Jim Sherman has been working with children for the past 30 years. He started out working in child welfare in Iowa, but after graduate school became involved with children needing highly-structured residential services. Sherman joined the Children’s Home Association of Illinois in 1978. Under his leadership, the Children’s Home has gone from institutional program to a broad-based, multi-service agency in the Peoria community.

He serves on the University of Illinois College of Medicine Dean’s Community Associates Council. He is a member of the Junior League of Peoria Advisory Board, a member of the Nature Conservancy Illinois Chapter Great Rivers Regional Board, and a member of the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors. He is also a past President of the Downtown Rotary Club.

At the state and national level, Sherman is a member and past president of the Child Care Association of Illinois Board of Directors, chair of the Child Care Association Public Policy Committee, member of the Alliance for Children and Families Executive Membership Council, and the Child Welfare League of America Committee on Juvenile Justice.

Tell us about your background: family, schools attended, etc.

I grew up in Eastern Iowa in a small town called Maquoketa. I was blessed with a family that was very involved in outdoor activities and I still have a passion for canoeing, wilderness activity, cross-country skiing, and the preservation and reclamation of natural areas.

I attended a small church college in Southern Iowa where I majored in religion and received a minor in philosophy. During college, I became aware of the opportunities for service in the field of social work, and ultimately decided this was the vehicle that best allowed me to give my life in service. After working for a year for the Iowa Department of Social Services, I attended graduate school at the University of Iowa and received my master’s degree in social work.

I also met my wife, Jill, in graduate school and we will celebrate our 30th anniversary in June of this year. We were surprised with twin daughters, Tiffany and Tonya, who are now 26 years old, and we have one grandson who has touched our lives in such special ways.

After graduate school, I worked for a state institution serving Iowa’s most troubled children, and then moved to Dubuque, Iowa to work for Hillcrest Family Services which was a statewide family service agency. My charge was to develop and run residential, group home and shelter care programs. In both of those experiences, I learned about program development, management, and mission. In 1978, I was invited to join the Children’s Home.

The Children’s Home began in 1866 with one of its goals to “teach young girls sewing and mending skills.” Give a brief history of the Children’s Home since its inception. How many children have “been through” the doors?

The history of the Children’s Home goes back to 1866 when Peoria was a community of less than 25,000. It was a time before there were organizations to deal with poverty or illness or mental disturbances. There were poor houses and almshouses. Too often, orphan children, or those of destitute parents were placed in these almshouses along with the ill and the insane.

In 1866, a group of civic-minded Peoria women met at the First Universalist Church and formed the Christian Home Mission. They established an industrial school to teach young girls sewing and mending skills. They also divided the city into 12 districts so they could identify families in need of various kinds of assistance. One or two women would be responsible for a specific district. Nine years later they opened The Home for the Friendless on Merriman Street.

At the same time, another civic-minded women’s organization formed the Women’s Christian Association with goals very similar to the Christian Home Mission.

The two groups merged September 24, 1875, creating the Women’s Christian Home Mission, Inc. A state charter was obtained February 16, 1876. With the two groups now working together, the Home for the Friendless experienced two additional moves due to the need for added space until its final move to Knoxville Avenue in 1891. During that time, they also opened the Home for Aged Women, and the Young Women’s Boarding Home.

In 1919, Mary Barker built the much larger building next door to the Home for the Friendless as a memorial to her husband, Walter Barker. In 1935, the name Home for the Friendless was replaced with the Children’s Home. It was not until 1985, however, that the corporate name, Women’s Christian Home Mission, was changed to the Children’s Home Association of Illinois. During this time, thousands of kids and families have benefited from these services.

What was the founding vision for the Children’s Home? How has that vision matured since then? How do you expect it to change over the next five-to-ten years?

The founding vision for the Children’s Home was based on a struggle that started with the first European settlers, and we have since experimented with almshouses, orphanages, and shipping children from large eastern cities on orphan trains to farm families out West. The vision was founded on the discouragement with warehousing of kids and some of the deplorable circumstances in which they were found. This gave way to the growth of foster homes, group homes and modern day residential centers.

Today, we are impacted by the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, which makes family reunification the primary goal and no longer allows a role for group care in the permanency planing for children. Any stay in an institution must be brief as possible and aimed at reuniting the child with a family–biological, foster or adoptive. We clearly want to keep families together whenever possible and reunite children with their families when it is safe to do so.

Our challenge over the next five to 10 years is not just to rely on the existing services we developed. Thanks to the outstanding writings of Neal Pierce and others like him, people are beginning to understand the desperate need to reinvest in communities and neighborhoods. The new systems of care need to be child-centered, family-focused, and community-based. Unless we build support systems back into neighborhoods, we can never build enough prisons to satisfy the need. Kids grow up in families, and families live in neighborhoods. The majority of children coming into care are from our most devastated areas. We currently have one-half million kids in substitute care in this country.

Communities must take ownership of their children and reinvest and create cohesive neighborhood schools where parents are participants. Neighborhood revitalization–in cooperation with churches, schools, businesses and government–may well be the only way we can ultimately stop the massive incarceration of our children and the disproportionate placement of African American children and adults into our prison system.

You have been involved with child welfare since 1971, and at the Children’s Home for more than 20 years. During your career, how have children’s needs changed, and how have organizations such as the Children’s Home changed to meet those needs?

This is a complex question because I’m not sure it’s children’s needs that have changed as much as our capacity as a society to respond to their needs. What we see today are many more disenfranchised youth in our educational system, child welfare system and, ultimately, in our correctional system. What frustrates so many of us is that traditional interventions are not working very well. They are not succeeding in school, and they do not seek help from the traditional sources such as family, church, or social service agencies.

The Children’s Home has worked very hard to move out of a reactive mode and perpetuation of service traditions which no longer serve us well. We are developing the skills needed for shaping relevant service patterns, such as early identification and remediation of educational difficulties. We continue to increase our prevention programs, and need to push for de-categorization of funding streams at the federal and state level so we can be more flexible and responsive to community needs. For many of these kids to succeed, it may require participation in the expansion of alternative and charter schools as well.

What is the most troublesome issue facing children, parents, and society today that must be addressed? How will this problem be solved?

Throughout history, families have been the symbol of the well-being of our society. The quality of family life is important to the strength of our nation. Children need to experience on a daily basis how to interact with others, make the right decisions, and become responsible citizens. Because many children have no fathers and no home structure, we must find ways to bridge the gap. We are beginning to understand the growing lack of commitment to child rearing may be one of the most significant changes in our lifetime.

Many children grow up in families whose lives are in turmoil. Their parents are too stressed and too drained to provide the nurturing, structure, and security that protect and prepare children for adulthood. Some of these children are unloved and ill tended. Others are unsafe at home and in their neighborhoods. Many are poor, and some are homeless and hungry. Often they lack the rudiments of basic health care and a quality education. Almost always, they lack hope and dreams.

The problems that plague many of our children and threaten many more have evolved over time and will not disappear overnight. Solutions depend on strong leadership and the concerted efforts of every sector of society–individuals, employers, schools, civic, community and religious organizations, and government–at every level. They will require creative public policies and private sector practices, wise investments of public and private resources, and significant commitment of individual time and attention to the needs of children and their families.

Describe your Family Preservation Services program. Who participates?

Family Preservation Services are brief programs of intensive counseling, education, and concrete support delivered in the homes of families who have children who may be at imminent risk of being placed in foster care. The goal is to remove the risk of harm to the child instead of removing the child from the home. Children’s Home has been one of the area’s earliest pioneers in providing home-based family preservation services. Our current program, Family First, has been in operation since 1988 and served almost 800 families since its inception.

Traditional approaches usually involve high caseloads and contact which is as infrequent as once per month or less. Family preservation programs feature low caseloads and intensive intervention, typically seeing a family two to three times per week, often for hours at a time, and sometimes even on weekends. This availability and support help overcome the barriers of fear and mistrust so prevalent with families in the system, and provides a stronger safety net as well.

There will always be situations where problems are too profound and risks too high to allow children to remain with their parents. Sometimes a child’s disturbance demands he be treated in a more structured setting with more intense treatment and support systems. However, a child’s removal from home should only be a final resort, not a first response. Children’s Home is a staunch advocate of this position, although we offer a full continuum of substitute care arrangements through our programs.

The Children’s Home has expanded from its origins to now offer a wide range of services–from mental health services to neighborhood development. What prompted this expansion, and what other expansions can we expect in the future?

Like our friends in the corporate community, we have always had to ask ourselves, “What business are we really in?” It has never been our perception that we were just in residential treatment, day treatment, or group home business. We have taken a more imaginative approach which would suggest we are in the business of working with children and families. This has opened up to us new possibilities and allowed us to define a whole array of services to support troubled kids and families.

Each expansion was prompted by an identified need and belief in our skill set in working with children and families. In some cases, we have been approached by a state agency and asked to develop a program for a particular population. In other situations, we felt strongly about developing a program that was not publicly supported, so we approached donors, corporations, and foundations.

At this point, we see our major focus on expansion in the areas of prevention, community development, and support to educational systems.

We are also acknowledging the link between the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. The correlation between child abuse and neglect and incarceration is dramatic. We must draw upon the strengths of the child welfare system to reduce the reliance on incarceration by advocating for appropriate, least restrictive placements, and promote proven prevention and treatment services.

How many employees did you have (full/part-time) at the beginning? Today?

When I joined the Children’s Home in 1978, we had 60 employees and a budget of $780,000. Through the hard work of a wonderful management team, a board of directors willing to take risks, and a donor community who supported us, we now have approximately 450 full- and part-time employees, and a budget of more than $18 million.

I think the growth of this agency is attributable to two things–mission and vision. We often revisit our mission of “Giving children a childhood and future by protecting, teaching, and healing them; and by building strong communities and loving families” during our strategic planning process. Each time, we recommit ourselves to the children and families of this community rather than moving toward a more expansive population and fragmented set of services. We also believe strongly that vision matters. Vision precedes a profound belief in your future. Vision is how we achieve our mission, and the right vision moves people to action and establishes a standard of excellence in which everyone can take pride. The right vision offers an idea so energizing that it, in effect, jump-starts the future by calling forth the skills, talents and resources to make it happen.

What sets the Children’s Home apart from others in your industry?

The Peoria community is fortunate to have many fine social service agencies. Our industry has changed dramatically over the past decade. We moved from being product-driven to market-driven, and Children’s Home responded to this change very early. We understood the days were over when agencies could survive just providing services with which they were comfortable. Our customers were demanding change, and our communities deserved better. Responding to a market-driven environment strengthened our mission in the Peoria community because we aligned our services with the needs of those we serve. This required us to develop a wide array of services to children and families, and a willingness to take risks along with short turnaround times. It has been demanding, but exhilarating as well.

We are at the forefront of bringing back kids who were placed out of state. We are often asked to take the most difficult children when others have refused. Our staff and our agency is recognized nationally for the creativity of programming and responsiveness to change.

What trends in your industry have forced a change in the way you do business? How did it change? Was it for the better or for the worse?

Several trends impacted our field in rather dramatic ways. First, just the pace of change demands that we become more nimble and embrace the “whitewater” environment in which we now operate.

Secondly, the implementation of managed care principles placed a much greater emphasis on outcomes and forced us to upgrade technological skills and equipment, and made us more focused on results.

Thirdly, we have yet to resolve the tension between a managed care approach and a community-centered focus. The United Way, nationally and locally, deserve our praise for attempting to move donor dollars into community-building initiatives.

Those of us who attempt to address a community building process know it does not lend itself to short-term outcomes. Our challenge is to do the right thing and not just what is measurable. Donors and taxpayers want to know what they are getting for their investment. We may well need to develop new paradigms to measure the subtleties of these programs in a way that allows us to remain true to our values and mission. One thing is clear; for us to maintain the public trust, we must have some version of benchmarking that is acceptable to those who support us.

What, if any, misconceptions does the community hold regarding the Children’s Home? What do you do to combat those misconceptions?

My goodness, how many times have I been asked over the past 22 years if we were an orphanage? Many people in the Peoria area still do not know that we are a large, multi-service agency providing child welfare, educational, mental health and community development services to more than 1,800 kids a year.

We are trying to tell our story through more high profile public relations initiatives. We are using TV more as a medium, consulting with marketing firms, developing more sophisticated public relations material, a Web site, and we just finished a very striking annual report that was sent out to approximately 7,000 people in the Peoria area.

How does the Children’s Home recruit and retain employees? Have you seen a change in those efforts in the last decade?

The recent economy has made it increasingly harder to recruit qualified staff. Although this is one of our biggest challenges, we have been fortunate to attract a highly qualified workforce who put themselves on the line every day for kids and families. Obviously, we try to stay competitive in salaries and benefits, and we look for ways to implement low-cost perks. We have an outstanding training program and we work very hard to develop staff potential so we can develop leadership from within the organization. We work on employee recognition and communication. A couple of times each month we have a “Jim’s Juicer” where I meet with a small number of staff for open-ended discussions.

What has been your greatest challenge in your career? The most rewarding?

To sustain our mission in the Peoria community, we are faced with the challenge of creating a foundation that will allow us to raise the necessary private dollars to ensure innovative programs, continued risk-taking, and our commitment to community building.

However, without question, the most challenging and rewarding experience in my career has been the opportunity to serve as president and CEO of the Children’s Home. This agency has a wonderful history in this community and it is here today because of the stewardship of so many board members over many years, and because we have been fortunate to attract and retain a high quality management team. I am humbled to have the opportunity to work with them and to be challenged by them. They are extraordinary.

This agency has played a special role in the Peoria community for 135 years, and the greatest reward has been to see the change and healing and incredible courage of the kids and families we serve in the face of all odds. IBI