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August/September 2020Vol. 21, No. 6Building a True and Equitable Child and Family Well-Being System

Written by Susan N. Dreyfus, president and chief executive officer, Alliance for Strong Families and Communities

Every child in every family in every community deserves the opportunity to thrive. During the current public health crisis that is affecting all of us and as we engage in a national conversation about systemic racism that has been going on for 400 years, it is more important than ever that we embrace a shared vision for America where all families have equitable access and opportunity. We know that far too many families are struggling to weather this storm, which is creating increased economic, physical, and psychological stress. Our human services organizations must not only respond to crisis but use this time to disrupt systems like child welfare and bend the arc toward keeping families strong, supported, and together.

As a former state leader responsible for child welfare in Wisconsin and Washington state and now as current chief executive officer of a national strategic network of community-based human services organizations in thousands of communities, I have come to understand that the change we desire can only come through aligned ecosystems that understand the larger role community-based organizations must play not just as providers but as true generative partners. During this crisis, organizations are demonstrating agility, immense creativity, and a steadfast commitment to the neighbors and neighborhoods they serve. But one reality we must address if we understand their key role in communities, is that organizations can only thrive with adequacy of funding and flexibility. With looming state and local budget cuts and an already striking reduction in charitable giving, we must come together and understand the imperative of our sector.

Though it seems difficult to think beyond the challenges of today, the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities imagines a future in which we emerge from the pandemic more energized and focused on building a new, transformed, and equitable child and family well-being system that works with families using a strengths-based approach to achieve their goals and ensure their children thrive. Within the child welfare community, there is growing interest in a paradigm shift toward a more prevention-focused system that would reduce the number of children needing to be involved with child protective services. While child protection will always be necessary, we envision a new child and family well-being system that is focused on deep, authentic engagement with families; prevention; and a conscious effort to dismantle the current system, which was built to perpetuate the racial disproportionality we can no longer ignore.

As leaders in health and human services, we need to move from program thinking to systems change thinking and understand that the social determinants of health are indeed the social determinants of life. Together they create the context in which we all live our daily lives and are the building blocks that should provide a steady foundation on which everyone can reach their full potential, regardless of where they live, the color of their skin, or their socioeconomic standing.

While all of us desire to be resilient, we now understand, through the advancing neurosciences, the negative physical and psychological impacts of persistently high stress levels. Too many of our neighbors of color are more likely to experience systemic inequities, such as systemic racism, poverty, and violence in their daily lives. Brain science has shown us that years of stress can contribute to negative physical and behavioral health outcomes, which can manifest in chronic conditions and autoimmune disorders.

This is not a problem we can solve overnight, but I truly remain the most hopeful I have been in my career! There is growing momentum to make radical change coming from the federal, state, local, and community levels; a data- and science-driven recognition of the root causes of child abuse and neglect; and now an honest interrogation of how systemic racism is rooted in systems including our current child welfare system. We can do this, but it will require all of us to wake up every day and do all we can to put the current system out of business! America flourishes when we all do well.