An Interview with Diann Dawson
Editor’s note: Ms. Diann Dawson recently retired as director of regional operations in the Administration for Children and Families of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She has played an important role in the development of the Strengthening Families and Communities Coalition in the United States and is an advisor to GPF-USA on family issues. Ms. Dawson served as a delegate to the 2010 Global Peace Convention in Nairobi and was a coordinator of the Family Track at the 2012 GPC in Atlanta. She recently spoke with GPF communications coordinator Eric Olsen at GPF-USA’s Lanham, Maryland office.
Q: A recent study by the Hoover Institution tracked some of the profound changes experienced by the American family over the last generation. The family has been called the “DNA of society” and some observers are deeply concerned with these changes while others view such changes as an evolutionary process. What is your perspective on the state of the family today?
A: I have not read the particular study you reference. However, I agree that there have been significant changes in how American families function for a number of reasons that reflect broader societal changes that have impacted the family. For example, we have more families in which both parents must work outside the home. There has also been a significant rise in single-headed family households in all demographics in recent decades due to increased rates of divorce and out-of wedlock births, and the absence of fathers in the home. These trends are alarming because there is greater risk of poverty in families today and recent research studies have shown the consequences of these changes on the healthy development of children. I think we must address the current-day challenges faced by families with twenty-first century solutions.
Q: Would you say that one of the baselines for public policy is how children are being cared for in family? There may be different approaches, but families should first of all be successful in providing care?
A: That is key. I think it is critical that as we implement public policy we consider its important role in supporting our families in today’s challenging and complex environment. Our children are our future and we must be concerned as a nation about how we ensure their healthy development. There is no replacement for the fundamental institution called the family. The family is critical in the care, nurture and development of our most precious assets, our children. I would say that before any public policies are implemented, the relevant questions about the impact of the policies on the family and the care of the children should be addressed. In other words, perhaps we should have a “family impact statement” such as we have come to expect relating to environmental impact policies.
Q: Unfortunately parents aren’t always doing their job. How do we determine when intervention is needed?
A: As mother, daughter and wife, I have a sense of how important all family members—grandparents, siblings, and relatives—are in a child’s life. There perhaps would be less need for public intervention when parents are in stress if the family support systems were stronger today. Nevertheless, we must continue to develop innovative intervention approaches that address the changing dynamics of family functioning in today’s environment. It is my hope that we will continue to research these important questions and gain more insight about effective intervention strategies.
“Our children are our future and we must be concerned as a nation about how we ensure their healthy development. There is no replacement for the fundamental institution called the family.”
Q: In recent shootings in Newtown there was such a strong reaction across the country. We have a home environment where we are trying to nurture children but our broader culture is also the environment where children are acculturated. Is this a concern among policy makers? What can we do?
A: Having worked in the federal government in an agency concerned about welfare of children and their families, I think it is fair to say that policy makers are concerned about the broader culture and its impact on children. Certainly, in this age of advanced technology and mobility it is much more difficult to parent and we don’t have as much control over the exposure of our children to some of the negative influences of the broader culture. However, I do believe that we have an important opportunity to work more closely in our communities to strengthen our families’ capacity to create the kind of home and community environments that will be safe and protective of our children.
Q: in the past, families and churches were a safety net. Today families are much more mobile and geographically scattered and churches have less active social engagement as government has assumed more responsibility for social services. How effective is the federal government in assessing needs and providing services?
A: What the government does is most often through nonprofit organizations. People have this idea that the government is out there working directly, but many governmental social services are conducted through community organizations. I think your question raises an important point about the growing need for effective partnership and collaboration between the public sector and faith communities. We must continue to work on assuring that resources are matched with need and are reaching the people who need them most.
Q: What about government support of faith-based organizations?
A: What I have found is a resurgence of the recognition that faith-based organizations are effective in providing services in partnership with government. During the Bush 43 administration faith-based partnerships were explicitly advanced in public policy through formal structures. Those offices and partnerships have continued in the Obama administration. So having the faith community as partners seeking solutions with the government is exactly what we should be doing.
Q: Marriage has moved from religion sacrament to more of a secular custom. You have been a key leader of the Healthy Marriage Initiative, which clearly has a secular aim. Can you explain about this program?
A: The question is, why would the government want to get involved in marriage? The program was introduced at the federal level by the Bush 43 Administration although it was a goal established by the Welfare Reform legislation of 1996. The social science evidence pointed to the fact that children do better growing up in a two-parent family household and were less likely to engage in risky behaviors. The Healthy Marriage Initiative supports the development of tools and resources and was designed to help couples who chose marriage for themselves to gain some skills and knowledge to build and sustain healthy relationships. I led the development of the African American Healthy Marriage Initiative which provided culturally relevant strategies to promote marriage and responsible fatherhood in the African American Community.
Q: Human trafficking is an issue with of the U.S. Administration for Children and Families. This is also a focus area of GPF-USA. How can this human rights violation of children in this country can be tackled more successfully?
A: The key is to educate the public on this issue. Many perceive this as a foreign issue but it is very much a growing domestic issue. Many of our communities don’t know about human trafficking. Many don’t know what this looks like. They don’t know who is vulnerable. So I think the first priority is to get the message out and educate, to identify the partnerships and organizations with specialized knowledge and experience so that proper strategies can be implemented. This is not just a human services issue but also a law enforcement issue and the entire community needs to be engaged. So the first step is to galvanize and build relationships across the public and private sectors. There is much we can do and I think because of its interest in this area and its international reach, GPF is poised to help make these connections across geographical borders.
Q: You were a delegate in 2010 Nairobi Global Peace Convention (GPC) and also a coordinator of the Family Track in Atlanta [GPC 2012]. What was your experience in Kenya and meeting your counterparts?
A: First it was a wonderful experience to attend the GPC. I was asked to speak on the Healthy Marriage Initiative, so it gave me a chance to do some homework to chronicle the legislative and regulatory framework that I had been involved in from the beginning. So I was very pleased to bring that experience to an international audience. What I learned was how much that issues surrounding families and marriage are issues all over the world. I noticed in Kenya when I went to a shopping mall—it is such a young population—that there were magazines on the rack on “How can I make my marriage better?” and “How can I parent better?” And I was fascinated to see this level of interest in Kenya. I was able to meet colleagues, women like me who had strategic positions in their government, who were concerned about children, addressing issues like we face here.
I think to have GPF as a collaborative partner in Strengthening Families and Communities Coalition across the country has been a great opportunity because the pillars of the organization—family, faith, service—all align very well with the work I was involved in at ACF. But I also want to say it aligns with my personal mission and I am delighted to have an opportunity to contribute to those three efforts. I look forward to opportunities to strengthen families in this country, but also thinking about these issues and seeing what can be done from a global perspective.