We have set up a system where we take children away from their families, most of those removals happen because of a reporting category called “neglect” that is being overused and misused, oftentimes because neglect is being conflated with poverty. Some scholars and advocates in the field say child protective services is weaponizing this category of neglect and punishing families for being poor. Ultimately children are being taken away from their parents because of problematic and unfair policies. I ask, what is the cost of this failing system, to our children, their families and citizenry at large?
Every year, about 20,000 youth and young adults emancipate from the foster care system. In California, 1 in 4 foster youth between ages 19 and 21 will experience homelessness when transitioning out of care. Moreover, depending on the city, in the U.S. the homelessness and/or incarceration of a person can cost taxpayers anywhere between $30,000 and $35,000 a year; in contrast, the average annual tuition at a public postsecondary institution in the United States is $10,440. Rather than direct public funding into programs we know prevent homelessness and incarceration, or investing in resources that support overall well-being, we pour public funding into pipelines of incarceration.
I do not want the conversation to be caught up in only economics. I support public services and I believe we need to continue to invest in them. Here, I invoke what Gandhi said: “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” We laud young people for being resilient, though as I mentioned in an earlier column, there are significant mental and emotional costs to always having to scrap and hustle. What is the moral cost of under-educating and not providing basic needs to children we the public were responsible for protecting?
From stigma, to a lack of sense of belonging, to PTSD, we have created a system that causes emotional harm and injury to the children and families involved. What does this say about our country that we cannot educate and protect some of the most vulnerable in our community, children?
I also want to underscore: We have created a system where social workers, foster parents and other child welfare professionals no longer feel proud to do the work they do. I was having a discussion with a group of social workers from California, and one of them said, “I feel ashamed sometimes to say I am a social worker.”
In response to previous columns I have written and shared on social media, I have had colleagues message me on Instagram, telling me they no longer work in child welfare because they did not want to be a part of a system that breaks apart families.
Social workers have dedicated much of their time to attend undergraduate studies; many also have to pursue a master’s degree and complete clinical training. They have dedicated their time, money and much of their lives to serve their communities. Many social workers I have interacted with really believe they are doing good work. However, the systems they work within exploit them, too.
What is the moral cost of the working conditions of social workers, who burn out only after several years of entering the profession?
We created an institution which profits off the plight of children, and exploits those who have been charged to protect them. The people who are in the system also become expendable. The Pew Research Center found that institutional failures prevent social workers, judges, lawyers and others from protecting and supporting children. These failures include lack of appropriate training, impossible caseloads to manage and low pay, all leading to low morale and high turnover.
We need social workers at their best because their profession and expertise is invaluable. Our failure to support these workers continues to leave children vulnerable. These systems create isolation, lack of belonging, stigma, and shame.
We have built a system that makes it easy for people to alleviate their own moral responsibilities, their own complicity in a system so broken it seems as though it was built to function this way. We have manufactured a system where children suffer, and the adults tasked to care for them leave a profession they were once passionate about because it dehumanizes them, too, and we continue to use taxpayers dollars to fund a system that is morally bankrupt.