What we got right while so much else was wrong
As a child welfare social worker for a few decades now, serving as the leader of the U.S. Children’s Bureau was the greatest honor of my career, perhaps my life. In my field, there is no comparable position to lead the country in shaping a vision, if one chooses, that can affect the lives of vulnerable children, youth and parents in such profound ways.
It is also a place where the reigning political ideology can affect actions, drive priorities and determine who will benefit. An administration’s priorities and policies can help connect families with what they need or prevent them from getting it. It is a place where values, even those not explicitly articulated, become readily apparent and reveal views on whole segments of our population and determine if they are treated humanely and experience equity and justice.
Knowing this, I made a pact with myself before assuming the role. I promised to resign if either of two things happened, in order to satisfy my conscience: the systematic separation of children from their parents at the border, and granting the right of organizations that receive federal tax dollars to deny services to people they deemed unacceptable based on their religious beliefs.
Both things happened. I did not resign. And this is why.
In staying, I got to know hundreds of young people with foster care experience. They trusted me with their most personal experiences – their successes, failures, struggles, hopes and dreams. They became essential elements of my own experience, and many saw me as an advocate for their community – their brothers and sisters in child welfare.
I met with countless parents with child welfare experience who also shared their intimate stories, often with tears and exasperation over a system that was not designed or funded to help them care for themselves and their children.
I visited with innumerable advocates, state and county agencies, organizations and individuals who want child welfare to be better than it is, and they all instilled in me the hope that I could help to bring that vision – their vision – to life. Of note, these included many faith-based providers and organizations who are essential players in child welfare and who value serving a diverse population.
That level of trust is a gift that I was and am compelled to honor with my service. I stayed because I believed it was possible to do some good, and I do not regret it. Through collaboration, many good things have happened in child welfare over the past four years, and much is left to be done.
So, what worked? Listening worked. Acting on what we heard from people with lived expertise worked. Coalescing around a shared vision worked. Bringing a diverse group of stakeholders together around two simple goals – preventing the need for families to make contact with child welfare and dramatically improving the experience of those that do – worked.
I believe we – the Children’s Bureau and an array of supportive stakeholders – changed the narrative about child welfare in the United States. Rather than continuing to discuss how we can get better at doing what we’ve always done, including the separation of children from parents, our field is seriously considering ways to transform an almost exclusive child protection system into a child and family well-being system. We have begun to implement a national vision of creating the conditions for healthy and thriving families and communities where children are free from harm.
We called on the field to move toward primary prevention as our major focus, and it has made great strides in doing so. The Family First Prevention Services Act helped increase focus on prevention, although it does not fund primary prevention of child maltreatment. Nonetheless, state Family First prevention plans indicate a growing commitment to thinking bigger and helping families before a child becomes at imminent risk of entering foster care.
They also show a recognition by these systems that not everything a family needs to remain safely together has to be evidence-based – for a great many families, it’s just about food, utilities or housing. This is sparking partnerships with primary prevention entities, such as Children’s Trust Funds, family resource center networks, and child abuse prevention partners.
We amplified and acted on the voices of youth and parents. There is a growing expectation that the voices of lived expertise will be heard, that they will be at the table, and an increasing understanding that they bring the wisdom needed to inform an effective child and family well-being system. The bold step of permitting federal funds to be used to pay for legal representation to ensure that their voices are heard created more opportunity for them to have a say in what they need to thrive. There is still a need to institutionalize the inclusion of their voices in ways that are not dependent upon who is leading the Children’s Bureau.
We have dramatically improved the foster care experience. The field is beginning to embrace foster care as a support for whole families rather than a substitute for parents – its traditional role. Gains in closely related concepts include co-parenting between resource parents and children’s parents, normalized “family time” between parents and children in foster care as opposed to one-size-fits-all visiting schedules, and a growing recognition that allowing youth to “age out” of foster care without permanency is unacceptable and inhumane.
This progress motivated and allowed me to persist in the role, in spite of my disgust at the cruelty inflicted on children and families at the border and my disdain for policies that ignore the humanity in all of us.
So, what remains to be done? While maintaining focus and continuing the progress, there is a need and opportunity to take on issues and serve populations that have not, over the past four years, received the respect they deserved.
The new administration must fully acknowledge and address social and racial injustice in child welfare. The glaring inequities in child welfare are not a matter of opinion – they are a matter of fact. I knew it when I carried a caseload and it is clearer now than ever before.
It is glaring that Black children are twice as likely to enter foster care as white children, and Indigenous children are almost three times more likely. Poor children of all backgrounds are at particular risk of entering foster care due to the effects of poverty, over surveillance and lack of voice.
There is no justice in these facts. We must take a hard look at the harsh termination provisions in federal law under the Adoption and Safe Families Act, state definitions of neglect and mandatory reporting laws. Parent-child separation, even when necessary, is harmful. There is a need for justice whether parent-child separation occurs due to contact with child welfare agencies or at the border. To try to justify it because a parent crosses our border, also most often due to poverty, is inexcusable.
There must be full and inclusive acceptance of the LGBTQ community. Over the past four years, the LGBTQ community has been disregarded in ways that have negatively impacted opportunities for well-being and inclusion. We have seen struggles to even acknowledge the unique needs of the LGBTQ community within child welfare, much less to make explicit efforts to address the needs.
Resorting to sound bite positions and coded language, such as claiming to raise the needs of all those in child welfare, rather than singling out individual groups for particular attention, reveals an underlying ideology that does not embrace the LGBTQ community. The mistaken decision to allow faith-based groups to deny federally funded services to LGBTQ individuals sent that message loud and clear. I struggled mightily not to resign over that decision by the administration that I worked for, feeling both offense and shame at the message it sent to a community of friends, family and other people that I care for deeply.
There must be a commitment to disentangling poverty and neglect. Over half of the children who enter foster care do so solely because of neglect, not abuse, and most of what we call neglect is rooted in poverty. We must commit to addressing the linkages between poverty and neglect in a cross-government manner that strengthens the safety net for families vulnerable to child welfare entanglement.
There is no “quick win” here as it is socially complex and will require a coordinated, long-term commitment. A closely related need is to pay for civil legal representation for families in matters such as housing, loss of access to services and keeping utilities running before vital, unattended needs lead to hotline calls. In the long run, it is cheaper financially and much more humane.
Funding must match the direction of change. If we pay for foster care and adoption – and that is what we mostly pay for – we will get more of both. Although we must support and fund adoption for children and youth who cannot be reunited with their families, we need to get serious about preventing the need for both foster care and adoption. If we pay for preventing abuse and neglect, and for family preservation, that’s what we will get. If our ideology and values center on the sanctity and integrity of families and the importance of parents to their children, and we fund programs and services for those purposes, that is what we will get.
We are at a turning point in child welfare. Despite significant ideological barriers, we have garnered broad enthusiasm for a new way in child welfare – a way that supports families and communities, children and youth differently, and recognizes that radical change is needed to set an entirely new course, not just tweaking a flawed system set up on outdated knowledge and beliefs.
We have momentum and energy in the field.
We have the voices of countless youth and parents with lived expertise.
The field is ready to do what we know we can do.
Let’s not lose this moment.