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August/September 2020Vol. 21, No. 6Reimagining Child Welfare as a Well-Being System: Steps Toward the Change We Need

Written by Sandra Gasca-Gonzalez, vice president of the Center for Systems Innovation at the Annie E. Casey Foundation

The COVID-19 pandemic and the most expansive racial justice movement in recent history has propelled every sector of society—including child welfare—to a day of reckoning, a moment to confront structural racism and disrupt policies and practices supporting family separation, institutionalization, and inequitable treatment of families and communities of color.

Child welfare must be reimagined through prioritizing the voice and lived expertise of young people and their families in decisions, case planning, and policymaking. Even as jurisdictions grapple with the crises of the moment, many are finding ways to suspend policies and practices that aren't working, prioritize safety and well-being over compliance with cumbersome policies and procedures, and take critical steps to address the debilitating effects of bias and racism long embedded in our systems.

Every young person deserves to be with their family, particularly at a time when the health of those living and working in institutions is imperiled. Young people have a right to remain safe without sacrificing other aspects of well-being or losing connection to family and culture. The humbling reality is that very few young people feel safer or experience more stability after entering foster care.

We reimagine a system that no longer criminalizes poverty, particularly in this time of acute economic stress. Families in financial crises don't stop loving their children. Supporting families with economic and educational resources is an underpinning of a strong community and removes barriers from decades of policies disadvantaging people of color.

We reimagine a system for youth and young adults, for whom child protection policy is poorly designed, and enlist young people as leaders who understand their influence and pave the way to system change. Many child welfare leaders are eager to realize this vision. They're asking, "Where should we start?" It all begins on the road less traveled. It begins with a focus on race equity and inclusion.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation's Race Equity and Inclusion Action Guide and related tools outline seven key steps that any organization can begin to follow:

  1. Establish an understanding of race equity and inclusion principles. Aligning language is the first step toward more equitable practices.
  2. Engage affected populations and stakeholders. Too often, families and youth are excluded from participation in decisions about their lives.
  3. Gather and analyze disaggregated data. Breaking down data by race and ethnicity helps systems understand how different groups of young people are faring—and where improvement is needed.
  4. Conduct a systems analysis to uncover the causes of inequities. This information helps organizations make strategic decisions about how to change harmful patterns.
  5. Identify strategies and target resources to address root causes of inequities. Racial equity strategies should be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely.
  6. Conduct a race equity impact assessment for all policies and decision-making. This kind of assessment illuminates how a proposed action, decision, or policy is likely to affect different racial and ethnic groups.
  7. Continuously evaluate effectiveness and adapt strategies. Evaluation documents whether leaders are on course.

Young people should be leaders in these conversations, and facilitators can use these four guides to encourage that process.

Equipped with these priorities and tools, child welfare leaders can summon the compassion that led them to this work, the fortitude to stop doing things that aren't working, the ability to listen to youth and families as experts, and the imagination to see the upending of our world as an opportunity for innovation. We must seize this moment to reimagine and act!