The Child Advocate

Interview with Arlene Happach


At the Children’s Home + Aid Offices Downtown Chicago

How she’s changing the world: Arlene is the Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Children’s Home + Aid where she is responsible for statewide programming in child welfare, early childhood and clinical and community services. Arlene has extensive experience working in child welfare and enjoys improving and implementing effective programming for youth and families. In 2015 alone, Children’s Home + Aid served over 40,000 children and families in Illinois.

In other words, there are many children who need services like counseling, early childhood services, adoption services, etc. for a variety of different reasons. It’s Arlene’s job to make sure the help and care offered through Children’s Home + Aid makes a difference in the lives of these children.

Arlene’s calming presence is welcoming. When I met her at the downtown offices of Children’s Home + Aid, she walked me through her 30 years of working in this field. She is focused and determined. She explained to me that as early as undergrad, she knew she wanted to work for children in need; that the passion has never left her.

“A lot of the work we do is sad, but it is such a privilege to me. Children are vulnerable, they need advocates and they need people to help. Every child deserves the best possible future and it makes me so happy to do the work I do.”

I was especially excited about the opportunity to meet Arlene because advocating for vulnerable children has a special place in my heart.

Arlene’s experience is extensive and her commitment to working for the betterment of the lives of children is unwavering. She has several degrees: a bachelor’s degree in psychology, a master’s degree in clinical psychology and a MBA all from Bradley University.

“All of my experiences led me to my dream job,” she said about being a leader in organizations and agencies that promote child welfare.

Q: Tell me about a moment where you were proud of the work you accomplished.

A: In Milwaukee, I was the director of the state-run Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare for five years. When I began the position, the department was in a lawsuit for not providing quality care to children in welfare. There were 18 benchmarks that we needed to meet as a department to better our standing and to get out of the lawsuit. By the time I arrived, the Bureau had settled many of the benchmarks but were stuck in passing the most difficult efforts. In one year, I settled one of the most difficult benchmarks we needed to pass and the second year we were able to get out of it. It was the most dramatic systemic change.

An article by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal noted the impactful leadership Arlene brought with her: “the percentage of Milwaukee County children that suffered abuse or neglect while in out-of-home-care was 0.40%,” when Arlene began her work as the director of the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare. “It was slashed to 0.15% by 2013.”

“Also under her leadership, the percentage of children in out-of-home care went down. The percentage of children experiencing timely reunification with their parents or caregivers went up.”

Arlene is a fierce child advocate who knows what she is doing.

Q: How were you able to create such drastic change?

“I put a lot of things into place. I hired nurses for our clinics, I created a mental screening tool, I changed the qualifications for investigators to be more thorough, I put in a visitation coaching system for parents and children, I implemented permanency consultations, I revamped our contracting system and I put a series of incentives in place for getting kids to permanency and safety. Things I knew would help create safe spaces for children.”

Q: What piece of advice would you give to a young professional?

A: “I would say what I say to my own son: you have to give everything a chance. Sometimes you may not get your dream job on the first try but there’s always something to learn, there are always skills to develop, and moments to be shared with others around you. You may not like what you’re doing, but find something you can get better at and work on that, because when your dream job comes along, you’ll be equipped with the tools necessary to succeed.

Q: What reading would you recommend for people in your field?

A: “Ghosts from the nursery,” by by Robin Karr-Morse.

“This book talks about the first three years of life, including pre-natal, and how crucial they are to development,” Arlene explained. “I recommend it to anyone in the field.”

You can find research, read inspiring stories and find out more about the work Arlene is doing at the Children’s Home + Aid’s website.


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