Any idea to replace child welfare must include what comes next.
Seasons of sadness and confusion are a natural part of the life cycle for humans and their institutions. Although they are perhaps inevitable, they can be debilitating.
The child welfare profession is in the middle of such a season right now. Unable to recruit and retain enough qualified staff, struggling to manage the front door of the system, resorting to the use of hotels and even agency waiting rooms for hard-to-place youth, the situation appears far more precarious than in previous years.
As recently as a decade ago, we were hopeful that our goal of safely reducing the foster care population was possible and could be achieved through concerted, intentional and compassionate efforts to support families in their own homes and their own communities.
In fact, since the turn of this century, there has been a marked reduction in the number of children in out-of-home care, supporting the notion that child welfare systems and personnel could adjust and incorporate new models of intervention. Some agencies struggled, of course, but most agencies were by no means “beleaguered,” the media’s favorite descriptor for our work. We’ve had reasons to be optimistic.
The primary narrative of the field throughout the early 2000s was a hopeful one. Convinced that families could be made stronger with economic and social support, that child welfare professionals could partner with parents if their approach was respectful, generous and culturally responsive, and that parents could rally to change if offered a restorative rather than a punitive response, the field of child welfare has been on a promising path designed to more regularly help and support families.
But while there are many who share our ongoing confidence about the promise of family support and prevention programming, there is also a growing and strident condemnation of everything about child welfare as wrong, counter-productive — even a violation of human rights.
The view of these two writers is that this constitutes a desertion of science and everything we’ve learned about child maltreatment and family preservation. It ignores the countless parents who have made better lives for themselves and their children because they were offered an alternative path. It erases the very idea that a civil society deserves a specific role for those who protect the most fragile.
More concerning to us, however, is that the abolitionist view repeats the mistake of ascribing singular, simplistic solutions to one of the most complex issues facing our profession: How to keep kids safe and their families healthy and stable within the context of our flawed national history related to poverty and race. Just as the field once leaned too heavily on family separation, the abolition school of thought would relinquish our national, legally mandated obligation to child safety.
Our collective moment of sadness and confusion follows decades of attempts toward reform. We willingly acknowledge that the reforms have not gone far enough, nor have they had the widespread or deep effects that many of us want to see. But if we are going to abandon the current child welfare system, we must address some of the critical questions that have eluded the profession for decades and helped to drive the call for its end.
First, who will respond when children are believed to have been harmed, and who will decide what should be done? Maltreatment is a global phenomenon. There is no evidence either from our own history or from other countries that family members and friends alone offer a sufficient net of protection to maltreated children. What will we do in cases of chronic or severe neglect, when research tells us these harms can lead to fatalities or sexual or physical abuse? How will we manage the inevitable recurrence of abuse and neglect?
How will parents get access to services and support to help them care for their children safely? Who is going to treat the backlog of parents living with their own trauma, with substance use disorders and mental health problems? Absent an entitlement to services and robust advocacy from social workers and attorneys, will parents get what they need? Will children with special educational, developmental or emotional differences get anything?
Some children will require care in an alternative home. This has been a fact for millennia. Current policy and practice preferences for kin are insufficient to meet the needs of all children needing care. Do we anticipate that situation will be better without policy and fiscal incentives in place? Where will children live if their parent’s home is gravely dangerous, and kin are not an option?
How would parents’ rights, children’s rights and other family members’ rights be protected if the current system were discarded? All families are complex, and each family member deserves a well-qualified attorney who has the time and reasonably sized caseload to fully represent their interests. Our current system has a legal foundation that, if strengthened, could radically improve child welfare and hold people and institutions to account for children’s safety and parent support.
Parents and children deserve a system of ideas and innovation, not just ideology.
We acknowledge that success in achieving the right balance of child safety, family engagement and parent support is difficult. However, are the other corners of the social safety net — those that provide economic support, food, clothing and shelter — any more effective or less biased, and can we trust them to better deal with issues of family disruption? For that matter, are assumptions that “family” and “community” have the unbiased will, interest or capacity to respond to all children’s needs well-founded?
Seasons of societal sadness and confusion often open doors to extreme, poorly defined and even dangerous positions. History is replete with examples when narratives of despair took hold and short-sighted ideas emerged that were ultimately accepted as common. For example, decades ago, well-meaning professionals called for an end to the institutionalization of adults with severe mental health concerns. Without an effective alternative, however, many adults were left to fend for themselves on the streets. There was no well-articulated commitment to a Plan B for those who were vulnerable and untreated — and there still isn’t.
Will the same thing happen to children or parents who are left to manage on their own? If our history responding to the poor, to families of color who are already disproportionately impacted by less supportive approaches and to socially fragile populations is any clue, we will leave many children in harm’s way.
These seasons must eventually give way to a commitment to reimagine a child welfare system that meets the hope and optimism that most child welfare professionals bring to the field.
Ours is not a profession of despair, either about families or about the capacity of the field to change. Parents and children deserve a system of ideas and innovation, not just ideology. We therefore suggest caution in accepting simple narratives to repeal and replace, and instead we must grapple with the complexity of child welfare in our efforts to offer families the compassionate support they deserve.