While most of us in child welfare settings have been preoccupied with staff shortages and scheduling around quarantine crises to service delivery, a dystopian initiative is emerging. Several governors and legislatures thought it would be a good idea to weaponize the child welfare system against families who choose to support their transgender children. This is a cautionary tale for our profession that warrants self-reflection.
Oddly, some of these states are simultaneously adding resources to child welfare, thus enhancing our systemic capacity. We hear politicians using the terms “grooming” and “pedophile,” so maybe they are expecting an onslaught of perpetrators? It’s presenting us with a dissonance in messaging and values.
What can the child welfare community do when those with the power to either shut us down or give us more resources do the opposite of what we know is good for families? We can call out how antithetical it is to our work and how it runs counter to everything we believe in when it comes to supporting families. We can show that these policies do nothing to measurably improve the safety and well-being outcomes for kids and families.
Most importantly, we can use every public forum to remind people that our role is assuring child safety through family support and not surveillance.
In the end, every one of us should have an exit strategy from work with an agency we believe is ethically compromised. However, our morally outraged response has limits because of the mandated nature of our work. Our responses are also determined by where we are in the organization. The perspective and influence of a frontline social worker will be different than an agency administrator. Their roles with families are distinct, as are their respective spheres of influence.
These recent changes related to transgender youth are designed for a culture war most families would prefer to ignore. The collateral damage is the intimidation of kids and their families. It’s basically gratuitous grandstanding.
The proponents are targeting those they consider to be social undesirables, hoping that will generate votes. It’s an old scam. Use the executive or legislative branch to assault populations based on their inability to resist. Then the following week, send the First Spouse to a child care center for a ribbon cutting. I know this because I have stood there while the ribbon was being cut and concurrently, the formidable weight of government was being used against families, either through omission or commission.
These were not my proud moments in government service. I’ve kept no pictures of myself from these events in my office. However, while they were happening, I would recall childhood lessons in the biblical story of Matthew 25:31-46, doing the most for the least valued among us. It’s little consolation.
Instead of politicians taking the low road, those in power should give a full-throated endorsement of child safety and family stability by ensuring that every family has access to basic resources like food, clothing, shelter, mental health services and quality education. That’s what families need.
Over the past few years, our profession has been in a circular conversation, about all forms of social justice issues in child welfare. But right now, in this moment, elected officials are spotlighting a population of kids and families because they can, and because they assume that we will not do much to get in their way.
Study our history. It’s happened before in public policy. When government holds a group in disfavor or disdain, and it is politically expedient to do so, we allow elected and non-elected officials to subvert the role and capacity of the family. For example, we did this with fathers in the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children program and with the forced separation of Indigenous children from their families. Weaken the family. Destroy the culture.
It’s timely that we rethink the role of child welfare because we must distinguish how the intersection of social conditions, racial bias and personal or parental responsibility should be viewed in child protection cases. But the recent policies on transgender youth reflect an outdated belief that we can use the power of the state to rescue children, regardless of what that might mean for family integrity. Our problem is that amid our jockeying to find the correct approach in child welfare, we still don’t appear to have a North Star that allows us to assume the higher ground when it comes to family-unfriendly legislation and policy.
These policies are created as bait for a relatively small handful of people who fervently believe in this crusade. Oddly, these might be the same people who will publicly applaud the work of child protection, perhaps even expanding our resources and creating policies that make the work of our frontline team members easier to do.
We need a conversation among friends about why we choose the expedient path over the ethical one. We can say all that we want about social justice but that doesn’t mean we hold the market on social virtue. Our instincts and our loyalties are mostly wrapped around the survival of our agencies and maintaining the heroic work our team members do every day. That makes us more virtuous than those pedaling pernicious policy, but less than who we aspire to be.