VINELAND — The message at the Working Together for Working Families conference Thursday was familiar but one organizers say needs to be reinforced.
The best programs that help low-income working families are the programs those families themselves help develop to best meet their needs, they said.
And, just as important, organizers and participants said, is something necessary but often difficult to maintain — collaboration between government agencies and private organizations that oversee those programs.
“It is an unnatural act performed by unconsenting adults,” said Thaddeus Ferber, vice president of The Forum for Youth Investment.
Ferber’s organization, based in Washington, D.C., was one of several entities at the conference at Cumberland County College. Conference organizers said more than 300 people registered.
The conference was organized by the Vineland-based Pascale Sykes Foundation, which operates in Atlantic, Cumberland, Salem and Gloucester counties. One of the foundation’s primary projects focuses on working with entire families and not just on certain parts of those families, such as children or parents.
“We’re always focused on people doing the right thing,” said Frances Sykes, the foundation’s president.
Making the work increasingly difficult is the change in family dynamics that’s occurred during the past several decades, said Mia Birdsong, co-director of Family Story.
The Washington, D.C.-based, organization fosters public conversation about a wide range of family arrangements that includes dealing with things such as decreasing marriage rates, more children born out of wedlock and those married later in life, Birdsong said.
Government policies and practices “aren’t keeping up with the change in the families,” she said.
One program that seems to be working is Family Futures Downeast, said Anthony Cippolone, president of the Maine-based John T. Gorman Foundation. The project stresses educational and family programs in Washington County, which is one of Maine’s poorest counties and has a 20 percent unemployment rate, he said.
The program, which earned grudging support from Maine state government, helps parents attend higher education classes at night, he said. Children attend various activities while their parents attend classes, he said.
Meanwhile, New Jersey is expanding its Keeping Families Together program, which involves housing subsidies and increased case management, said Allison Blake, commissioner of the state Department of Children and Families. The program is expanding into seven new counties, including Atlantic County, she said.
Another program the state will also expand into other counties involves providing increased trauma treatment for children who deal with domestic violence and child abuse, she said. Cumberland County is one of of several new counties in which the program will operate, she said.