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August/September 2020Vol. 21, No. 6Reimagining Child Welfare Services: A Call to UpEND Child Welfare as We Know It

Written by Judith Meltzer, president, Center for the Study of Social Policy

We are in a moment of incredible disruption—from the COVID-19 pandemic to reckonings about entrenched racism in society and our public systems, including child welfare. NOW is the time to radically shift how we view the safety and protection of children by imagining a society in which the forcible separation of children from their families is no longer an acceptable solution. All children experience trauma when they are forcibly separated from their families by child protection systems, and Black, Native, and, increasingly, Latinx children experience this separation and resulting trauma at rates disproportionate to their presence in the general population. The removal of Black and Native children from their families has a long, troubling, and racist history. With roots in slavery and the decimation of tribes and native culture, the routine separation of Black and Native children from their families is influenced by pernicious stereotypes of Black and Native parents and maintains enormous state power over families. Unaddressed systemic and interpersonal racism in our society results in policies and practices that support the oversurveillance of Black and Native families; the removal of their children; and, ultimately, the termination of parental rights. 

For too long, the child welfare field has worked to reduce racial disparities and remedy the trauma children experience. However, efforts at reform have seen limited success. Now is the time to do the work to dismantle our systems and reimagine how our collective efforts and financial investments can be redesigned to achieve just outcomes for children and families in need of support and assistance. Families involved with child welfare systems often are already facing social and economic hardships caused by inherently racist policies that go back generations and that challenge their ability to care for their children. The child protection system is not designed to mitigate these problems by providing meaningful income, housing, and job support to families. Instead, child welfare policies and practices focus primarily on fixing an individual family after troubles arise. At their best, systems offer limited programmatic interventions, such as parenting classes, mentoring, substance use treatment, and anger management services. As a society, we can do so much better.

This is why the Center for the Study of Social Policy and the University of Houston's Graduate College of Social Work launched the upEND movement. The upEND movement calls for abolishing the child welfare system as we know it, because we view the safety and protection of children as resting with families and communities first. We recognize on this journey there will remain a need for a small number of children to be separated from families due to conditions of severe abuse, but foster care should never be a primary solution. Abolition as a goal requires that we create and implement antiracist policies and practices that promote healing and reduce harm to families already involved with the child welfare system and, at the same time, work to dismantle racist policies that undermine a family's dignity and their ability to care for their children. This work of reimagining the care of children must be led by the experiences of those most marginalized by public systems, especially Black and Native parents and the grassroots organizations that have been supporting their advocacy efforts for years. 

Reimagining the care of children and dismantling the current system will take time, but there are several immediate ways to move forward, including supporting the creation and expansion of critical safety-net programs like paid leave for all and a universal child allowance that provides concrete economic supports to families; supporting legislation that increases safe, affordable housing; eliminating rules and policies that make it harder for families to access concrete supports such as food assistance and health care; expanding the financial support for kinship care; ending the use of congregate care placements for children and youth; strengthening and meaningfully applying reasonable and active efforts standards to prevent the removal of children and to promote family reunification; and investing in grassroots preventive services to address individual family needs.

UpEND means that we must listen to families. UpEND means that we must increase community investment and strengthen social supports so that families have adequate income, housing, and health care and family stresses don't require a child welfare response. UpEND means that we must apply an antiracist lens to protecting children, a lens that begins with a societal commitment to assisting, supporting, and preserving families. To upEND is to create a movement and, ultimately, a world in which the needs of children and families are centered and valued.