Child welfare leaders across the United States are hearing an increasingly loud chorus of voices, making one of three demands:
“Abolish the child welfare system!”
“Don’t abolish the system. Reform it!”
“No matter what, we MUST protect children!”
Each group is impassioned and urgent, convinced their approach is the best and only way forward. As someone who believes either/or propositions are a dangerous way to make important decisions, I propose we reap value from each of these positions. Some things need to be abolished. Others can be reformed. And the fact is that some children do need us to protect them. The trick will be to apply the right strategy to each of these challenges.
Rather than toss the entire child welfare system, let’s abolish the specific aspects of the system that just don’t work. For starters, look at reducing — and, eventually, eliminating — reliance on congregate care. This can be done, as my experience leading Baltimore’s child welfare agency showed.
We should stop treating all situations as equally dangerous — separating symptoms of poverty from actual abuse. In doing so we can stop using foster care as an anti-poverty program and instead provide appropriate supports to families. We can cease the practice of placing children in foster care simply because their families have low incomes.
That still leaves plenty of opportunities to reform aspects of the system that could work if they were fixed. For example, we could capitalize on the opportunity to modernize child welfare technology, from implementing new case management solutions to using virtual reality to recruit and prepare caseworkers and prioritizing dollars for primary prevention.
That leaves us with a remaining task: the need to protect children from harm. This is a thing we must do, and do well, with great urgency. I believe addressing that critical goal actually becomes easier when we’ve made the changes I described above.
Abolishing things that don’t work and reforming things that could work will have the impact of right-sizing these systems. It will clear the air so we can zero in on the small number of children who need us to rush in. Just as important, we’d free caseworkers and other resources to focus on instances where children are truly in harm’s way.
We are being bombarded by polarized voices shouting about what to do with the system. Abolish. Reform. Save the children. I hope we rise above the noise and consider a different message.
“Let’s focus on doing all three.”