A phone lifeline for families in need in DC receives support from Doris Duke Foundation

JooYeun Chang, program director for child well-being at the Doris Duke Foundation, with two other panelists at Martha’s Table in Southeast D.C. (WTOP/Mike Murillo)

A national foundation is bringing funding into D.C. to help struggling families connect with basic needs and, in turn, help children at risk of child abuse and child neglect.

It’s part of the Doris Duke Foundation’s Opportunities for Prevention and Transformation initiative, also known as Opt-in for Families.

“What it provides is an opportunity for D.C. to look at how we can better support families, for those families not to come to the attention of what we call Child Protective Services,” said Robert L. Matthews, director of the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency.

D.C. was chosen by the foundation as one of four locations that will be given money to support new ways of helping families connect with resources, such as financial or mental health help. The other locations chosen by the foundation include the states of Kentucky, Oregon and South Carolina.

The foundation is funding the program with $33 million, which will be split among the jurisdictions over three years. D.C. will use its almost $9 million to fund its 211 warmline, which connects families with social services. The system was launched in October of last year, according to Matthews, and has already fielded 2,000 calls and connected over 800 families with services.

Among those who have already received help by calling the warmline is D.C. resident Dana Ebiasah. The single mother came down with COVID-19 earlier this year and couldn’t afford her rent. When she asked for help, she was connected to CFSA’s Kinship Care program, which offered temporary financial support.

“They did not separate me from my child. But what they did was offer that support,” Ebiasah said. “Less than a month, I had a check in my hand for $2,700 and I was able to pay my rent.”

Matthews said many reports of possible child neglect or abuse are investigated and found not to meet the requirements of a child protective services investigation, but he said it doesn’t mean the family doesn’t need help.

“What it shows is that those families do have risk and they have needs, we want to make sure that those needs don’t turn into safety concerns for a child,” Matthews said.

He said there is an intersection seen between child neglect and poverty, and he said the line would have the ability to connect those who ask for help with clothing, housing, transportation and more.

JooYeun Chang, program director for child well-being at the Doris Duke Foundation, said the foundation will help the locations come up with strategies for implementing their plans to connect residents with support.

“It’s not just technical assistance from a business process redesign aspect, but we are also putting resources into a grant that will actually pay for the concrete needs of D.C. residents,” Chang said.

Chang also said she believes initiatives like this will help bring communities and local governments closer.

“My greatest hope is that we stop having a cynical belief about both families and systems. I think that there’s been a lot of reason to not trust that we can actually do things differently. But the fact of the matter is, I have a lot of faith in both families and communities, I think, they do have the answers, and they can unlock and teach us what a good system looks like,” she said.

The announcement of the program was made at Martha’s Table in Southeast D.C., a nonprofit that already helps to connect families with resources.

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Mike Murillo

Mike Murillo is a reporter and anchor at WTOP. Before joining WTOP in 2013, he worked in radio in Orlando, New York City and Philadelphia.

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