In a 1976 essay entitled Why I Write, the author Joan Didion observed: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear …”
She goes on to say that she is not an authority on anything, but instead attempts to clarify pictures she has in her head. She called it “an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.”
As someone who does a good deal of writing about child welfare, Didion’s admission strikes me as an excellent guide on how to frame, realistically, the complex nature of our work. Writing is one path toward finding our best selves and the possibilities in our profession that has an infinite set of twists and turns.
As I get older, I find that the more I learn about our system, the less I understand it. That’s because within child welfare, the facts are nuanced, the stories rarely flow in a linear way and almost every choice we make is compromised.
That’s not how some of my peers are approaching the conversations about our present challenges and future direction. The discussion of child welfare has become more coarse, adversarial and overly self-assured.
Among ourselves, we have always been a testy group, and historically, the system has served as an occasional whipping post for the press and other media. But this current tone of self-loathing is damaging, because it sets the stage for a circular firing squad and discourages respectful dissent. We espouse a strengths-based approach with children and their families, but fail to model that behavior with each other. Labelling and blaming doesn’t improve performance.
This field’s shortcomings are clear when it comes to child fatalities (still too many), racial bias (still present) and residential programming (still too common). But the solutions to those shortcomings are not so clear. There is no singular, infallible argument to be made that our child safety protocols are either a total failure of overreach or underachievement.
It’s not fair to fault our entire workforce and every agency for the implicit and overt racist behaviors of some. And can we honestly believe that our system would survive if we had no qualified, child-centered residential care facilities for those youngsters whose behavior defies every other option? Without sounding apologetic or enabling, it’s reasonable to entertain shades of gray.
Articles about child welfare’s persistent problems are becoming less substance and more blaming. There is a needed and meaningful debate afoot about the extent to which neglect cases are solely about poverty and race. But the commentary these days often defaults to absolutes: ‘all child neglect cases are based on class and racial bias and thus we should do away with a system that is too intrusive so we achieve better results.’
As a reader must I choose that position or be perceived as the enemy of all that is right and good for kids and families? Are we suggesting that everything we are doing now, or in the past, is worthless? Considering that our purpose is the safety, permanency and well-being of children and the improvement of family functioning in dynamically diverse settings, the whole idea of absolutes is naive. If we reflect on the difficult journeys our agencies face each day, one thing is clear: there are no simple situations.
Inevitably, out of nowhere, the next report of a child fatality comes across our desks. The facts of the cases are never straightforward. With the death or an injury to a child, we lose something sacred, and all the words and new paradigms mean nothing until we frame the story in its full complexity, not the blaming or labeling that has been the trademark of our harshest critics.
We should resist broad strokes and conclusions and recognize that we never know exactly what is behind the door. We lack that level of control to predict with certainty. Children enter the system for a variety of reasons and a myriad of factors: their safety, socioeconomics, racism, as well as parental choices fueled by trauma-induced mental health and substance abuse disorders — or all of the above.
When we write about our work, let’s have a few ground rules. Acknowledge accomplishments. Affirm that we are on each other’s side and have each other’s backs. The process of respectful conversations and civil discourse can be more important than the final product. Encourage one another and stop the wholesale name calling of professionals who believe that their life’s work has meant something.
Before we put anything in print or online, every author should ask, am I encouraging my peers to improve their practice? Is what I am writing fostering the collaboration we need to be successful? How do my words incorporate and honor the efforts of my colleagues and inspire them to accept new ideas?
There is a privilege and luxury attached to thinking and writing about this profession, when so many others are performing the tasks of knocking on doors at 11 p.m. We shouldn’t abuse that privilege and take shots at our colleagues.
Our columns, blogs and online messaging should not be the equivalent of running with our eyes closed, expecting no injury or collateral damage. There is a strong, coherent case for systems change and transformation. There is no need to overpower the argument with a narrative of absolute authority and self-righteous indignation.
If you’re coming into a reader’s personal and professional space, have some regard. Use these public forums to clarify a direction for what we want and what we fear, and how we will help each other with the dizzying and difficult tasks we face every day.