In January, the American Psychological Association publicly apologized for its role in perpetuating racism in psychiatry. Within its statement the association, which counts more than 100,000 members, declared its intent to create a more equitable future.
Such a reckoning with past mistakes is also needed in the practice of child welfare.
There is an urgent need for a different way to work, but before that can happen, we must also acknowledge the harm caused by our system, in particular, to Black, Indigenous, and families and communities of color.
We often teach our children that an apology should be followed by a change in behavior. In child welfare, although we are working on transforming how we do our work, we have skipped an essential step. We have not made efforts to admit our shortcomings and make our intentions of changing child welfare’s future clear to the very people to whom it matters most — families.
It is not easy, but it is brave, to admit how our system has, even if unintentionally, participated in perpetuating systemic racism. Facing head-on the harm that has been done means first accounting for it to more clearly understand the scope of the harm.
Racism is often marked by an action or inaction which enables the sustainability of inequity, and our child welfare system has not taken a clear stance against racism. For years, the system has over-surveilled and over-investigated families of color, and has been more likely to substantiate claims of abuse and neglect and separate Black and Indigenous families. The disproportionality data that has persisted over the years has seemingly been tolerated, though not intentionally addressed.
It is harmful to watch vulnerable subgroups, who are already at multiple intersections of inequity, suffer within our system at over-represented numbers. And, based on quantitative and qualitative findings from decades of research, it is time to admit our system has not approached our work with a racial equity lens.
As poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou says, “Do the best you can until you know better, then when you know better, do better.” We know better, and it’s time to do better.
So, how do we “do better” when it comes to a revolutionary approach in child welfare? How do we build an anti-racist system and move forward from our past?
We start by admitting how wrong we’ve been, especially as it relates to children and families of color. That can’t happen until we can fully account for, and transparently face, that history of harm.
To begin, Congress should authorize a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study to perform a national accounting of the children who have been victimized by the overuse of family separation through foster care, group and residential care, Native American boarding schools, and border separations. This accounting should detail the number of children who, at the very least, were physically abused, sexually abused or died while in the care of the government. The data must include race as an identifying factor to account for and examine the disproportionate impacts of family separation on children and families of color.
Those driving child welfare policy in the Biden administration should consider creating a commission to examine how the current structure, funding and operation of the child welfare system allows these disproportionate harms to continue and to recommend changes that must be made to keep all of America’s children safely with their families.
It means that leaders of state, regional and county child welfare agencies will conduct the same analysis and publicly and transparently share the data so the depth of harm can be collectively acknowledged and grieved.
Although there is likely no way to measure the neglect, emotional abuse, relational trauma or resulting life-long impact, accounting for and acknowledging the truth of what happened to our nation’s children is an important first step.
This transparent accounting and analysis of historical data, and the crafting of recommendations to move forward to reduce harm, must also be followed by a public apology from governmental leaders to the yet unaccounted for children and families who have suffered, many at disproportionate rates, as a result of our national approach to child welfare. Not only will this approach illuminate harm experienced by the children of color and their families, it will show us how our system has impacted families overall.
On an individual level, workers — past and present — may find themselves in need of truth-telling, forgiveness-asking and compassion with themselves, their colleagues and families they have served or are currently serving. Many of us in the field carry stories in our hearts about a child or family who, in hindsight, was not better off after our intervention.
A sufficient apology doesn’t end with, “I’m sorry.” Rather, it includes taking responsibility for the specific harm caused (the “truth”), asks for forgiveness (reconciliation), and then asserts a desire and commitment to do things differently. That change will include committing to revolutionizing the system to move from punishing to supporting families, from using family separation to using family strengthening, and supporting the workforce so they can be their best for families.
A revolutionary shift will only come when we stop assuming that we know what’s best for families, or that we know what families need. It will be revolutionary to trust the wisdom of children and families and to co-design with them better ways of supporting families. Revolutionary redesign builds ways to work with families that are void of racism and bias and are instead built by sharing power, which brings us to the step after truth and reconciliation … reparation.
How can we begin to make reparations to children whose lives have been forever impacted by family separation or the harm that came to them while in out-of-home placement? We suggest that a place to start is by sharing power as a form of reparation. Working with youth and families to lead or co-design the transformation of the child welfare system, so that it better meets their needs and does less harm is, we believe, a revolutionary act of reconciliation and reparation.
African American novelist James Baldwin once noted, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” We can move on from here, following the lead of what youth, families and communities help us to understand in a path forward. Reparations may also include tangible commitments of extended supported housing, healthcare, mental health care or better education for youth who had “the system” as parents.
But we don’t need to guess what could be helpful. If we acknowledge the mistakes of the past and present, our communities would be much more likely to join us in co-designing that next phase together.