Christine Speiser (pictured above with her husband Anthony) is unique among longtime ChicagoCAC donors for a few reasons. She is a veteran of Chicago Public Schools, serving as a teacher and principal. She later went on to earn a Master’s in Social Work and her LCSW. Speiser’s background made her the perfect person to help ChicagoCAC deliver prevention and mandated reporting training in 2018 in the wake of “Betrayed,” an explosive Chicago Tribune series about the decades-long mishandling of sexual abuse incidents in the Chicago Public Schools. Historically, the Foundation’s support has focused on prevention education, one of the few program areas of ChicagoCAC that receives no government funding. Who better to chat with during Child Abuse Prevention Month about the shifting nature of prevention education and what Chicago CAC does to keep children safe?
Chris, you have an interesting perspective from working in child welfare at a time before CACs existed.
In the early 1990s, I was a social worker at Children’s Memorial Hospital, now known as Lurie Children’s Hospital. I worked in the Emergency Room and on the Protective Services Team. In those early years ChicagoCAC did not exist. Interviewing was done in the Emergency Room. If we had to contact the police or district attorney, the child was sometimes interviewed multiple times. This sometimes posed an issue in court. With the creation of ChicagoCAC, the city had a team of child abuse specialists available to provide comprehensive service to the patient and family. This is a much-improved approach.
This happened after a long career with CPS – tell us a bit more about your background.
Upon graduation from NIU with a degree in Education, I taught in Little Village for a few years and then went on maternity leave. I returned to CPS and worked as a District Administrator and later as Principal of Seward Elementary School in Back of the Yards. After nearly 20 years with CPS, I was invited to take a position as an Education Program Specialist with The Center to Prevent Handgun Violence. This organization was founded and operated by Jim and Sarah Brady. We designed violence prevention curriculum and did trainings across the country. We made great progress, including the passage of the Brady Bill, and I loved the work, but overtime I wanted to work directly with children again. I went back to school for a MSW, and also earned my LCSW.
Your time in education has really been valuable throughout your life and was key to a major way you assisted ChicagoCAC a few years ago.
In 2018, ChicagoCAC and CPS worked together to implement a massive training for Chicago Public Schools professional personnel. Chicago CAC training included administrators, principals, non-classroom teachers and counselors. They created a video presentation that was required viewing for all teachers. This was groundbreaking. This type of support in terms of time and money had never been done before. I was proud to be invited to be a trainer, and I think I was helpful to some degree because I had a first-hand understanding of the problems and concerns they were facing in the schools.
You have seen a lot of fascinating perspective shifts happen – how have you seen the nature of prevention education evolve over time?
People working with children now have much greater access to education and training as it pertains to abuse. People are more willing to accept that abuse exists, and many people truly want to help.
For teachers, a dramatic shift has occurred. In the past, if a teacher had a concern, they reported it to the principal and he or she took it from there. In effect, the administration decided what, if anything, was reported to DCFS. Teachers now realize that although the school policy may still be to notify the administration, in the case of suspected abuse, teachers still have an obligation to ensure that a report is made to DCFS. They should now understand that they just need to report what they were told, what they saw or what they know. They do not need to investigate or be absolutely certain of the entire situation. They need to report to DCFS if they have a reasonable belief there may be abuse.
We have talked about the past and the present – what should be the future of prevention education?
There needs to be more funding within school systems to allow for meaningful training programs. Leadership at the Board and Superintendent level is extremely important. Principals need to know they have support when they need it. I would also like to see more social workers and counselors in schools. Most importantly, it should be mandatory that any people who work with children, in a school, park district, day-care, etc. must have child abuse training and a clear understanding of their obligations.
What motivates your philanthropy?
We support several community-based programs that address a variety of needs, including education, mental health and homelessness. However, child abuse initiatives constitute the largest percentage of our giving. We are devoted to the issue and hope to make a real difference.
The leadership of an organization plays a critical role in our determinations. Char Rivette and her team have our utmost respect and support. Their training programs are among the finest in the country and they are always growing and improving. Unfortunately, sometimes when leadership changes and the direction of an organization shifts, so does our support. However, this has never been the case at ChicagoCAC. Over the years we have become more and more supportive.
What would you say to someone who is considering ChicagoCAC as a cause to support?
I would say visit the site. If you have a particular interest, arrange to speak to someone in that area. I would strongly encourage them to attend a training session. There is no better way to educate the donor on the work you do. I would also tell them I admire the fact that once ChicagoCAC has a client, they follow up with the family and try to provide mental health services in their local community. And I would tell them that ChicagoCAC is one of the only places that examines the wraparound effect of abuse and domestic violence.
ChicagoCAC always has an eye toward broadening and improving their services. I hope it continues to expand and I am proud to be a small part of their work.