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August/September 2020Vol. 21, No. 6Be the Child Welfare Leader Who Creates a New History

Written by Jeremy Christopher Kohomban, Ph.D., president and chief executive officer, The Children's Village

In the December 2019/January 2020 edition of Children's Bureau Express, we acknowledge the historical role that The Children's Village has played in U.S. family separation practices. Following our founding in 1851 as the New York Juvenile Asylum, we cofounded and co-operated the Orphan Train movement that would transport over 200,000 children from eastern cities into the Midwest, where they were indentured and forced to work and live among rural families. We influenced the American Indian boarding schools of the late 19th century and served as the inspiration for the therapeutic residential treatment movement that continues to have an outsized influence in today's child welfare practice. Yes, this is us. Yes, our history closely resembles the history of the United States, where family separation policies are inextricably linked to race and poverty in a cycle of injustice.

Despite our best intentions, systemic and institutional racism dominate child welfare. The process begins with our choice of target. In New York's urban areas, those most often targeted are families living in intentionally segregated neighborhoods—neighborhoods that are systematically deprived of investment, lacking in safe public spaces, and filled with failing schools. In these neighborhoods, poverty-driven neglect is an imposed reality. Unlike abuse, this neglect usually involves the omission of appropriate child caretaking rather than violence. These poverty-driven reports of neglect feed the child welfare system, most often driven by an implicit bias that Black parents are a danger to their own children.

The joint mechanisms of heightened surveillance of Black neighborhoods and the mandated child protective reporting culture are in effect akin to the Black Codes of the 19th century. We've created a system that Black and poor Brown families must fear every day. Today, this system has free reign to search homes without a warrant, has no obligation to advise parents of their rights, and has the power to separate children from their families to be placed in a system where we see Black children languish longest and exit with the worst outcomes.  

We have spent the last 16 years striving to undo the damage we have caused. In this moment of national awakening, we are compelled to raise our voice and admit our progress has been slow. We still don't have all the solutions, and we recognize that comprehensive solutions—demanding reforms in both the public and private sector—will take time. However, if you are a leader in a child welfare organization, you don't need to wait. This is our moment to refuse complicity and create a new history. There are three concrete actions that you can and must take now:

  • Recognize your role in history and the role you currently play. You are mostly serving children in poverty. They are not bad kids but kids to whom bad things have happened. Most children are separated from family for neglect, not abuse. In 2018, only 13 percent of children separated from their families were removed for physical abuse, and only 4 percent were removed for sexual abuse. Across the United States, Black children are overrepresented in every step of the child welfare system. Most families you serve come from intentionally segregated and persistently oppressed neighborhoods in your community. When we choose to ignore the root causes of neglect, we choose to be complicit. We must invest in our communities. Are you investing directly in these communities? If not, start now.
  • Removal is easy; creating family is hard. Despite our best efforts, the foster care system moves very slowly. Once separated from family, most children will spend at least 2 years in the system. In 2018, most children in foster care were age 14 or younger. Our youngest children stay too long, our oldest teens are at greatest risk for aging out alone, and our children freed for adoption are not being adopted. Today, about 125,000 children in the foster care system are awaiting adoption, but less than 5 percent of these children live in a preadoptive home. Children need love and unconditional belonging. Our charity and a government system are never a substitute for family. Every child deserves to have a person who loves them unconditionally. Reuniting families and creating family is the work. Is the primary mission of your organization timely reunification and creating family? If not, it is time to change.
  • Defund surveillance and fund prevention, especially primary prevention. The existing system—built upon surveillance, reporting, and family separation—discriminates. It hurts families, and it is very, very expensive. If we continue to fund surveillance, investigations, and needless family separation—rather than invest in neighborhood integration, the creation of safe spaces for children, affordable housing, and decent schools—we will continue to reinforce the history of intentional segregation and disparity, and we will undermine our democracy, never moving closer to our aspiration of a more perfect union. We can and must defund traditional family separation in favor of primary prevention because prevention works. Are you investing in community-based prevention? If not, you are simply benefiting from the system of family separation. It is time to change.