If there ever were a family man, it would be Walter Smith Jr.
The big and bow-tied father of two -- and grandfather to six, he'll remind you -- can trace his roots to before the Civil War. For 18 years, he's brought far-flung aunts, uncles and cousins back together for an annual reunion at the beach.
And somehow, once a week, the whole family ends up around his dining room table.
So Mr. Smith has credibility when he says he wants to keep families together in his new job as head of Allegheny County's Children, Youth and Families, a division that many think has a reputation for doing the opposite.
"The old model is, you move in, you take the child out," he said, sitting in his Downtown office. "Now, we're not in opposition with the family. We say, 'Let's figure out a partnership.' "
Mr. Smith, who was the long-time director of child abuse prevention charity Family Resources before his almost-retirement in 2012, found himself flung back into public service. At 62, he is now setting out to quietly revolutionize how residents receive help from the county.
For the past year, he served as the Department of Human Services' integrated program initiatives manger, working to bring the department's far-flung programs closer together and present the county's 205,000 clients -- 40 percent of whom are in two or more programs -- with a single to-do list.
For the past two weeks, he's put those theories into practice at CYF, getting a ground-level view of just how much work it will take.
Under Mr. Smith's model, the division first sets up a meeting with the family of the involved child -- as many members as can fit in the room -- and listens to what they need from the county. Subsequent meetings bring in other specialized caseworkers.
The agency's first priority, and Mr. Smith's, is to make sure children are safe. But he recognizes that splitting up a family also has long-lasting consequences.
"Our goal isn't just to see that they're not being abused," he said. "We need to figure out how to strengthen the families children come from. We need to have families for all our lives -- we're going to need somewhere to go for Thanksgiving, and we're going to need the support of siblings."
Quite candidly, Mr. Smith will tell you he knows this firsthand -- a family member abused him as a child, and he's never forgotten.
But as he puts it, while the younger Walter Smith may have had 60 bad days, he also had 6,000 good ones. As CYF's head, he doesn't want to take those good days away from his department's charges.
"I come with a passion," he said, "and I think there is a way for us to make sure kids are safe."
His superiors agree. In a staffwide email announcing his promotion, DHS director Marc Cherna lauded Mr. Smith's charitable experience, saying he's the perfect match for the nuanced role he inherits. Mr. Smith will also serve as the department's clinical director.
"Walter's distinguished clinical background and his child welfare expertise make him an ideal candidate to shoulder these complementary responsibilities," Mr. Cherna wrote.
Mr. Smith was born on the North Side and spent his early years in the Hill District before moving to his family's long-held home in the North Hills. Receiving his undergraduate degree from Pitt -- he'd also get his master's and doctorate degrees from there, along with stops at Carnegie Mellon and Georgetown -- he started his a private psychology practice, which he maintains today.
In 1987, he joined Family Resources, an organization that defines much of his career. First the clinical director, he became the nonprofit's executive director a decade later, where he increased the staff from 90 to 230 and more than doubled the services provided.
Ironically, as he leaves the nonprofit sector, his predecessor at CYF is joining it. Marcia Sturdivant, who spent 23 years at DHS, left in June to head NEED, a local nonprofit that aims at making college possible for minority students. She was a NEED student herself, she said.
"I see it as a continuum of all of the work I have done over the years," she said shortly after the announcement of her departure.
Now it is Mr. Smith's turn. He's hoping that the same principles that have guided his own family -- meeting around the dinner table to talk -- will work for the county's children.
"Simply removing children from families ... it's not the long-term solution," he said. "This is a real opportunity to really reform the system."
Andrew McGill: email@example.com or 412-263-1497.