A Closer Look

Members of APA's Div. 37 (Child, Youth and Family Services) and its Section on Child Maltreatment will release a new guidebook next month that teaches psychologists how to advocate for policy issues related to children and families.

"A Psychologist's Guide to Advocacy: Legislative Support for Children, Youth and Families" will be available on Div. 37's Web site and on compact disc. It introduces psychologists to the federal legislative process and demonstrates how to effectively communicate with legislators about policies related to, for example, child abuse prevention, pediatric health care, divorce and custody issues and early-childhood education. Div. 37 members are also soliciting members of state and territorial psychological associations (STPAs) to participate in pilot testing of the guidebook's efficacy with actual legislation. They also hope to involve STPA members in "train-the-trainer" sessions on how to advocate for legislation.

In another effort, they plan to organize interdisciplinary conferencesto share their knowledge with others involved with child and family issues, such as health-care providers and legal professionals.

"Children don't have a strong voice in the political system, and they don't vote, so children need other people to represent their interests," says Sandra Bishop-Josef, PhD, who helped create the guidebook as one of the co-chairs of the division's Task Force for Child and Family Advocacy Training. "Psychologists are well-positioned to do this because of their areas of practice and research."

A unique position

Advocacy should be part of the professional identity of psychologists, says Carol Falender, PhD, Div. 37 president-elect and clinical professor in the psychology department at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"George Miller, in his APA presidential address in 1969, advised psychologists to focus on 'giving psychology away,' and Phillip Zimbardo, PhD, APA's 2002 president, echoed this theme in his presidential initiative on applying psychology to make a difference in the lives of as many people as possible," she says.

Indeed, both researchers and practitioners can contribute to policy efforts to help children and their families, says Allison Redlich, PhD, task force co-chair and a researcher at Policy Research Associates. "We are all trained as scientists," she says, "and able to look at things objectively and present them objectively to the people who are creating policies."

Additionally, in their daily practice, psychologists hear stories about poverty, violence, mental illness and trauma that effective social policy could address, and they can use these stories to sway politicians.

"Practitioners are in a good position because they can talk about real people in the legislators' districts, which can be as persuasive or more persuasive than my study that talks about X and Y," says Bishop-Josef, who is assistant director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy and a research scientist at the Child Study Center of the Yale University School of Medicine.

A practical tool

Despite psychologists' qualifications, there are few formal advocacy training programs in the field. Div. 37 Past-president, Bette L. Bottoms, PhD, aimed to change that through the advocacy task force and resultant guidebook.

"The heart of my presidential initiative was to refocus the division on our unique mission within APA, which is using research-based advocacy to inform child and family policy and practice," says Bottoms, a University of Illinois at Chicago psychology professor. "Producing a practical tool like the guidebook extends our advocacy efforts exponentially and improves our chances to affect changes that will benefit children, youth and their families."

In 2005, the division advertised a call for task force volunteers on its listserv, and Madeline Modrak, who's currently completing her doctorate, took the lead on the guidebook project.

A school psychologist for the past 10 years, Modrak says the issues were close to her heart. "Working in education as long as I have, you see so many major issues and social problems that could be solved through the support of our government and the funding that comes its way," she says.

Modrak and her colleagues on the Task Force for Child and Family Advocacy Training used materials from APA's Public Interest Directorate Web site as the basis of the guidebook, then tailored the information to apply to child and family policy-making.

The final product includes "Legislative Process 101," an explanation of the path that bills take to become laws. It also provides directions for how to best contact legislators by fax, phone or in writing, and sample letters that psychologists can use as templates when they write to their representatives.

In addition to these practical tools, the guidebook includes real-life examples of advocacy efforts that have informed child- and family-related policies. They include:

  • The After School Program Bill, a state bill in Connecticut for which Joseph Mahoney, PhD, a psychology professor at Yale University, testified. Mahoney discussed his research findings that children who attend after-school programs show increases in their academic achievement and fewer behavioral problems compared with children who don't attend such programs. In May, 2006, the Connecticut General Assembly granted $4.1 million, split between the state Departments of Education and Social Services, to fund after-school programs.

  • The Violent Video Games Bill, state legislation that became law in California in October 2005. The bill prohibits the sale, rental or distribution of violent video games to minors because of the psychological harm they can afflict on children. Members of the California Psychological Association attended press conferences, testified at committee hearings and met with representatives of industries--such as entertainment and retail--who were opposed to the bill.

  • Project Head Start, a federal program begun in 1965 for low-income preschool children and co-founded by developmental psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner, PhD. Bronfenbrenner insisted that the program include not just children, but also their families and communities, at a time when parental involvement in school-related issues was low--a move that many experts see as key to the program's success. Edward Zigler, PhD, a Yale psychologist who trained as a clinician-scientist, successfully argued that Head Start be subject to empirical evaluations. Zigler later became the federal official responsible for administering the program, and he is often referred to as the "father of Head Start."

In addition, child psychologist Mamie Clark, PhD, used her research on the psychological development of children to inform her opinions as a member of the National Head Start Planning Committee.

To ensure more success stories like these, Div. 37 members want to share their advocacy guidebook with not only psychologists, but also people in other disciplines involved with children, such as lawyers, pediatric health-care providers, social workers and teachers, through cross-disciplinary conferences related to child and family issues that focus on advocacy.

"We need every psychologist to pick a problem and help be part of the solution," says Modrak.

Further Reading

Those interested in pilot testing the Div. 37 advocacy guidebook or in participating in its train-the-trainers program can contact Sandra Bishop-Josef via e-mail or Allison Redlich via e-mail.

 Div. 37 at a glance

APA’s Div. 37 (Child, Youth and Family Services) is concerned with professional and scientific issues related to services for children and youth. The division seeks to advance research, education, training and practice and relate psychological knowledge to other fields such as anthropology, law and pediatrics. The division’s quarterly newsletter, The Child, Youth and Family Services Advocate, focuses on selected topics such as the critical needs of ethnic minorities, children’s media, the effectiveness of child maltreatment prevention programs, and the treatment of violent juvenile offenders. Div. 37 also includes the Section on Child Maltreatment. For more about the division, visit the Div. 37 Web site.