The Biden administration recently began a series of community roundtables this summer in search of feedback about the experiences of Black families who have participated in federally funded programs like Head Start, programs for homeless youth, and of course, child welfare.
The invitation is short on details, but as it relates to those who have experienced child welfare, we hope they have a clear plan for follow-up and meaningful communication with participants. We hope it is the start of repairing and rebuilding relationships through openness, honesty and accountability. We hope the sessions will intentionally provide support, as families re-experience the trauma inflicted on them by the child welfare system when recounting their stories.
We hope all this because at Alia, we’ve botched some of our past attempts to “include lived experience” in our work and people got hurt.
Alia is a nonprofit organization working to keep families together by innovating alongside child welfare and adjacent systems across the country advancing mindset and practice shifts that promote healing and belonging, rather than punishment and separation. Agencies sometimes ask for help to conduct client focus groups or help craft surveys to solicit the feedback and opinions of families who experienced child welfare intervention in their lives. It often seems like a good idea, but can actually end up reinforcing a belief that systems should not be trusted; we know because we’ve done it.
The lesson Alia learned through our mistakes is that it’s not information we lack, it’s trusting relationships. The gap is less about needing to know new things, but rather a need to be in new ways — a far more difficult challenge.
We don’t need to keep asking what we already know, as how families experience the child welfare systems is no mystery. There are many, many places to find existing, personal accounts of the foster care system’s involuntary interventions. Start with reading any or all of Dr. Dorothy Roberts’ research and you’ll find substantial evidence and myriad accounts of how Black people experienced the child protection system. She and others call for a complete abolition of the child welfare system, given the harm it’s done to families. Or look to Think of Us for experiences of youth in congregate care. Or read Kelley Fong’s research on hotlines and how reporters and parents interact with them.
(Or, as we hear from our millennial colleagues, “just Google it.” You may end up here, here, or here.)
So now we ask agencies, “Why?” What don’t we know and want to learn, to take what action? What will change based on feedback received? Is there another way to find this information without families recalling their painful experiences? Because, by nature of child welfare intervention, those experiences are inevitably painful.
Early in the pandemic, Alia convened a group of child welfare leaders and system-impacted parents to complete a design project with the goal of helping systems learn how to move forward “after COVID.”
This time we crafted the design experience with far more care than we have in the past and the group had a deeply meaningful experience with meaningful results. Their focus shifted to how systems can build relationships with communities by practicing behaviors which build trust in any partnership, like transparency, taking responsibility, and providing clear and consistent communication.
They developed a piece called Dear Leaders, a resource guide of starting points for leaders in child welfare to bring family voice and power to the system. But in spirit, Dear Leaders is a letter written from folks who have been there with a plea to systems saying, “This is our real experience and this is how we need you to be better.” Dear Leaders suggests ways for systems to do less harm now by doing the work they need to become more trusted partners with families and communities, creating conditions to design solutions together.
Soliciting information, on the other hand, inviting families (back) into a system with which they are involuntarily entangled, especially with no stated goal or result, is just another way of exerting control, causing more trauma. It may feel like it’s a step in the right direction, or that at least we’re doing something, but it’s not. It’s just more of the same. It is the opposite of sharing power.
From the Dear Leaders design team, we at Alia share here the lesson we were reminded of: We must shift from asking families to retell their painful stories for the sake of our learning. Instead, invest in relationships, build trust, listen without agenda, engage in clear, timely, human ways, and commit to making meaningful, family-driven changes.