The next administration should establish a family well-being attitude across the executive branch
As we consider a new federal child welfare team, we should recognize the exceptional work of the current Children’s Bureau, especially its leaders Jerry Milner and David Kelly. They advanced smart, progressive and commonsense policy and practice designs for child welfare agencies focused on the development of community-based family support efforts. They were consistent in messaging the need to go beyond the limits of traditional child welfare approaches. That was transformational for the whole field.
Even with all of the uncertainties that lie ahead on the family support and prevention front, and the imperfections of the Family First Act, Milner and Kelly telegraphed a commitment to ending the prevailing child rescue mentality.
So what’s next? Let’s start with the basics. Outcomes for the traditional child welfare functions remain mixed. Child fatalities have increased, disproportionality related to children of color is still shameful, and we have not done anything on a grand scale to redefine the role of foster care. More kids are entering kinship care, but the state of the art for supporting caregivers is still a random exercise.
We do have a better idea of what works in terms of parenting and in-home service. However, the turnover rates in many public and private agencies are astronomical, with still no clear plan on how to stem the tide of young caseworkers leaving the profession. And as I have stated in an earlier article, we have more of a child protection response than a child and family well-being system.
In spite of the smart and well-conceived work of the Children’s Bureau, complex challenges lie ahead. There is a possibility that the opportunities opened up by the Family First Prevention Services Act will run into a brick wall unless we address the more holistic challenges facing children and families. You can’t have an aggressive and enduring family support strategy when you are simultaneously trying to dismantle all of the other health and human services and educational programs that we know keep kids safe, families strong and communities supportive.
Hungry, traumatized and socially isolated kids with substandard educational options, whose parents are frequently under siege, are still more likely to wind up in foster care. We need to persist with our efforts to change the culture, not just the strategy.
It’s time to get to the next level on the Family First Act and the new Thriving Families effort to help states imagine broader changes. We should look beyond a one-dimensional game to a much more nuanced approach to improved outcomes for kids and families. At this stage, there are many blind spots in our work and the intricacy of the scale we need is beyond one system.
The Biden administration should build a common executive branch-wide culture starting on Day One based on what we know contributes to family safety, and stability so that child protection and services like foster care, are seen as a continuum of child and family well-being and not in isolation.
The new administration should attend to the tsunami of woe facing the provider community as we enter into a new era that prioritizes upstream family support. Organizations will have to make difficult decisions and adjustments about prevention, higher levels of residential care or both. Let’s not be Darwinian about the survival of these private agencies. By rejecting the richness of their mission-driven experiences, we miss the opportunity for them to morph into more relevant partners of the child welfare continuum.
The new administration should reward systems integration, innovation and the reinvention of traditional services. Business does this to enhance quality and to provide the best customer experience possible. A well-designed product, a human designed product, appeals to our comfort and aspirations. Starbucks revolutionized the experience of sharing a coffee, once the province only of diners.
These reinventions, and constant improvements to the experience, have made the company wildly successful. By those same standards, our current child welfare system teeters on the brink of being a failed business model.
The child welfare field has done a better job of bringing other people to the table – mental health, substance abuse and early education providers, to name a few – but it’s still not enough. Our collaborators are frequently our health and human service partners with whom we regularly work. We are generally polite to each other and accommodate each other because we have to continue working on a variety of projects.
The next federal team should incentivize us to think more boldly. Successful organizations wisely integrate cross system innovation into the planning and development of products. The unsuccessful ones are those who stagnate, fail to learn from others and essentially miss the value of appealing to their customer’s ever-changing needs and desires.
Finally, without imposing too many government mandates, I think a Biden administration should require us to gather “customer satisfaction” information to answer the question: Have the services you received made a difference or are they more of the same old, same old?
President-elect Biden’s slogan was “Build Back Better.” When thinking of child welfare, I could not agree more.