Special ‘Wraparound’ Services for Black Children Aren’t the Solution to Bad Policy Decisions

The National Interest: Being black is not a risk factor. Black people are simply dealing with structures that would have people believe otherwise.

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We’re not going to “nonprofit” our way out of poverty, housing unaffordability and economic injustice. Historic discrimination and structural inequality have laid the groundwork for multiple life-sucking neighborhood factors that black children face every day: Poverty, crime, unemployment, unaffordable housing, inaccessible health care and limited transportation make it difficult for children to learn.

The rise of the nonprofit-industrial complex is a necessary response to in-your-face suffering, but our investments in nonprofits can’t shield us from the source problem of bad policy.

In addition, many nonprofits are funded by foundations and philanthropists that benefit from policies that produce inequality. Consequently, our healing strategies have to be aligned with a policy agenda that is clear as to what needs to change.

Do wraparound services offer an effective way to heal? And if so, what can we expect from these services?

Popularized in the 1980s era of “educating the whole child,” the phrase “wraparound services” broadly describes a treatment team consisting of a child’s family and particular professionals who work to address specific needs. There are wraparound services that address food insecurity, trauma, high mobility, parental-disengagement truancy and other consequences of structural inequality.

At the 46th annual conference of the National Black Child Development Institute in Orlando, Fla., last week, I moderated a panel that included contributors to the publication Being Black Is Not a Risk Factor—Florida. On the panel, as in the paperback, wraparound-service providers shared evidence of their success.

“We know that wraparound services work because they take a holistic perspective in breaking down barriers to success,” said Tina Brown, executive director of the Overtown Youth Center. “We don’t simply focus on academics because there are so many other significant issues that are at play before a child walks in the school. And we have the evidence to prove it.”

The Overtown Youth Center makes itself available to the 2,392 families of a neighborhood bearing the same name in Miami. According to the report, Overtown’s crime index is 55 percent higher than Miami’s overall. About half of its residents fail to attain a high school diploma. The median income is $15,000-$20,000 annually, with 36 percent of residents reporting less than $10,000 per year. These numbers aren’t surprising because 55 percent of Overtown’s residents age 17 and older are unemployed.

Serving 400 youths ages 8 to 25 and their families, the center targets students who qualify for Title I services and show low academic performance, experience a lack of safety in the community and have limited access to productive activities during out-of-school hours.

The Overtown Youth Center provides 24-hour case management, in- and out-of-school programming, and academic support. Case managers do everything from making home visits and monitoring school attendance to offering workshops to parents.

The center is having an impact. The report states, “OYC has graduated 100 percent of its high school senior class with 95 percent of its alumni making a successful transition to college, vocational school, the military and/or the workforce.”

Brown says that there a lot of buzz around wraparound services, but there is a lack of high-quality providers in relation to the need.

Being Black is Not a Risk Factor also highlighted the Children’s Trust of Miami-Dade County, which was created through a statute that allows for Children’s Services Councils—special taxing districts—to fund hundreds of children’s programs. Through an election-style campaign, Miami-Dade County residents voted to increase their taxes to create a fund to serve children. The approximately $120 million in operations this year will fund quality-improvement support for child care centers, 1,430 child care slots, academic-support systems, health screenings and a multitude of other programs dedicated to child wellness.

But given the depth of neighborhood problems, the pressure to slow the demand should be as high as the pressure we place on meeting acute needs.

“NBCDI takes a comprehensive approach to ensuring the success and well-being of children and families,” said Cemeré James, vice president of policy for the center.

NBCDI endorses wraparound services as a necessary step in serving youths and families, and the organization highlights successful programs. However, James acknowledges that wraparound services are not a solution in themselves.

“We also address structural barriers, regressive policies and the lack of investment in our communities as we move toward the goal of improving the lives of black families,” James said.

The same way the residents of Miami-Dade campaigned to invest in children, cities across the country can campaign to divest and eradicate policies that produce inequities. Ultimately, deconstructing the structures that cause inequities is the longitudinal solution to the issues black students face.

Being black is not a risk factor. Black people are simply dealing with structures that would have people believe otherwise. Black folk need healing in the form of high-quality nonprofit providers, but we also need organizations like NBCDI that can topple upstream sources of the pain.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.