll scream the next time I hear that.  I mean brutal honesty about how government undermines the health of families.  Healthy extended families wrap themselves around kids and old people and manage their own affairs well.  Governments support them with good schools, parks, safe neighborhoods and so on.  And when family life does spiral into chaos, responsive government services are right at hand, but working as if to put themselves out of business, with a keen focus on getting the family to sustainable independence.  Such government support would not involve enabling, shaming or blame, nor would it become an adult jobs program.

Then, since healthy families raise fewer traumatized, chaotic or anti-social kids, the demand for social services would drop.  School attendance would rise.  The emerging workforce of young people would improve.  The economic benefits seem obvious.

But no American city I know has ever gone down a child-centered road with honest whole-heartedness, even though emerging research argues that efforts to become a “creative” city would be better deployed towards becoming a “procreative” city.

But this is precisely what the City of Leeds, England is doing right now.  They’re becoming a “Child-friendly City,” a movement which is big internationally, but little known here in America.  They are doing it as an economic-development strategy.  People after my own heart.

Like so many gritty old industrial cities, Leeds has to reinvent itself to be viable in the modern economy.  It’s the third largest city in England, but has little to recommend it.  The online travel guides steer you away from Leeds to nearby York.  It has the usual assorted urban problems of poverty, challenged schools, teen pregnancy and the like.  And in 2009, their Children’s Services (like our child-protective services) failed to meet standards according to the British Inspectorate system.  This black eye prodded the City Council to go long, get brave, take a road less traveled.

In 2010, they hired Nigel Richardson, who was instrumental in Hull’s becoming the first Restorative City in the world — another story I will pursue soon.  But for now know that one of the strategies he brought with him from Hull was to assemble all the city’s child-serving agencies to get them to work together.  The head offices of social services and education are now across the hall from one another.  It’s cheaper and more effective when agencies leverage each other’s efforts instead of working in the usual public-service silos, which are often little fiefdoms.  Wrestling hidebound agency cultures, from police to schools, into adopting one child-serving mission can produce impressive outcomes relatively quickly.  Already the number of kids in Leeds’ foster care — “looked-after children” — has dropped by 200, from 1,480 in 2012 to 1,288 now.

Richardson says this about revitalizing Leed’s economy:  “Disproportionately investing in children and young people as part of a clear economic regeneration tactic is the right thing to do for children, of course.  But it’s the right thing to do at this moment to invest in the future of Leeds and its future leaders, and movers and shakers who can have a massive say in the long-term sustainability” of the city.

“Disproportionately” investing in kids is a bold strategy in these days of international economic contraction.  In America and the UK, resources for social and public services are being cut, often radically.  The Great Recession continues to play havoc on tax receipts at the same time as driving up the need for social services.  Leaders work to spread the pain of the cutting to appear fair in doing so.

But rather than hunker down and hope that times get better, Leeds’ investment strategy is working toward an actual long-range solution that does not depend on the luck of random factors like the nation’s economy.  Just as maintaining roads and buildings protect investments in civic infrastructure, so Leeds’ support of healthy families will enhance the social infrastructure.  The City Council has developed a set of metrics by which the public and communities can hold them accountable — like improved school attendance and reduced numbers of young people out of employment, education or training.

Similarly, right out where everyone can see them, the Council’s Child-friendly action plan states:  “We will know that Leeds is a child-friendly city when:

*  people choose Leeds as the city where they want their children to grow up, live and work.

*  children and young people choose Leeds as the city where they want to grow up and make their future; and

*  people that want to work with children and young people choose Leeds as the city for them.

I’m already attracted to a place that has such goals.  More importantly, I’m attracted to politicians and bureaucrats who consider kids a winning strategy and are willing to do whatever’s necessary to get it right.  More on this great story next week.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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