Creating a culture of hope for children and families


The Mississippi Commission on Children’s Justice this week asked leaders in child welfare to rethink how the state’s system responds to allegations of child neglect rooted in poverty.

The model is one centered on hope. The idea is to give hope to parents and children who encounter the Department of Child Protection Services and the Youth Courts.

The Commission conducted three days of meetings with a leading proponent of hope-centered programs, Chan Hellman, Ph.D., of Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Oct. 20, 21, and 22 at the Gartin Justice Building and the Department of Child Protection Services in Jackson.

“The hope is that Dr. Hellman’s presentation will change our mindset, and we see a new way,” Taylor Cheeseman, Interim Commissioner of the Department of Child Protection Services, told CPS leaders, judges and court staff Oct. 21.

“Hope is the guiding framework of how we respond” in providing services to those in need, said Hellman, a professor of social work at the University of Oklahoma and Director of The Hope Research Center. Giving hope is an essential part of nurturing families and children toward improving their lives.

“Hope is the belief that the future will be better, and you have the power to make it so,” Hellman said.

His approach includes teaching people to do three things:

  • set desirable goals
  • identify viable pathways to goals, finding solutions to the problems that stand in the way
  • maintain the willpower to pursue those goals.

Hellman said action separates hope from a wish. “We are moving parents and families from wishing to hoping because we are going to make that pathway.”

CPS Deputy Commissioner Tonya Rogillio said it’s important to instill hope in the social work staff as well as the people they serve. The agency has a 30% turnover rate.

“I’m a firm believer that you can’t give what you don’t have,” Hellman said. He believes that creating a culture of hope lowers staff burnout and improves job satisfaction.

“If Mississippi embraces this, it could have tremendous impact,” said Justice Dawn Beam, co-chair of the Commission on Children’s Justice.

One of the biggest challenges of implementing a hope-centered program is getting beyond skepticism. “It feels like it’s kind of a fluffy rainbows and unicorns thing,” Hellman said.

Earlier in his career, he would have laughed at the idea, but as a quantitative psychologist, he has measured and documented results including improved grades for children. He studies the effect of hope on outcomes for children and adults. His research is focused on hope as a psychological strength helping children and adults overcome trauma and adversity. He is the co-author of the book “Hope Rising: How the Science of Hope Can Change Your Life.”

Hellman has spent 25 years working with victims of domestic violence, child maltreatment, homelessness and poverty. He knows the struggles. He grew up in poverty and was homeless from eighth grade through high school.

As a psychologist, he experienced a eureka moment 12 years ago when he interviewed a 19-year-old homeless man who had recently been diagnosed with HIV. The man was filled with hope and had plans for attending college. “It was a realization that I had spent my entire career focused on the wrong question. ‘What’s wrong with you?’” Hellman said, recalling the incident. His approach then shifted to “What happened to you?” and “What’s right with you?”

“Hope can be taught. It starts with goals, pathways and willpower,” Hellman told members of the Mississippi Programs of HOPE committee of the Commission on Children’s Justice during a discussion Oct. 22. “At the heart of change is our ability to understand the way things are and to imagine the way things could be.”

Chancellor Rhea Sheldon of Hattiesburg, co-chair of the Commission on Children’s Justice, said, “I’m excited to see what we are going to be able to do going forward with collaboration with nonprofits and Child Protection Services.”

“It’s a vision that we all can work together for the children of our state,” Justice Beam said. “We don’t need to dream with boundaries. We need to dream big.”

The Commission on Children’s Justice recently established Programs of HOPE to continue to address child neglect prevention. Five multidisciplinary committees were established to identify and recommend actions that can fill gaps, strengthen opportunities and lift up Mississippi families to a place where they can see a path toward better lives.

Programs of HOPE committees include Housing and Transportation; Opportunities for Treatment; Parent, Child and Family Supports; Economic Security; and Pathways of HOPE.

The Mississippi Supreme Court created the Commission on Children’s Justice in 2006 and tasked it to develop a statewide, comprehensive approach to improving the child welfare system; coordinate the three branches of government; and recommend changes to improve children’s safety, strengthen and support families, and promote public trust and confidence in the child welfare system.