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Building Better Children’s Programs with Public Trust

On May 19th, the Urban Institute hosted a Thursday’s Child panel titled, “Building Better Children’s Programs… and Public Confidence.” This panel included David Hansell, Acting Secretary of the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), Jamie Shuster, Division of Budget and Policy for the Office of South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, Tom Kingsley, Director of the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership, Linda Spears, Vice President of Policy and Programs for the Child Welfare League of America. These experts were brought together to dialogue about why voters who say they care about future generations are reluctant to fund children’s programs. This reluctance is important for those working in the juvenile justice field as they too face lower public confidence and fewer dollars.

During the discussion, two panelists in particular reflected on elements affecting voter confidence and ways to address this reluctance and get funding for important programs that, from a criminal justice perspective, will lower the chance of children ending up as guests of the system. Hansell outlined four elements program developers need to focus on. An understanding of these elements will help programs increase their effectiveness in the public confidence realm, as well as, create and maintain programs more likely to be funded by public and private dollars.

A Base of Empirical Evidence

New programs must be built on a solid base of evidence. Although many in social and behavior sciences, including criminology, understand some programs just work. It’s hard to quantify things, especially in reference to prevention. Unfortunately, to gain support from the public and often internal support, programs must be empirically-based. Shuster collaborated this stating the need for outcome studies showing quantity elements such as number of children served and number of children affected by the program.

Expansion of knowledge, evidence and understanding of effectiveness

We must continuously expand our knowledge, evidence and understanding about what it is that makes programs effective. An important aspect of this is working closely across multi-disciplinary and jurisdictional lines. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) hosts a number of forums and symposiums aimed at getting experts in a number of arenas such as health, mental health, educational, faith-based and criminal justice professionals to share best practices and dialogue about what is and what is not working. Bringing a variety of prospectives together increases confidence internally and expands externally to the community. The public’s trust and commitment increases when partnerships form and many arenas support programs that work together. Funders are also looking for multi-disciplinary collaborations.

Translation and Improvement

We need to translate this evidence as we develop it into constant improvement of existing programs. Shuster reflected public trust decreases when programs are not tracked and monitored. Through this tracking, programs can stay true to best practices. Programs, especially those in pilot stages, are meant to evolve as research continues and evidence shows what is working or not. Continuing with programs that have veered from best practices or ones that have not been shown to be effective lowers confidence and these programs need to be changed or disbanded. By doing this, and in addition having Sunset Clauses to funding, programs will stay on track and ensure continued public trust.

Communication and Positive Public Influence

Lastly, we must communicate what we’ve learned in a way that influences public perception in a positive way of the value that these programs have for children and society as a whole. Spears pointed out that, in general, the public and the media have overly simplistic ideas of what programs are and what they do. Most of the dialogue floating in the public sphere is based on things that have gone wrong or on programs that don’t follow best practices. Due to this, there is little balance in what’s out there. Programs need to be transparent, accountable and show positive outcomes to children and families. These outcomes need to be linked to long-term results as well. To do this, more programs need to focus on, and more funders need to support, long-term outcome studies. These studies will give the empirical evidence to increase public confidence and increase funding.  

Spears went on to add public confidence is affected by:

  • Perception of competencies
  • Questions of effectiveness
  • Questions of openness and honesty
  • Questions of quality spending
  • Perception about power and the role of the government in people’s lives

How this Affects Funding

Agencies looking to start or maintain programs helping children, including mentoring, youth councils, peer courts, offender-victim reconciliation, and a myriad of juvenile justice programs can benefit from the ideas outlined by this panel. Focusing on collaborations with other professionals, organizations and community resources can help build public confidence and help secure funding. These collaborations, as well as, designing programs based in empirical evidence opens up a wider array of funding options. For example, funders supporting children’s programs that would benefit from law enforcement involvement exist through the OJJDP, Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) and Juvenile Accountability Block Grants. A search on displays a wide variety of funding, as well as, program ideas and collaborations.

Building better children’s programs requires cooperation between many different professional elements. It requires dedication and sound empirical evidence to back that “feeling” prevention works to eliminate a number of long-term risk factors. Having public trust and maintaining that trust are key to getting support and financial backing for these essential programs which change the lives of children and their families. An understanding of the elements needed to increase public confidence, such as those outlined in this Urban Institute forum, allow policy makers, practitioners and researchers to focus on high-quality programs that produce long-term results and yield a high return on investment.


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Michelle Perin has been a freelance writer since 2000. Her credits include Law Enforcement Technology, Police, Law and Order, Police Times, Beyond the Badge, Michigan State Trooper, Michigan Snowmobiler Magazine and Chief of Police. She writes two columns a month for Michelle worked for the Phoenix (AZ) Police Department for almost eight years. In December 2010, she earned her Master’s degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Indiana State University. Currently, Michelle works as the Administrative Coordinator at Jasper Mountain a residential psychiatric facility for children. In her spare time, she enjoys being the fundraising coordinator for the Lane Area Ferret Shelter & Rescue, playing her bass, working on her young adult novel Desert Ice and raising her two sons in a small town in Oregon.