To Leave Racist Roots Behind, Child Welfare Needs a Great Reimagining

child welfare

Charity Chandler-Cole serves on the Los Angeles Commission for Children and Families.

The plight of Black children in the child welfare system is one plagued with failure after failure from those who have been put in place to protect them.

As activist, sociologist and historian, W.E.B. DuBois, so accurately stated, “A system cannot fail those it was never designed to protect.”

Our foster care system was not designed to protect our Black children, but rather mirrors the oppression, discrimination and harassment Black people experience in this country daily. Our foster care system unfortunately reflects the history of slavery and the deterioration of the family.

It is the remnants of Black fathers being stripped from their families, in many cases unjustly, to fill prisons that were designed to control and suppress Black people through the intentional dismantling of Black families.

Our foster care system is the reminder of mothers left to cope with inadequate support, being torn from their children and succumbing to the shame and defeat of a race they were never positioned to run in, let alone win.

This is the world Black foster youth live in. They not only deal with personal trauma and the soul-crushing experience of generational oppression that has bred many of the conditions that force them into the foster care system, but must also deal with the psychological trauma of systematic racism that runs rampant within the foster care system, the school system and society as a whole.

The Los Angeles County’s foster care system, which is the largest locally-adminstered child welfare system in the nation, is one filled with bureaucracy, red tape and the warehousing, recycling and dismissal of youth. Its leadership has historically placed more attention on appearances and optics than it does on safe, healthy outcomes for the children they are supposed to protect.

This is by design. And while it is not the fault of the Department of Children and Family Services’ current director, Bobby Cagle – the disease of racism, discrimination and bias runs in the very fabric of decades of profiting off of the bodies of little Black and Brown children – it is perpetuated by the current administration and those in charge by continuing to put a Band-Aid on a wound that’s hemorrhaging.

Our first failure lies in assuming that a government system can actually respond to the needs of children and families who are experiencing neglect and abuse. There is an African proverb that says, “It takes a village to raise a child,” meaning that in order to heal, restore, protect and reunify children and families, we must rely on a community of people to ensure those children have healthy experiences and grow up in safe and healthy environments. This community must reflect the faces of the children and families it is seeking to restore, must be led by those who have lived experience, and must not profit off of their deterioration.

Our current system does not restore, it does not heal, it does not protect. Rather, it takes a child out of a bad (or allegedly bad) circumstance and places her in another one … then another one … then another. If the child is lucky and learns how to control their trauma, anger and frustration, they might have the great fortune of living consistently in a home with a family that truly cares about them and their outcomes. Too often, that is not the outcome. If we want a better future for our children, we must act now to create it.

Across history, we’ve seen that real progress often follows great adversity, when addressed with intention and urgency. In this time, and during what I see as a Great Re-Imagining, we must seize this moment, apply it to our foster care system, and create a new future.

For almost two decades now, I have been dreaming of a village where displaced youth can live and thrive, be treated with respect and kindness, where their potential is honored and nourished. There is a model for this, a community called Yemin Orde in Israel, that has for the past 30 years built an educational village that is centered around hope, restoration, positive outcomes and empowerment for our valuable, most vulnerable children.

I am proud to say that for the past nine months, I have been working on such a village that will hopefully be the model to transform our foster care system in Los Angeles and transform the playing field for foster youth from one of neglect and abandonment, to one of nurturing and support.

Simply put, the system we have in place today unjustly tears Black families apart and perpetuates the cycle of trauma, poverty, homelessness and incarceration inflicted on Black communities. Millions of dollars are poured into research and studies that prove that our current system does more harm than good, which is evident in the poor outcomes of our foster youth. What we need now is a reckoning of these facts and a safe haven that will replace our institution, and to ensure that children who genuinely need to be removed are welcomed by their village.

The question is, are we as a society really ready to restore families, empower our youth and be real change agents? Or, is the idea of people over profits and building a new dream too much to grapple with? Let’s find out.

Charity Chandler-Cole is CEO  of Transformative Management Solutions LLC, and serves on the Los Angeles County Commission for Children and Families.

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