40-year champion for at-risk children in Pittsburgh area retiring
When Claire Walker was working on her doctorate in history from Columbia University, she found herself fascinated by the progressive era in the U.S. between 1886 to 1911, when the reform impulse emerged among wealthy women and the settlement house movement began.
Little did Ms. Walker, 75, know that one day she would be directing a descendant of one of those early settlement houses. The Pittsburgh Association for the Improvement of the Poor was founded in 1875 and eventually merged with the Child Abuse Prevention Agency to become Family Resources Inc., which became the largest child-abuse prevention and treatment service in Pennsylvania.
In the mid-1990s, she decided to leave the job as founding executive director.
"I was going to take a year off, but that didn't happen," she said, because Vic Papale, former head of the Allegheny County's Department of Children, Youth and Families asked her to head the Pittsburgh Child Guidance Foundation, a small but effective philanthropic organization that promotes the mental health of children, including a 10-year initiative advocating for children of incarcerated parents.
Today really is Ms. Walker's last day on the job, though, after a 40-year career as a champion of children of at-risk families.
While Ms. Walker will still be involved with some of the foundation's projects, she will be succeeded, at least temporarily, by Pamela W. Golden, former board vice president, who will serve as interim executive director, effective Tuesday, to shepherd the foundation's strategic planning process that will begin in early 2013.
The Pittsburgh Child Guidance Foundation has been around even longer, in different guises -- as a clinical center, it was active in promoting children's mental health in Allegheny County for more than 80 years. Established in 1930 as a center for psychiatric services for children, it was transformed in 1982 into a foundation to continue its mission after the clinic was absorbed into Western Psychiatric Institute.
Ms. Walker's own experience in academia studying reformers such as Jane Addams and Florence Kelly stood her in good stead when she found herself early in her career directing policy and program development for the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare's Office of Children, Youth and Families.
In 1980, she was charged with overseeing the rewriting of regulations governing child welfare agencies, affecting children under the supervision of the state and the juvenile justice system, after a federal law was passed requiring states to meet certain conditions in order to retain child welfare funding.
"One of the things the regulations required were intensive services to prevent the breakup of families," she said, something that had not been a top priority previously. But with the right amount of support, 85 percent of at-risk families "could stay together safely," she said. "We pass laws based on the 15 percent, and the rest don't get the help they need."
In 1984, Ms. Walker was recruited to Pittsburgh to help create Family Resources. There, her reputation grew in the child welfare community.
"Families throughout Allegheny County and, in fact, the country will never truly know what an ally they have had in Claire, but board members, community organization leaders and community activists certainly do," said PCGF board president Charlotte Brown, especially with her advocacy of children of jailed parents.
"Claire is a visionary, a researcher and a strategic planner who put in long hours to bring together foundations, social and human service organizations, the faith-based community, criminal justice professionals, and elected officials and community volunteers to find solutions to this pressing issue."
Ms. Walker said she was originally stunned to learn that children of arrested and jailed parents represent 15 percent of the youth population in Allegheny County, residing in every school district and ZIP code.
So she decided to narrow the focus of her small foundation, "so we could actually make a discernible difference. We decided we would only focus on Allegheny County and children age 12 and under."
Every three to five years, the foundation would "choose some issue that was affecting the emotional well-being of children that wasn't being paid attention to."
For example, the Hazelwood Youth Football and Cheerleading Association "was run by a couple tired of taking kids to West Mifflin to play football, and had created this association."
And when she heard Renee Dixon, one of two founders, stand up at a community meeting and say that "there isn't a child left on the streets when a game is in progress," she decided to fund the group.
But perhaps her biggest focus was on children of incarcerated parents. After a survey, the foundation found that the research contradicted the widely held notion that these children go into foster care. Instead, they are absorbed into their extended families -- but as "invisible children," suffering depression, anxiety and psychological problems.
So, to promote strong relationships between the children and their parents, the foundation took a small but important step: helping to create a Family Activity Center at the county's jail, along with a resource center providing information to parents and caregivers of the children of inmates, estimated at about 8,500 in Allegheny County.
To Ms. Walker, a child-friendly play area in a jail was just about common sense.
"The more a child copes, the more likely they will become a coping adult. They are coping with the reality of losing a parent," she said.
First Published December 31, 2012 12:00 am