Serendipity is the phenomenon of discovering something valuable that is unexpected, like a forgotten $10 bill in your jacket pocket, or finding the love of your life through a chance meeting.
Serendipity is also one of the few things that will keep families outside the child welfare agency’s front door, and that is not a good thing. It shouldn’t take luck or fortuitous circumstance for American families to be helped before they reach a crisis point.
We have paid more attention to strategy and less to building an organizational culture around family support and stability. We’ve worked on the “how” and not the “why” and as such our approaches and outcomes are random and inconsistent.
Before the Family First Prevention Services Act became law in 2018, the development of family support programming was uneven, lacking the full federal and state support necessary to be sustained systemically. Some families benefited — others did not. Family First is an invitation to remove chance from the equation. The value of this legislation is that it sets the stage for changing the culture of child welfare.
Currently, we labor under the illusion that a risk analytic is what distinguishes those families who participate on a voluntary or involuntary basis. In the evolution of child welfare, we have artfully created a “deep end” and an “upstream.” It is the equivalent of a GPS for social guesswork. We do well identifying the geography a family occupies, but we lack an organizational consensus on their healing.
Consequently, the cases keep coming more quickly than our current system can manage. Think of how many jurisdictions are always in a constant campaign for foster homes. Those campaigns are bolstered by strategies for recruitment and the hope that we can catch up with the demand, instead of a culture devoted to stemming the flow.
It’s a truism that few plans or strategies survive a first contact with the unexpected. However, an organizational culture accommodates, adapts and endures the challenges facing families and creates an ethos of “whatever it takes” to keep a family stable and safe.
The reliance on serendipity in our responses emerged naturally. Poverty, generational and historical trauma, racism, substance abuse and poor choices are the factors that challenge the involuntary recipients of services. But how is that different than so many of the families who seek services on their own? Not much actually. Most of these issues are too big for one under-resourced system to handle. In the end, it is still serendipity that a parent might have nearby access to family support services because we have a strategy, but not a belief system.
Families that lack a well-designed circle of care will lose their balance. When they are fortunate to have well-organized support, parents can survive the consequences of one poor decision, an unpaid utility bill or a lapse into immobilizing depression.
Without it, the other side of serendipity is unforgiving. And the cruel distinction between privilege and poverty is that for those who possess the former, serendipity is nice but not necessary. Instead, there is a comforting thought for privileged families knowing that safety and stability are not sidelined by one choice or cruel twist of fate.
This is not true for the families we serve in child welfare systems. For them, without serendipity on their side, the dominoes generally fall in the wrong direction. As decision makers, living in comfort, it’s good to remind ourselves of this.
Accounting for poverty and race will help to remind us of the need to reduce our dependence on serendipity and instead maximize opportunities for success through the use of common sense family supports. The Family First Act helps to set the stage for the development of realistic, universal prevention programming. And for those families ready and willing to seek help, it will be there.
That’s why we need more stakeholder-driven approaches. New partners will encourage us to adapt, innovate and refuse to settle for serendipity being the prevailing theme in the lives of families seeking help. Community-driven models provide a cascade of promising opportunities. Participants get fired up about improving the lives of families who live in their communities and will take a pass on the conversations about model fidelity.
And if you want to know the source of their passion and commitment, ask these stakeholders what matters most to them. Their answer will reflect what any smart organization knows. The transition from serendipity to purposeful care depends on culture and clarity of mission — not strategy. They might not use those words but the sentiment is the same. A collective culture promotes shared aspirations not just tasks.
A state’s Family First prevention plan should not resemble a kumbaya moment. Instead, it has to articulate how a state or county plans to build and reinforce a culture based on a relentless belief in family stability and support, moving beyond the randomness of services. Listening to families and community stakeholders will help guide us toward a more human centered design that would become the norm and get us away from programs that are the equivalent of stumbling upon a heads up coin.
Serendipity is an unexplained gift of the universe. We rejoice when the consequences benefit us or others. However, it shouldn’t be the random, underlying foundation of our family support and child protection system.