Our country’s child welfare system won’t re-establish its North Star until it resolves its identity issues. In our current environment, I’m not optimistic that we will do it.
The order for doing this seems to be a chicken-and-egg affair. Serious questions remain about whether we are willing to face what is possible, realistic and in line with our public mandate. It’s a circuitous exercise, but not without precedent. We’re at a public policy crossroads, but the answers to our questions are more likely to emerge as part of public-private-community collaborations than from government action.
One challenge to course-correcting child welfare is that a distressingly large contingent of American society has abandoned science, reason and in some cases, the legal foundation for our social order based on conspiracy theories. There is neither the desire, nor the willingness to understand the complexity and nuanced nature of the problems facing our families. They claim to be frustrated with the social “experiments” they consider off the rails, such as mental health deinstitutionalization, efforts to address the persistent issue of homelessness and therapeutic alternatives to incarceration.
Each of these ambitious movements had something in common with our recent discernment process in child welfare. They were based on a legitimate social justice concern that people enter one system or another because of a broader, uncontrollable set of economic and racial disparities and inequities. In turn, clients received poorly designed, inaccessible services that are usually too late, too ineffective, or too irrelevant.
Most of these strategies emerged from an assumption that the country’s political leaders, with our encouragement, would respond, and in turn, level the playing field, transforming the lives of the mentally ill, those without housing, etc.
These social movements had another similar theme. Each assumed that we would deliver the resources needed to make all of this happen because the cause was virtuous, giving us high-quality, community-based services that were smart and restorative alternatives to unchecked mental illness, incarceration and homelessness. But it hasn’t happened. And is not likely to because there isn’t a strong enough political will to address root causes. What makes us believe that child welfare will fare differently, and what implications would this have for child safety?
Talk of replacing traditional child welfare functions with guaranteed income, affordable housing, accessible health care and high-quality child care and early childhood education is valuable. But it is disconnected from the general public’s low expectations of social services and government’s capacity to accomplish much.
Our fellow citizens want people who are homeless off the streets but not living in their neighborhoods; kids taken away from what they call terrible parents while decrying government overreach; and they want drug addicts to shape up and get clean with few rehabilitative resources. Our responsibility is to go beyond those simple solutions, following a practical path, while getting something done.
Should we expect public support for a new way of doing business? It would be unprecedented. Never once in child welfare’s long and flawed history did we have the resources to create the safe environments that kids and families deserve. We’ve never provided the appropriate level of early intervention and support for families; never had consistent access to staples like food, clothing and affordable housing that stabilize home life; never had the right level of staffing that included fully trained professional social workers and others who can be of service; and never had enough lawyers to represent the interests of kids and parents in complex, life-altering legal matters.
Mostly, there has never been a fully functioning convergence of economic, social, medical and community supports that strengthen family life. To use the biblical reference, we’ve never had all hands on the plow.
It’s not happened in our long and winding history because we serve the “undeserving.” The rare success stories are based on public/private community collaborations that provide hard and soft supports for families.
But we shouldn’t abandon hope. Community stakeholders, private and public sector organizations, traditional and non-traditional partners all over the country are nurturing and driving alternatives instead of waiting for the proper convergence of factors. They’re promoting locally created measures of success. These are carefully built community pathways that provide authentic, effective family support while remaining vigilant on child safety.
My experience working in communities has convinced me these models put government, on its own, to shame. First, they are energized by curiosity, genuine concern and compassion. The most common phrase I have heard in communities is, “Why don’t we?” as opposed to the bureaucratic refrain, “We’ll consider that.” That’s because they have a clear purpose, a North Star, and a shared set of concerns.
Second, community-driven efforts rarely lump people into anonymous groups but have an appreciation for the human differences, oddities and blessings that distinguish their neighborhood. As a result, they respect the pace at which things should move and value incremental success stories. There are no compliance check boxes.
Third, local efforts frequently contain concerns about the physical, emotional, environmental and spiritual components of people’s lives — the whole person. Finally, neighborhood partnerships can be fun and can lift people’s spirits. Fun and enjoyment never seem to make their way into government requests for proposals.Government and communities, on their own, do not occupy the same values or cultural spaces. Combined, they have a better chance for achieving the goals of keeping kids safe and healthy in supportive families and vibrant communities. We can’t keep waiting for all the stars to align to reach child welfare utopia. As Shakespeare wrote in Julius Caesar: “It’s not in the stars … but ourselves.”
Other news outlets don’t cover child welfare and juvenile justice like we do.
News for people, not for profit.