Child Protection Needs a ‘Race to the Moon’ Mentality

In the practice of child welfare, we are called upon to model a set of core values. 

Woven throughout Family Finding and my partnership with the Seneca Family of Agencies is an evolving philosophy of “unconditional care” that translates into, “Our plans may fail, but the family and child will not.” Indeed, we will not give up in our efforts to support children, families, communities and Tribes in their efforts to build safe, connected, hopeful and purposeful futures. 

Unfortunately, our federal and state financing of child protection and other social welfare programs has for decades done just that – given up on children and families – and beyond that abandoned whole neighborhoods, communities, racial groups and Indian Nations. Abandoned in sense that they as individuals or groups are not seen to have any meaningful or valuable capacity to create solutions to the challenges that most affect their lives and instead financial resources are directed to put social service agencies, charities and courts in their place to decide what is best, who is worth saving, keeping together or even protecting.

As such our financing of child protection mirrors historic and prevailing policy and public sentiment of rescuing children from easily vilified individuals and marginalized groups, and then moving them to a “better place” like foster care, residential care, adoption and, more recently, so-called extended foster care and independent living.

Our federal “uncapped entitlement,” Title IV-E of the Social Security Act, has for decades fueled programs and services that we now know have little or reverse evidence to show that they make any real impact in improving outcomes and generational involvement with social welfare and justice programs.

Unfortunately, the current debate about the proposed changes to federal financing in the proposed Family First Act would not, in my opinion, fundamentally address this problem. The bill, as it is being interpreted in the industry, has strong undertones of an attempt to sell wholesale change, as long as it doesn’t cut funds for our favorite legacy programs. In this way it does not address the paternalistic foundations of the original entitlement program and continues to leave out the voices and participation of those who matter most: parents, children, young people, families and non-custodial fathers.

So it seems quite literally to have become a massive game of “Who Moved My Cheese?” With the Family First Act, the winners would be a short list of so-called evidence-based programs that have never been taken to scale. The losers would be the usual suspects: children, youth, parents, families, tribes and caseworkers.

This is lamentable because reform is needed. As I watch the unfolding patterns in the states of foster care placements rising, and then foster care shortages ensuing, it seems clear that the most likely outcome of any “reform” effort will be a significantly larger out-of-home care system. We could easily be somewhere close to numbers we saw in the mid- to late 1990s within five years without urgent intervention by Congress and the states.

So what to do? First, a truly courageous and overdue debate needs to happen about the intersection of federal- and state-level funding of health care, education, justice, mental health, economic opportunities and child protection. That debate should be a forward-facing one; we can’t look to the past, or even to current programs or pet projects for a single or simple answer. 

We need to have a debate that looks at the current state of evidence on what it takes to raise healthy, safe and successful children, adolescents and young adults. That evidence supports good common sense. It takes a family; a permanent, respected and supported family. It takes high quality education experiences. It takes a safe neighborhood and engaged communities. Finally, it takes hope; hope that if you are a part of these things you could truly and fairly participate in a life worth living. In too many places in America, including our current foster care system, that kind of opportunity and hope is in short supply.

In addition to what children need, the adults who love them have needs, too. Any practice in child welfare that has any possibility of real impact must focus on the well-being of the family and the caseworker. 

Our conventional practice of “casework as usual,” a type of practice driven by caseworkers trying to survive high caseloads and rampant staff and foster parent turnover, force a focus on placement or no placement. “Safety” considerations beyond this are a luxury on most days. This form of “casework as usual” is brutal to children, parents, extended family, tribes and non-custodial fathers. 

While we have focused more on finding and engaging fathers and relatives since 2008, we have done nothing meaningful to change the conditions of “casework as usual.” When located and engaged, fathers and relatives get to the agency where they are treated with suspicion and disrespect, and only one question seems important: are you appropriate? That is a question the casework agency will answer, not you. Appropriate for what? One thing: placement of the child at the beginning. If not, you have no other role and you and any other offer of help will effectively disappear from the child’s life, creating a social and cultural quarantine for the child and extended family.

So the title of the proposed bill, Family First, is right, however without an authentic commitment to the title it may result in few real changes. 

What is wrong with the current conceptualization of the bill can be stated in three parts:

  1. The scope and vision of the proposed bill is too narrow; consider incorporating the findings of the Commission to End Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities Report to “get resources to families before children and adolescents are hurt.”
  2. The proposed timeframes for moving to fund only “evidence-based” models is unrealistic and does not specifically provide support for continued innovation, testing and implementation of models at scale.
  3. The proposed bill does not place the issue in the right context; child welfare exists in a symbiotic relationship to socio-economic status and the pervasive racial inequality that continues to plague the United States. 

Where you find clusters of marginalized people and groups you find clustering of severe child neglect, abuse and preventable fatalities. A child protection agency is no remedy for this and cannot continue to be held solely accountable every time policy makers and their constituents are forced to confront the consequences of these larger policy failures through yet another tragedy befalling a vulnerable child and family. 

I have lived my entire life in the shadow of the War on Poverty and Great Society programs of President Johnson. During that period the root causes of child abuse and neglect were the subject of much discussion. Contributing factors of these social ills were identified as pervasive economic inequality, historic and institutional racism and, finally, segregation. 

Campaigns were begun to address these problems then, yet they continue to plague us today. Consider this statistic: in 2015 the poorest white families in the U.S. had twice the wealth of the poorest black, Hispanic and Native American Families.  

The debate about financing reform and, more importantly, equity, must become the “race to the moon” of our time.

We must fund it, staff it and start first with a launching platform of unconditional care, hope, equality, respect, participation and a realization that it serves us all to have a country built on safe, thriving families, neighborhoods, communities and tribes. 

But we can’t fund a NASA-like endeavor the way we have historically funded child welfare. For if we do, we won’t make it out of the current atmosphere, and nowhere near the promise of the stars that comes with childhood.

Kevin CampbellKevin A. Campbell is a internationally known youth permanency expert and the model author of Family Finding, a set of strategies used throughout the United States, Canada and Australia to create lifelong supports for children in foster care. Kevin is the co-founder of the National Institute for Permanent Family Connectedness hosted at the Seneca Family of Agencies in  California. 

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