I’m not sure exactly why we minimize the lessons of history in our profession. It’s a misstep that has the potential to reduce child welfare policy and practice to overused slogans and one-dimensional solutions. In addition, it’s not fair to the new social workers entering the child welfare arena. The richness and complexity of our past should inform what they do in their agencies every day.
I thought more about our history at the recent Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) conference. There it was announced that CEO Christine James-Brown will be leaving after a distinguished 16-year tenure. Chris has served with grace, wisdom and integrity. It was a remarkable transition that presents a wonderful opportunity for CWLA, for her, and for the profession in general.
In all transparency, I serve as a senior fellow for CWLA, and I have known James-Brown for thirty years. She and the League are part of our long, tumultuous history that must be understood to be improved upon. The driver of that history has been that child welfare remains the last stop for our national failure to fully support families.
By the end of the conference, it occurred to me that our new child welfare social workers badly need a training module on our profession’s history, our roots in Settlement Houses, the evolution of our thinking from child rescue to family well-being, and the over-bureaucratizing of family support and safety practices. We need everyone (especially those fresh into the job), to understand that there are very few novel ideas, only variations on the themes.
I’d like our new social workers to know that we have always been a profession of common sense that understood the connection between people and their social environment. That we don’t need research studies from universities to tell us that families do better when they have food, clothing, shelter and a safe community in which to live. That Jane Addams showed us the value of neighborhood-based family resource centers well over a century and a half ago. That Maslow taught us the hierarchy of needs in 1943. That people of color have been caring for kin long before we invented any labels. And that poverty, institutional racism and generational trauma have bumped up against the reality of individual parental responsibility since the earliest days of child protection — a reality that is like oil and water.
Let’s be proactive and prepare trainees with the relevant lessons learned, before they are dispatched to visit a family or investigate a case.
We should tell our new recruits that this profession has tried often to look through a singular lens for clarity, only to find it is actually a prism. We’ve had non-stop trends when we championed the next big thing: child rescue, Orphan Trains, Indian Boarding Schools, then child safety, permanency at all costs, group care, wrap-around services, family preservation, community related practices, family resource centers, the use of data, the reduction in number of kids in out of home care, collaborations with domestic violence advocates, behavioral health and addiction treatment programs, one-stop community based service hubs, terminating parental rights, and ACES scores. The lens of the moment: the relabeling of neglect cases as proxies for the bias against poor people and people of color.
Our curriculum should remind the future workforce that our primary responsibility and public mandate for this work is child safety, but since you can’t isolate a child’s problems from their relationship with their family and their community, there is no straightforward, foolproof way to assess risk or safety. We can’t underestimate the value of the parent/family attachment in such a way that our responsibility for ensuring permanency and stability is likewise compromised by a variety of socioeconomic factors and resources beyond our control.
Let’s share with future workers the stark reality that most of the families who have historically made it to the front door of child welfare are poor, under-resourced, isolated, and under-attached to social support. Frequently, they are marginalized families of color.
On one hand, we have had an expectation that parents will always rise to the occasion of caring appropriately for their kids. On the other, that expectation becomes an almost impossible task when they are hampered by a lack of resources and access to opportunities. The lesson is that we need to maximize the likelihood of family success at the earliest stage possible, before we make a decision that might impact a child’s well-being for decades. But let’s reinforce with trainees that the timing of those actions and decisions is at best a leap of faith, because there are so many factors a traditional child welfare agency and its team members do not control.
Tell our new team members that the most successful agencies are those that understand the long-term health and well-being of families depends on our support of a family’s body, mind and spirit. We learned decades ago that our work is relational, not transactional. We need to engage and foster relationships, creating a shared connection with parents and their children if we have an expectation that a family’s life will improve. That means we need to come equipped with food, clothing, shelter, empathy, positive affirmation, trust, and an appreciation of diverse child-rearing styles, as well as an aptitude for assessing risk. And we need to bring hope to our encounters with families.
Our well-intended newbies will soon find out that we have never put all of that together in one piece of legislation or administrative policy. Instead, we’ve created more compliance factors than NASA, and have found ways to over-complicate every aspect of our interactions with families — tools, checklists and instruments designed to keep us from missing something or getting sued. It’s been great for lawyers and consultants, but not for families.
Finally, tell our trainees that for decades we have boasted that our priority is support, not surveillance, of families. Recent claims by critics aside, this is nothing new in our work. We have an extended trail of policies, legislation and initiatives funded by philanthropy that were built on that premise. What our new team members need to understand is that effective family strengthening in a child-protection practice requires partnerships with other providers of services and support, and with families. Though we are much farther along in achieving that ideal, most agencies are still operating on a one-caseworker, one-family, one-size-fits-all approach.
Tell them all that. And if they are still committed to this field, they are likely to change its history.