Just seven years ago, government inspectors told the city of Leeds, England, that its community was failing its most vulnerable children.
A 2-year-old had been raped and murdered, and the agency responsible for protecting children was singled out for criticism.
“They said we were rubbish,” said Andy Lloyd, who today is head of workforce development at Leeds Children’s Services in the city. “We weren’t keeping our children safe.”
There were too many children in state care, too many leaving school with no direction in life, thousands not attending school regularly.
Lloyd came to Tacoma on Tuesday to talk about how his city went about turning around that grim picture.
He was one of the presenters at a “Symposium on Our Youngest Citizens,” sponsored by the Children’s Museum of Tacoma. The third annual event asked an estimated 300 participants — including educators, social workers, academics and others — to consider the role of children as citizens of our community.
Lloyd talked about his city, located in the north of England, approximately midway between London and Edinburgh, Scotland. It has a proud industrial past that once included a booming textile industry. Today Leeds is known as a financial center, one of the largest in the U.K. outside London.
But along with transforming its economy, the city has been working for several years to transform its heart and soul — all with a goal of redeeming its children.
It adopted the motto “Child-Friendly Leeds,” along with an orange “thumbs-up” symbol that shows up on lapel pins and in flower arrangements in city parks.
Leeds has gained recognition within the U.K. and internationally for its child-centered approach, modeled in part after work launched by UNICEF in the 1990s.
Becoming child friendly is an attitude and a behavior, more than a thing.
Andy Lloyd, Leeds (England) Children’s Services
Most of the work has involved what Lloyd describes as simple steps, backed by research and common sense. Politicians, nonprofit leaders, educators, social workers and families came together to develop a single-page plan. They also gave kids a voice and recognized that every child has a right to play as part of their growth and development.
They decided to make Leeds so attractive and welcoming for children that young adults — rather than moving away — would stay and raise families of their own.
Some policymakers might conclude that urban design, with more parks, community centers and play spaces, can accomplish that goal. But Lloyd said what’s happening in Leeds is more than a function of architects and city planners.
Becoming child friendly, he said, “is an attitude and a behavior, more than a thing.”
The city has involved everyone from trash collectors, who are asked to keep an eye out for kids who may be in unsafe living situations, to health care workers, business owners and police officers. The goal, Lloyd said, is to have them all demonstrate a spirit of welcome for the city’s youngest residents.
“It’s about saying ‘You are part of who we are,’ ” Lloyd said. “We haven’t got everything right yet, but we’re working on it,” he said.
After Tuesday’s presentations, participants were asked to come up with ideas they could adopt to make Tacoma and Pierce County a better place for kids and families.
One suggestion: start up a series of “community cafes” — where families can come together to support each other and learn from each other.
Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland urged people to get to work on ideas like that.
“You don’t need permission to lead or to start something,” Strickland said. “You don’t need permission to do the good work. Just get on with it.”