The election of former Vice President Joe Biden provides an opportunity to end the war against poor families waged by the Trump administration. President Trump sought to deny millions of Americans – including children – health care, food stamps and cash assistance. His policies ripped children from parents escaping poverty, violence and abuse in their home countries. He refused to fight for economic security – like a living wage – that would have provided more stability in the lives of low-income families.
Research informs us that these types of supports are exactly what families need to safely care for their children and prevent the unnecessary entry of kids into foster care. The Biden administration gives us hope that a broad anti-poverty agenda might be forthcoming that can provide respite to both struggling families and an overburdened foster care system.
Yet, in one important area, the Biden administration should simply build on the work of his predecessor – child welfare policy. Over the last four years, under the leadership of Associate Commissioner Jerry Milner, the Children’s Bureau has laid out a bold new vision of what the child welfare system should look like, the intent of which it has stated should be to eliminate the need for foster care by supporting families and to disentangle poverty from neglect. Not only has Milner and his team laid out this vision in information memorandums and presentations, they have moved to implement it through statutory reforms, interpretation of federal laws, and the spending of discretionary funds.
For example, they helped implement the Families First Prevention and Services Act, which gave states the flexibility to spend funds under Title IV-E of the Social Security Act for targeted prevention services. They revised the interpretation of Title IV-E regulations to allow state child welfare agencies to seek federal funding for the legal representation of parents and children. And they used their discretionary funding and leadership to launch the new Thriving Families, Safer Children Initiative, a partnership between the Bureau, Casey Family Programs, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Prevent Child Abuse America, which will provide support to communities so that they can proactively invest in family well-being, well before the involvement of a child protective agency. These types of initiatives are exactly what families deserve.
President Biden should retain Milner to continue this work. With the backing of a new administration that will actually support Milner’s efforts by seriously addressing poverty in America, the promise of a new child welfare system that can partner with families remains within our grasp.
But the Biden administration must take additional steps in the next four years. Even with the Family First Act, state child welfare agencies need far more flexibility to spend federal funds on concrete supports that can keep children safe with their families, like obtaining housing, accessing public benefits or getting the right educational services. The federal government should go beyond the new IV-E support for counsel and fund legal services aimed at preventing families from even getting to the front door of child welfare.
And the Adoption and Safe Families Act must be amended to prevent the needless and permanent destruction of families, especially where a child has a loving relationship with a parent, is living with relatives, or does not yet have an identified permanent home.
So long as families view the child welfare system as their enemy, we will never realize the potential in our work. But if we can reposition the system as one in partnership with families that works to address the root causes of societal inequities, then the possibilities are endless. By connecting a broader anti-poverty agenda with the work begun by Jerry Milner, the Biden administration has the ability to do this.