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A hundred years later, Family & Children Services still fighting same problems in Tulsa

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On a Sunday morning in mid-February 1921, the Tulsa World published a sobering report that described “ragged spots of wretched housing” around the city where impoverished families slept in overcrowded shacks and tents with no running water.

The Oil Boom had made Tulsa fantastically rich, with more millionaires per capita than nearly any other place in America. And the population had almost quadrupled over the previous decade as Tulsa seemed to have an endless demand for new workers. But the Oil Boom had a dark side, too.

Wildcatters could strike it rich overnight, and go broke just as fast. Some of the dirtiest, most dangerous jobs didn’t pay very much. A housing shortage pushed rents higher and higher.

With a growing number of shanty towns popping up, especially on the western side of the Arkansas River, Mayor T.D. Evans appointed a social survey committee, which commissioned the Family Welfare Association of America to conduct a study of local poverty.

The Tulsa World’s article included a recommendation from the committee: “That a Family Welfare Society be established, whose task it shall be to restore disadvantaged families to independence and normal life so far as possible.”

It took several months to organize the local Welfare Society, but it officially launched on Oct. 10, 1921, funded partly by oil tycoon Waite Phillips, who became one of original board members.

By then, the Tulsa Race Massacre had reduced much of the Greenwood District to rubble, leaving hundreds of families homeless and exacerbating the need for social services. The violence of June 1921, however, wasn’t the immediate trigger for starting the Welfare Society, despite rumors to the contrary over the years.

A century later, the society is known as Family & Children Services, a sprawling organization with multiple programs and an $86 million annual budget. But the mission remains essentially the same.

“When you go back to our very, very beginning, it was because a group of Tulsans were looking at the city and seeing vast economic disparities,” said CEO Gail Lapidus. “Oil created tremendous wealth for certain people, but it also brought a lot of people to Tulsa who didn’t make it. There were a tremendous number of abandoned women and children who were living in just deplorable conditions.”

Then, as now, the organization focused on “providing help to under-resourced women and their children,” Lapidus said.

At first, the organization provided direct cash assistance, at a time when the federal and state governments offered no welfare programs. By the time Lapidus joined F&CS as a 23-year-old social worker right out of college in 1974, the organization had evolved into a social service provider.

She worked with children who lived in public housing projects on Tulsa’s west side, not far from where the tent cities had stood back in 1921.

“They were in isolated neighborhoods with no access to food and no transportation,” Lapidus remembered. “Not unlike today, right? We have these isolated neighborhoods that are in food deserts.”

The decades change, but the problems don’t. Poverty, broken families, domestic violence, substance abuse, lack of health care: F&CS has been dealing with the same issues for 100 years now.

In more recent years, the organization has evolved into more of a mental-health provider to fight addiction, depression and other types of mental illness, Lapidus said. Poverty remains the common denominator, year after year.

The biggest difference between 1921 and 2021 comes from scientific research, she said. Social workers understand the human brain much better, especially concerning the effects traumatic childhood events can have on an adult’s life.

“There were no evidence-based practices in our industry when I started,” never mind the 1920s, Lapidus said. “Now we have scientifically based, tried-and-true models to really help an individual overcome addiction or a suicide attempt or child abuse or whatever the issue may be. We have a much better idea of what’s going to work and make a difference in a person’s life.”

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