Over the past year, national groups have called for sweeping child welfare reforms, like repealing the Adoption and Safe Families Act or eradicating mandatory reporting laws. Some have voiced support for abolishing the child welfare system, or at least foster care, replacing it with a new public health approach rooted in supporting families with concrete resources like income, housing and child care. These calls for reform — now being embraced by a diverse and unlikely group of stakeholders — have sparked long overdue conversations.
While these conversations about statutory reforms are important and will hopefully result in meaningful change, questions linger in my mind. Can we immediately achieve the outcomes we are seeking by simply changing our underlying values and attitudes toward families? Rather than waiting for sweeping legislation, could an overhaul of the child welfare system begin today?
Take, for example, the pioneering work of the recently retired Judge Ernestine Gray, who presided over the juvenile court in New Orleans for many years. Judge Gray — applying existing laws — simply adopted a mindset of strictly enforcing the law as written and holding the agency to the legal burdens the law required.
She believed — as she stated in an interview with staff from Casey Family Programs — that if “the child protection agency can’t offer evidence that a child’s safety is imminently at risk, I send the child home to their family, consistently.”
As a direct consequence of this mindset, the number of children in foster care in New Orleans fell by 89% between 2011 and 2017. On March 31, 2020, the city had just 49 children in care, one-tenth of the national rate. And 70% of the few kids who entered foster care exited within a month. Importantly, there was no evidence that children in the jurisdiction faced any additional safety risks by not coming into foster care.
Judge Gray accomplished these outcomes — the same outcomes that so many reformers seek — without any changes in statutes and court rules. She just embraced a mindset, supported by existing laws in every state, that foster care should only be used when absolutely necessary.
Judge Gray’s experiences teach us that significant child welfare reform can happen immediately, if we only have the courage to change how we view families. Can we view families as sources of strength, rather than collections of deficiencies? Can we view foster care as an intervention that should be sparingly used only in the most serious of cases? Can we view relationships between children and their families as the most precious commodity we know that must be safeguarded whenever possible?
If every child welfare professional embraced these values today and answered yes to these questions, the number of children unnecessarily entering foster care would plummet. The number of children in foster care living with strangers, rather than kin, would diminish. The number of children whose relationships with their parents were permanently destroyed would fall. There are no statutes standing in our way. Only our own attitudes toward families in the system impede us.
Civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson teaches us there is only one way to change our mindsets. He writes that by being proximate with families — that is, only if we’re “willing to get closer to people who are suffering” — will we “find the power to change the world.”
Proximity in the child welfare system might entail judges attending community meetings to hear directly from parents and youth. It might ask children’s lawyers to meet with parents in every case to hear their stories. It might require caseworkers to set aside a few hours to listen to a parent’s concerns. It might call on parents’ lawyers to spend time at their client’s homes or in their communities to truly get a sense of what their clients’ lives are like.
At a minimum, proximity requires every professional to give parents and youth the space to tell their stories so that they understand the strengths of the families, the challenges they face and the structural inequities — including racism, sexism and disablism — that have contributed to the family’s predicament.
Proximity requires us to listen. It necessitates that we are willing to learn. It mandates that we are always open to changing our minds.
So if you want to change the child welfare system, certainly continue to seek a statutory overhaul. But remember that change can happen overnight if we have the audacity to confront how we view families.