Two documents went into circulation this month that envision a radical shift from child welfare business as usual. One proposes a top-down framework for the actual abolition of what its authors call “family policing”; the other presents a model aimed at creating a parallel community response that authors hope would eventually eliminate the need for a government response that starts with reports and investigations.
Youth Services Insider will lay them out one at a time.
This blueprint is offered up by the nascent upEND Movement, an abolition campaign that was incubated jointly by the Center for the Study of Social Policy and the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work. upEND is planning to establish itself as an independent entity in the near future.
Shortly after the movement launched last year its co-founders, Kristen Weber and Alan Dettlaff, joined The Imprint Weekly Podcast to discuss abolition and their ambitions for the new project. Dettlaff said in the interview that one thing on the agenda for upEND was to work with like-minded colleagues and experts to develop some recommendations on how to replace the modern child welfare system. This document, which was reviewed by 13 stakeholders outside of the upEND tent, could be considered an opening salvo to that effect.
We’ll outline the 22-page plan briefly here, parsing it into macro- and micro-level ideas.
Reparations for Black people and Native Americans. This should include “at a minimum” compensation to Black people “who have actively been deprived of amassing wealth and property over centuries,” and financial investments to tribes “in housing, health, and education services as promised in past trusts and treaties.” In addition, the paper says, all child welfare-related professional associations and agencies should acknowledge and apologize “for their role in perpetuating systemic and entrenched harms to Black and Native families.”
Ending poverty. Among the specific solutions to get there: universal basic income, child allowances, guaranteed jobs and housing and paid parental leave, free public transportation for those who cannot afford it and an end to asset and means tests for disability supports.
Decriminalization of drug use and sex work. On drug use, which is one of the main drivers of removals into foster care, we presume this would include removing drug use from dependency codes as well. The paper says that drug use does not “necessarily impair parents’ and caregivers’ abilities to care for their children,” and when it does, access to “non-coercive” treatment should be available.
Many sex workers are parents, the paper argues, who do it to support their kids. “There is mounting evidence that decriminalizing sex work aids in efforts to decrease human trafficking and violence against sex workers by reducing marginalization and vulnerability.”
Ending the surveillance component of child protection. The paper specifically recommends the repeal of mandatory reporting, which generally involves the state-level specification of certain adults by trade or volunteer role who must report any suspected abuse or neglect to a hotline. Also out under the ideas of How We endUP: abuse and neglect registries, drug testing of new and expecting parents, risk assessment tools and predictive analytics.
Ending foster care…or at least dramatically reducing its use. The paper explicitly calls for an end to family removals as a result of neglect findings, as a result of caregiver disabilities, or as for survivors of domestic violence who are sometimes accused of failure to prevent abuse and neglect. The paper does not make a similar call on abuse cases, which are involved in 40% of removals. upEND would also oppose any expansion of federal foster care funding — such as an end to the income requirements around the Title IV-E entitlement, for example.
“When I think of abolish I think of complete elimination,” said Shrounda Selivanoff, the director of public policy for the Children’s Home Society of Washington, one of the 13 people who reviewed the paper at the request of the upEND Movement. “That’s not what upEND is about. It is about ending the policing of families but it’s not necessarily about the complete abolishing of systems itself. They have lots of ways of narrowing that door and ending the absolute oversight and intrusion that systems bring into families.”
Dettlaff, in an email to Youth Services Insider, said that while “we recognize that there are incidents of harm to children that occur in society,” child welfare agencies have often been unable to prevent harm to children, even with their authority to remove children from their homes.
upEND Movement seeks “solutions for harm that are non-carceral and do not rely on state-sanctioned separation,” he said.
For those children who do end up in foster care though, the paper calls for a repeal of the Adoption and Safe Families Act, which sets a federal timeline for termination of parental rights once a child has entered the system. upEND would also eliminate all barriers to reunification such as income issues or housing instability, and completely end the use of “institutionalized congregate care,” the practice of placing foster youth in group settings.
The inclusion of that last recommendation drew praise from Tymber Hudson, an anti-racist activist who spent time in Oklahoma’s foster care system and reviewed the plan for upEND Movement.
“I would definitely say ending congregate care is a priority for me, but a lot of the strategies offered were specific to addressing the injustice that happens on the front end of the system as well as what happens in the system,” they said. “That stood out to me. It is necessary to address both.”
A community response system. This part is a bit amorphous, but is really the backbone of the concept for what might be considered a child welfare system of the future. In general, “How We endUP” recommends a large federal-state investment that is distributed to communities to execute their own plans for child and family well-being. From the paper:
“Communities should have the responsibility for working with families to identify the services that will best meet families’ needs and for holding providers accountable for the quality and effectiveness of their services. Interventions such as healing circles, mutual aid, church counseling, and peer support networks, which may not meet Eurocentric evidence-based standards, may be the most effective interventions in meeting families’ needs. Families and communities should be a critical part of defining ‘evidence’ and how it is measured.”
Community-led entities would be empowered under this concept to render “healing and accountability” when harm has occurred within a family. “In the rare instances of extreme maltreatment, family and community members should be supported and equipped with the resources and skills to intervene and prevent future harm,” the paper says.
The big question in Youth Service Insider’s mind after reading this section was, what is a community? Of course we all know what that word means in common language, but what is laid out here would be a new government-funded response system for families in crisis. It is unlikely that any child protection process could ever work without certainty that all families were “covered” — meaning, no family lived on a street, or in a zip code, or a town that had no community response system in place.
So what is a workable codified definition of community, we asked upEND co-founder Dettlaff, one of the reports authors.
He said that upEND supports a self-determinative process. “We think that the understanding of ‘community’ should largely be defined by community members and based less on strict geographic boundaries and more on residents’ understanding of what ‘community’ means to them,” Dettlaff said in an email.
He held up this description of community, published in a 2011 study in the American Journal of Public Health, which was arrived at by way of interviews with 42 Black people in Durham, N.C.; 26 gay men in San Francisco; 25 drug users in Philadelphia; and 42 HIV vaccine researchers from around the country:
“A common definition of community emerged as a group of people with diverse characteristics who are linked by social ties, share common perspectives, and engage in joint action in geographical locations or settings. The participants differed in the emphasis they placed on particular elements of the definition. Community was defined similarly but experienced differently by people with diverse backgrounds. These results parallel similar social science findings and confirm the viability of a common definition for participatory public health.”
Selivanoff said the community response concept resonated with her the most.
“We’ve missed the boat on the promise of people. We are far too disengaged on what is happening with our neighbors,” she said. “The things that are really most of interest to me in that document are the community-based responses, especially around not conflating poverty with neglect. That’s a place for people to reconsider how we treat each other.”
This concept, shared by the nonprofit Rise in a recent edition of its Insights Papers collection, sort of picks up where the upEND Movement treatise leaves off with an idea for a somewhat codified community-led system. With New York City in mind, Rise lays out a plan for a response process, led by parents, that would entirely eschew the involvement of abuse and neglect call centers or referrals of any kind of the government.
In a nutshell, the vision is to build a network that is heavy on volunteers and includes no mandated reporters whose mission is to “resolve crises and seed joy” for children and families. At the center of the plan are peer supporters, who are trained volunteers, and community supporters, who are employed to handle more complex family needs and to support the relationships of peer supporters and parents.
The peer supporters would be expected to have basic competency in de-escalation, and also have a strong working knowledge of available services and assistance for families in the area. This would include creating resource guides for parents and maintaining connections with schools, religious groups and community organizations, including mutual aid programs.
Community supporters would accompany parents to appointments, facilitate regular restorative justice circles to “build relationships and support for parents and Peer Supporters in their community,” and generally ensure that parents who sought help or advice were getting it.
How might a parent in need of help find their way to someone in this peer network? The plan envisions outreach by the supporters to get the word out about it, particularly in areas of the city with the highest concentrations of child welfare system involvement. The paper also recommends forging an alliance with mandated reporters in the city whereby these reporters would refer parents to the peer network instead of calling an abuse and neglect hotline.
Youth Services Insider asked Rise Executive Director Nora McCarthy whether a referral from those hotlines to the peer network would be acceptable? Her answer is no.
“I’m not convinced we need a method to call on parents if we have a method to call in parents,” McCarthy said in an email.