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August/September 2020Vol. 21, No. 6A Time to Listen

Written by Matt Anderson, M.S.W, vice president of programs and business development, Children's Home Society of North Carolina

I began my child welfare career without prior knowledge of the system. I had a lot to learn. Over the years, kids and families have been my greatest teachers. They have taught me to listen, trust, and act with them. Initially, they taught me to prevent kids from aging out of foster care. Today, they are teaching me to prevent foster care altogether. When we remove children, we make their family a promise that we can do better than they can. Too often, the system cannot live up to that promise. We must make a new promise, a commitment to strengthening families.

Early in my career I worked with youth aging out of foster care. My job was to help them finish school, secure employment, and be ready for independence. When they aged out, they were nowhere close to prepared. This was discouraging but cemented my commitment to improving services for kids and families. I began to have very different conversations with youth. They talked about their life stories, what they needed, and what they wanted for the next generation. I listened and trusted their truth, and together we produced a documentary, From Place to Place, about America's foster care system. In their individual way, they said, "my life is important, my story needs to be told, and I want to speak to people in a position of power to make things better for the next generation." The film is often cited as part of the origin story of the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA), a landmark piece of child welfare legislation. One of the primary authors of the bill said that the youth who came to Capitol Hill to share their experiences and ideas were the catalyst to what led to FFPSA. The audience listened, trusted, and acted in a way that honored their stories.  

Today, I work for Children's Home Society of North Carolina (CHS) to promote the right of every child to a permanent, safe, and loving family. I am responsible for our foster care program and the 1,200 children we serve annually. We have amazing families and talented and committed professionals, and we are making our program the best it can be. We recently partnered with Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago to improve our program model. Through that process, we listened to the kids and families we serve and decided to focus our efforts on reunification and kinship care. Fundamentally, we believe our job is to help kids exit foster care as quickly and safely as possible. I believe in this goal. I am also learning from our families that a strong foster care program is not nearly enough. As I listen to their stories, I am starting to have different conversations about what families need.

Parents are teaching me that they love their children and want the best for their family. They want to be treated equitably and with dignity and respect. They want to be empowered to overcome what puts their children at risk of foster care. One mother said, "I was a product of the system myself, so when it became involved with my family, I felt like my whole world was going to end. I didn't want that for my children." We can see child maltreatment only as a problem or also as a symptom, and if we listen to parents, we can uncover its root causes. Parents may not be able to find adequate employment, affordable housing, reliable transportation, or accessible child care. They may need quality legal representation or someone they trust to coach them on new parenting strategies. They may need access to mental health and substance use treatment. I am learning that parents want us to listen and learn from them as we imagine the future we are building.

We need more than just the intervention of foster care. Our system is organized to investigate, remove, and place children. This approach has significant limitations in strengthening families. We must imagine and create a reality where we can meet families in their communities well before the crisis of foster care. Now is the time to build a family well-being system that prevents child maltreatment while drastically reducing our reliance on foster care. Our field is beginning to move in this direction, and we can capitalize on this by working together as public and private sector leaders, advocates, and families to create a new reality for the families we serve.

This is our call to action. This is what kids and families are teaching us. It will not be easy, but it is necessary. It begins with building relationships, listening, trusting, and acting with families. This is the work that CHS will launch in 2020. We are making a dedicated effort to evolve in how we accomplish our mission. We will elevate families' stories and work together with them and others who intend to build a family well-being system. We believe this will contribute to the same kind of transformational impact for families that "From Place to Place" had for older youth. This is how we fulfill our promise.