We are going through a period in child welfare filled with questions about our decades-long, high-priced investments in low-return practices.
For the most part, our wicked child welfare problems, disparities and inequities have been connected to spiraling circumstances of omission and commission, that are insidious and underestimated. Most of the families we serve are trapped in a sticky web of factors related to social justice, equity, and fairness and personal and family responsibility — situations that are frequently, but not totally, beyond a family’s control.
This is hardly new. These circumstances existed even at the time of the infamous Mary Ellen case, Irish and Italian immigration, and later, when we began thinking that the wholesale displacement and indoctrination of Black, brown and Indigenous children was the wise and compassionate thing to do.
Our failure to address these circles of uncertainty has resulted in a child welfare system that resembles Sisyphus pushing his rock up the hill. But unlike the Greek hero, no one is happy. Underestimating these circles of uncertainty helps drive our mediocre results because they defy and dwarf our current batch of solutions.
In no special order of impact, these are the circles of uncertainty that create an orbit of frustration for families:
- Family instability, marked by generational histories of trauma, near destruction and patterns that have left adults and children churning in one system or another, and riddled with problems that thrive on relapse
- Poverty and chronic absences of basic resources; families living week to week, sometimes, day to day
- Constant movement in and out of the community by neighbors who might otherwise serve as social capital. This relentless movement leads to a lack of familiar faces and informal supports
- The fickle nature of institutions and other “anchors” that may situate themselves in a neighborhood, or whose decisions are made in boardrooms detached from community input and whose staff turnover regularly
- Public will and public policy that ebb with election cycles, along with the whims of the broader society, whose sentiments change in unpredictable ways.
- The randomness of opportunities that bring a fresh resource to a family or a community, but over which neither have any control
These problems seem so obvious. A newly minted caseworker could recite them if pressed, although they might have trouble explaining the split narrative between what they do in their traditional agency role to ensure child safety and well-being against this level of uncertainty. And the most experienced of social workers will likely agree these factors are primary reasons for recurrence of maltreatment.
Still, it remains difficult for us to agree on the nature of those issues, and how to balance parental obligations against the burden and authority carried by public child welfare agencies and the vast power of our broader social structure.
We serve families, who often have almost nothing material to build on, with straight line instruments, then expect and require predictable results. Within those circles, the deck is frequently stacked against those who make even one mistake. Families remain stuck in the circles, and we remain frustrated that there is so little progress. The late South African Bishop Desmond Tutu labeled social justice mistakes: “We learn from history that we don’t learn from history.”
Maybe this is where we can find our way to an agreement about how we stop this frustrating cycle. The emerging work around community-based family support and prevention services holds promise for all involved. Applying these collaborations with families and communities, we avoid putting the full weight of change into a parent’s service plan.
Social work’s earliest settlement house roots exposed micro- and macro-level issues impacting families — understanding that the circles of uncertainty had very real daily consequences for families, while simultaneously representing broader social justice issues. The moment our profession stepped away from those guiding principles, we embraced a punitive approach with families, declaring them deficient and frequently placing the yardstick of performance beyond their reach. We did this initially with European immigrant children and then with families of color, largely because they were not seen as “civilized” or white enough.
We must continue exploring communities and neighborhoods as spaces for partnerships that benefit families, while addressing the larger social justice issues that keep people trapped in the circles of uncertainly. Because our priority is child safety and well-being, we should work with our community partners to determine how wecan best accomplish those goals.
And ultimately, we need to advance a broader standard of support for families that ensures a clear path outside of generational unpredictability and the child welfare system.