Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock () or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

December 2020Vol. 21, No. 9Building a New, User-Centered Child Welfare System

Written by Lexie Grüber, child welfare advocate

Our nation is in the midst of a pandemic, an economic emergency, and a heightened focus on addressing racial injustice. These urgent challenges have shown that our systems—particularly the child welfare system—demand a systemic overhaul and have inspired the political will to fix them.

These crises present an opportunity to fundamentally reimagine our child welfare system. Those the system serves have long pointed out that its structural flaws—overburdened social workers, an inability to share information in real time, and an overreliance on congregate care—would cause the system to fail. They were right, and leaders ought to listen. A new vision for America's child welfare system must be charted with those whom the system serves: parents who've been investigated or had their children removed, children and young adults who've spent time in foster care, and the relatives who serve as kin caregivers.

There's strong evidence that robust stakeholder involvement will help us build back better. Research has found that constituents know best what services they need, and they serve as a powerful source of ideas for social innovation. When invited to codesign services, constituents provide novel ideas that can defy even the best experts, leading to ingenious solutions that best solve the problem at hand. Studies have found that this way of policymaking is quite cost-effective, too.

Sharing decision-making power with constituents seems simple in theory. Yet, it will require fundamentally redesigning how child welfare agencies function. To ensure it's done well, it will require thoughtful and strategic changes to the way agencies operate at every level.

The Children's Bureau should lead by example by establishing a commission of people with lived experience dedicated to reimagining stakeholder engagement. This council should report directly to the Commissioner, who can ensure the group isn't siloed away in the agency. Commission members will put forth recommendations on how state and local child welfare agencies can build a user-centered system and channel feedback from constituents to agency leaders to ensure feedback is formalized into policy change. The Children's Bureau should provide technical assistance and funding for state and local agencies to form similar commissions.

The Children's Bureau should consider modeling their commission after Los Angeles County's nascent Youth Commission, which is the newest example for how those with lived experience can work with policymakers to shape the vision of the agency. The country's largest child welfare agency now has a commission to ensure the system is of, for, and by the people it serves. Los Angeles County supervisor Janice Hahn said of the commission, "If we really want to learn from our mistakes and improve the system for the next generation, we need to engage with the young people who grew up in these systems and know what it takes to make them better." The commission, which will be staffed by young adults who've spent time in foster care, will have the power to monitor the agency's budgets and programs and offer recommendations on policy and programs.

Although this crisis has illuminated the shortcomings of America, it has also provided an opportunity for reform. All of us—no matter our creed, wealth, or ability—have something to contribute to this beautiful experiment in democracy. Indeed, it's that collective voice that allowed us to emerge stronger from every crisis we've ever faced. And it will be what gets us through this one, too.