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August/September 2020Vol. 21, No. 6Child Welfare Transformed

Written by Sheila Weber, director of Strategic Initiatives, Lutheran Services in America

To say that these past several months have been an "upheaval" or "awakening" feels like a major understatement. The intersection of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic recession, police violence, and injustice—all disproportionately impacting the lives of Black people, indigenous populations, and people of color (BIPOC) in America—have laid bare in undeniable form just a portion of the impact of systemic racism in American society. Many of the root causes tied to the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 illness and death affecting the BIPOC population in America—including job loss, food scarcity, impending housing loss, and lack of access to health care—are root causes that impact other systems as well. One such system is America's child welfare system.

As evidenced by the following concerning facts, we must conclude that the child welfare system in its current form is not producing the outcomes desired for those it was designed to protect:

  • Over 400,000 children are in foster care and over 125,000 children are awaiting adoption.
  • Each year, over 17,000 youth age out of foster care to an adulthood that is more likely to involve homelessness, the lack of a high school or college diploma, and incarceration when compared with their peers.
  • Black children are disproportionately removed from their families and placed in foster care, stay in foster care longer, and are less likely to exit foster care to permanent family homes.

The intersection of these devastating realities of our society, coupled with the clearly disparate impact they have on BIPOC and their families, has sharpened the focus around the urgent need for primary prevention efforts to stabilize families within their communities. If we shift our thinking from how to protect children in families that are in crisis to creating societal conditions that equitably protect and strengthen families, then we will be closer to being a source of prevention.

Many have noted that past catastrophes and recessions have resulted in an increased number of children entering the foster care system. We are hearing warnings of a pending flood of children entering foster care once school and day care resumes. However, in making such predictions, we are missing the opportunity to ask the truly meaningful question: What would it take for that to not happen this time? If we can create a stronger community system that prevents children from entering foster care during this crisis, then that same community system could be a portal to a fundamentally better child welfare system than what exists today.

Nationally, Lutheran Services in America's network of 100 children-, youth-, and family-serving organizations impact 12,000 children in foster care and 40,000 children and family members across 43 states in 363 cities and 523 locations. Our goal is to ensure that all children in the United States live in safe, stable, and permanent family homes. As we navigate these crises, it is critical that we work together to identify and support equitable solutions that move us closer to this goal.

To this end, our Results Innovation Lab is activating our members serving children, youth, and families throughout America around this very question: What will it take to stabilize families in their communities so that families remain intact and children do not enter out-of-home care? We do not accept the assumption that these crises must result in more children entering the child welfare system. As such, we are prepared to be active partners, listeners, and leaders in our communities to re-envision prevention and the child welfare system as a whole—to create a community system that supports families, listens to their needs and expertise, and brings together necessary resources and supports.

Resources must include much-needed state and federal investments in primary prevention efforts that strengthen families' protective capacities and factors, such as resources that provide educational programs for families and children, address trauma, and support community services and strategic partnerships so families have access to positive social connections and concrete support in times of need. Equitable access to concrete services and supports must include, for example, health coverage, access to affordable housing and food, day care, early childhood education, literacy efforts, and higher education.

Together we can reenvision the child welfare system. But becoming a source of prevention and strength for America's children and families will require a fundamental shift in our mindset of what child welfare is versus what it must become.