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June 2019Vol. 20, No. 5Becoming a Community for Strengthening Families: The Words We Use

Written by Jerry Milner

At the Children's Bureau, we've been thinking quite a bit about the words we use in child welfare and what they convey. We think the words we use are important and carry connotations about how we perceive our work, the families we serve, and the manner in which we practice our crafts. We think words reflect beliefs and can affect the way we behave. We also think language is a powerful vehicle for creating and sustaining the mind shift necessary to reshape child welfare in the United States.

At our National Conference on Child Abuse and Neglect, I recently challenged attendees and the field—including the Children's Bureau—to consider stopping the use of certain words and to start to use other words. The words I requested that we stop using included foster child, birth parent, foster parent, client, and consumer. I challenged all of us to replace those words with words of empowerment, words that communicate respect, and words that remind us of our common humanity. I would like to add case to that list and to extend the challenge again.

Rather than foster child, consider using a child living in foster care.
Rather than birth parent, consider using parent(s).
Rather than foster parent, consider using resource parent or family.
Rather than case, client, or consumer, consider using the name of the human being.

The reason for the charge is simple. Words matter. Words reveal how we view our work and those with whom and for whom we work. Words describe the culture of where and how we work. Words can convey empowerment and respect or disempowerment and difference. Words can desensitize us to the often harsh realities of those we serve and stand in the way of treating people with dignity and respect. In order to stay relationally connected with the children, youth, and families we serve, we should carefully consider the words we use to describe them and their circumstances.

When I worked in the Alabama child welfare system many years ago, we began changing the words we used in our day-to-day work. As I recall, it did not happen as part of a planned effort. Rather, it happened spontaneously as we became clearer on the important values we held and wanted our work to reflect those values. As part of implementing a statewide overhaul of the child welfare system due to a class action lawsuit and moving toward a family-centered approach to child welfare, we found that the words we had traditionally and habitually used did not match the underlying values of our new way of work. In turn, we made conscious efforts to discontinue using terms that were not strengths based and family supportive, such as dysfunctional families, problematic families, clients, and cases.

Partly because of that simple shift in terminology, coupled with broad retraining of the workforce to view families differently, we changed our perception of what our roles were in relation to the families we served. When we spoke of them and to them in more humanistic terms, we were better able to form the helping relationships that underlie the field of child welfare. Gradually, the expectations of our reformed system required clear demonstrations of the value of dignity, respect, and respectful language within our child welfare workforce. 

The results? Family team meetings became more inclusive and effective, family time for parents and their children in foster care became more sensible and supportive of their relationships, and time spent between social workers and family members became more supportive and encouraging. Oh, and children were safer, if our data were any indication.

Getting to that place was not solely attributable to changing the words we used. It was necessary to change the culture of the system to do that, but language is a major part of any culture. We could not logically practice one way and talk in contradictory terms.

Ours is a difficult field of service. It is emotionally demanding and can be physically dangerous. While it can be greatly rewarding, it can also be incredibly stressful. It is not a materially rewarding field. We see others' trauma and experience our own. And we must sometimes deal with tragedy. 

I believe that we are driven to do the work we do because of the value we place on human life and human beings. In the midst of sometimes witnessing the worst that humans can inflict on each other, we also have the privilege of seeing families and children challenge their difficult situations and win. Our commitment to our values defines and sustains us as a workforce, and the words we use should reflect those values accurately. 

As the child welfare workforce for the United States, we can drive the changes that are needed in our system to reach and support families before they encounter insurmountable difficulty and relive the trauma that often travels with them over generations. We can protect children and respect the integrity of critical relationships that, if nourished and supported, can lead to healthier adults.

Choosing words that reflect these inherent values that we all share can go a long way in identifying ourselves as a community whose mission is to strengthen families and nurture healthy children. It can better position us to stay connected to our mission and treat families and each other with the respect and dignity we all deserve. It can help define the culture of the work and the work places we inhabit. Choosing words that identify our partners—and us—as a community that is focused on a common vision will position us to do what all healthy communities do—care for one another.