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December 2020Vol. 21, No. 9Does Every Child Matter? If Not Now, When?

Written by Judge William Thorne, retired state and tribal court judge and Pomo/Coast Miwok tribal member

If every child mattered—if every family mattered—why does our system fail so many? Why is there no urgency behind solving the problems that confront and separate a family? How can we ignore the failure when a child ages out? Every termination of parental rights is an implicit admission of failure to successfully engage and heal a family. Too many of our failures end up in intergenerational stories of foster care, penal systems, and hopeless poverty as the discards of our failed efforts pile up.

One of the maxims circulating today is that every system is perfectly designed to deliver the results it produces. We need to rededicate ourselves to building a different system that heals and helps rather than perpetuates the results we say we deplore.

Our current child welfare system inflicts a high toll on families and leaves too many behind. Poor people and people of color are disproportionately failed. We can no longer pretend that "good motives" are enough to excuse our poor results. We have, until this year, justified the intransigence of our child welfare system to change with the explanation that "this is the best we can do." But is it?

The pandemic that is enveloping the world has forced us to take another look at the way we operate. We have adjusted—sometimes painfully—to working around obstacles and risks and doing things we believed impossible. We are expediting children's return home and using technology to expand visitation opportunities. We are finding ways of collaborating without being across the table from each other. These are all positive steps that hopefully will not be lost in the return to "normal." But why stop there? If we want different results, isn't this the perfect opportunity to work smarter? After all, if we want different results, we need to work differently.

We need to be explicit about our beliefs and values. Children do best in families—including extended families—and communities that love them and keep them safe. Safety is important, but without the love we give our own kids, it is hollow. There is a reason foster care and lack of empathy are paired so often as correlates for people in prison. We learn empathy (an ability to care for someone besides ourselves) from our families. We don't learn it in foster care or in institutions.

If we believe children need families, what are we doing to invest in those families and support them? During my 40 years as part of the system, I have witnessed that success is incorrectly calibrated as compliance with a court-ordered plan. Instead, success should be aligned with building a support system designed to enhance a family's resilience.

Our system took a wrong turn when we decided that failure to comply with "our" plans constituted their "failure." In fact, in many jurisdictions, failure to follow a plan is independent (and conveniently easier to prove) grounds to deprive children of their families. This notion that the system knows best is clearly a fallacy given the outcomes it produces. We have created a system where we tell ourselves that success occurs because we created a good plan and demanded compliance. But we also tell ourselves that failure is attributable solely to the inadequacies of the families we say we are here to serve. We cannot have it both ways. We—that is, child welfare—need to own both results (the successes and the failures), especially when failure means we have given up on a family.

If success is really our goal in child welfare, why are we settling for foster care and termination of parental rights? Why are we demanding compliance instead of building resilience? Are the children not worth the effort? Are we too complacent to care? Or do we simply not believe that we can make a difference?   

We desperately need to change direction and focus. We need a system where "our" success as professionals is ONLY tied to successfully enabling a family to safely care for its children and where ANYTHING ELSE is failure—OUR failure. We are the professionals in this dynamic. It is our responsibility to succeed, and we cannot in good conscience walk away and say it's "not our fault." The cost is too high to the children, their families, and our communities when we do this. Assisting struggling families should be no more beyond our reach than flying to the moon was 60 years ago. What do we need to figure out? Invent? Reexamine? Repurpose?

As professionals, our job is to figure out how to assist each child and their family. To do this, we must change our approach, set aside our hubris, and realize that one size doesn't fit all—not in medicine, not in education, not in mental health, and certainly not in child welfare. When we don't achieve success, we need to change strategies. Believing we are "right," while at the same time being unsuccessful in assisting families to safely care for their children, is wrongheaded.

We need to ASK parents, children, extended families, and others connected to the children about their goals and dreams. What do they need to succeed? How can we help? What roadblocks are they encountering? We need to LISTEN RESPECTFULLY and LEARN. Families may not have all the answers, but they are the experts about their family. They know the history, mythology, and stories of their family, as well as the strengths of individual members. They will also tell us when a particular approach is not working or that a different strategy may be necessary. We need to COLLABORATE. Many different perspectives, skills, approaches, and strengths may be needed. We need to remember this is not about "us"—not about our agency policies, limitations, and resources or an individual worker or judge's proclivities, sensitivities, workload, or convenience. It is about doing whatever is necessary to achieve success. Families and children must be part of that collaboration. Finally, REPEAT AS NECESSARY. Each failure is an opportunity to learn, redirect, and try something a bit (or a lot) different. Each small success is a chance to acknowledge strengths and ability. We must build a web of resilience and not rely on a fragile thread of compliance.

Success is possible for the families we are assisting, just like flying to the moon. But do we believe in it enough to make it happen? Are we sufficiently dedicated to keep moving forward? If not now, when?