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March 2019Vol. 20, No. 2It's Time to Listen to Parents and Youth and Act on Their Words

Written by David Kelly and Jerry Milner

For the last 2 years, we have had the opportunity to meet and speak with parents and youth who are or were involved with the child welfare system—or are at risk of involvement—all across the country.  We make a point of meeting with groups of parents and youth wherever we go. Having this opportunity is the single greatest joy of our work with the Children's Bureau. There is not a week that goes by that we do not have direct interaction with parents or youth in some way—It is a connection that is absolutely critical to understanding how well we are doing as a system and what we need to do to improve.

Although these interactions are deeply meaningful, and always instructive, they are also deeply troubling. While we do hear stories of success, that is not the typical experience. Most of the accounts are not positive, or certainly not as positive as any of us would like to hear. The words parents and youth often use to describe their experiences in or with the child welfare system include "scared," "confused," "intimidated," "alone," "overwhelmed," "sad," "ashamed," "powerless," and "judged."

The frequency with which these words are used, regardless of where we are, is jarring.

No one in the workforce wants these to be the words that describe how youth and parents feel. It's not what any of us who entered the field hope or intended to achieve, but the hard truth is that far too many parents and youth are experiencing the system in the same unsatisfactory ways. We can replace words like alone, disempowered, and judged with supported, empowered, cared for, and helped.  These are the words that we all aspire to promote and the ways we would like parents and youth to feel.

We can get there, but it will require all of us to think of our work and the larger system in radically different ways. Rather than waiting to offer help until after something happens and perpetuating a system of response and blame, we need to retool and reorient child welfare to be seen, felt, and known as a system of support that strengthens families, a system where seeking help is a sign of strength, and help is universally available at the community level in nonstigmatic ways.

Parents and youth often say things such as, "If only this service or this resource was available sooner;" "I needed someone who would listen;" "My mother was a victim to this drug and she was demonized;" "Prevention services would have been so helpful;" "I knew I needed help, but I was afraid to ask for fear of a report being made;" "I felt that I had no control over what was happening to me;" "I felt alone and needed to know someone cared about me;" and "I was not prepared to be out in the world on my own."

Creating a system to change these experiences will require a change in mindset, a change in our funding structure and the use of tools, such as community-based family resource centers to keep families connected and enhance parental protective factors, ensuring that all parents and children have high-quality legal representation to advocate on their behalf and ensure reasonable efforts are made; conceptualizing foster care as a service to the entire family instead of a substitute for parents to minimize trauma; progressive family time/visitation approaches that begin with a presumption that visitation should be unsupervised and in a natural environment to protect the parent child relationship; and the ability to place children with their parents in residential substance use treatment facilities. 

Above all else, we need to commit unyieldingly to listening to parents and youth, involving them in all aspects of how we design and operate the supports we offer and treating them with decency and respect at all times. As Benjamin, an incredibly insightful young man, recently told us, "Life is hard sometimes and we cannot always go through it alone—everyone needs some help sometimes." 

It simply cannot be said any better: It's time to listen to parents and youth and act on their words.