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August/September 2020Vol. 21, No. 6After Years of Doing It Wrong as a Judge l Know We Can Do Better!

Written by Judge William Thorne, retired state and tribal court judge and Pomo/Coast Miwok tribal member

It is sometimes said that a system is perfectly designed to deliver exactly the results we get. If so, we need a better-designed system to help the families struggling with adequately caring for their children. After 40 years as a judge, I can attest that we can—we must—do better.

There are so many studies documenting the poor outcomes for children who wind up in the foster care system that none of us would willingly let our children, or any child we truly care about, find their way into it. Yet, in too many places in this country, foster care is the system's primary response to inadequate or abusive parenting. For too many decades, I was a participant in that response, comforted by the idea that I was "saving" a child. It wasn't until I started looking at the outcomes for those children that I realized I was doing little to improve the lives of those children and their families. Instead, I was setting them on a trajectory that too often led to intergenerational failure. As long as I didn't look too far into the future, I could sleep well at night knowing I had helped rescue a child. By the time I was done, I realized I had been seeing second-, third-, and even fourth-generation children in foster care, which meant we had been failing for generations.

Today, we are facing a reckoning that is long overdue. We are challenged to look not at our good intentions or beliefs but at the actual outcomes of our actions and judgments. The burden of our child welfare system failures rests all too often on Black, Brown, Native, and poor families. The outcomes for them are significantly worse. All our rationalizations and excuses won't change the very real impact of what we do.

The permutations of the system are many, but the result is almost universal. Foster care should not be a preferred intervention strategy, and the services and goals of the system are misdirected. There are tragic short-term and long-term outcomes associated with our child welfare system. We need to stop pretending otherwise. We need to stop blaming the families for the fact that we as professionals are not getting the job done right.

But all is not lost. Success is possible! Sometimes, success is found in places you might not expect. For example, there is a program in southern California serving a consortium of seven Indian tribes. Fifteen years ago, they had 487 children in state-run foster care. Today, they have 14 children in care. They achieved that result by reorienting their family support system. They didn't just offer "services" to families "at risk." Instead, they offered events, services, and engagement to the entire community and then took special efforts to make sure the at-risk families were a part of, not separate from, the community. They approached the families as they would their own, sometimes referring to it as My Two Aunties. In other words, being both supportive and correcting in the way aunties have traditionally been rather than treating parents and families as case files or clients.

Too often, our system has been more than ready to offer moral judgement along with minimal services. How much better would it be to be supportive and nurturing while guiding and supporting change? And success becomes contagious. In those same tribal communities, relatives of struggling parents are now hauling their family members into the tribal family services offices knowing that they won't be met with threats or judgement. Instead, they know that the professionals there will respond with help that most likely will prevent a crisis from occurring or help them weather the storm successfully.

The response to the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that systems can change when they need to. Our system NEEDS to change.

If we can't truly believe that their own families are the best place for children, we need to go do something else. Build bridges, design rockets, paint or draw, or compose. Our families need people who believe in them and are willing to help, not judge. What would we demand if these were our own families? What would we demand if these families mattered?