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. 9In Pursuit of Growing and Healing: Changing Child Welfare

Written by Shrounda Selivanoff, director of public policy, Children's Home Society of Washington, parent ally, and kinship caregiver

"Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything."—Martin Luther King

Everything in life should change. It is a natural progression, and it is necessary for growth. To not be open to the evolution of change is unnatural and disastrous.

It appears we stand at the brink of deliberate change in child welfare. People from diverse communities, sectors, and experiences have come together and implored states and the federal government to reflect on how the child welfare system is operating and who it is failing. Many have concluded this system, in its current structure, is not merely inadequate to address the needs of children and families but is profoundly harmful. In pursuit of a more promising future, the conversation has abruptly and appropriately shifted to this: how can we design a child and family well-being system?

As families caught in the child welfare system understand better than anyone, abrupt change produces a variety of emotions and, often, trauma. It is not surprising, therefore, that calls for prioritizing well-being in child welfare have been met with some initial resistance. But change is always possible because deliberate change is a choice. It requires acknowledgment of what needs to change and commitment to adopt a new set of actions, beliefs, and values.

The need for connection is essential for every human being; it is one of the things that make us human. Most people cannot imagine the proposition of losing contact with those they love; it is a devastating thought. In its current framework, child welfare disregards this essential truth. Many children never return home, and those severed ties deprive those children of one on the main components necessary for a life of meaning and purpose.

The existing child welfare system is rooted in the faulty premise that family separation is necessary to address a family's need in a crisis. Families are foundational. The adversities that families survive—well before the child welfare system became involved—build strength and often strengthen family bonds. Families who have survived difficulties have strengths that are key to their healing. There are rarely candid conversations about the strengths that families have developed by surviving and enduring the conditions of poverty.

A large percentage of families enter this system due to neglect. They enter not because a child has been physically harmed but to avoid future harm. Research shows that experiencing neglect is harmful to children. Growing up in adversity is hard on kids, and families need support to improve their circumstances and to heal their trauma. This does not require removing (i.e., further traumatizing) children and shaming parents. Helping these children is better done by helping their families meet their basic needs and compassionately supporting their wellness.

Change will require facing the uncomfortable fact that systemic racism is deeply ingrained in the system as bias is the other root issue for most families who enter care. Seldom on the ground level are their open discussions to the degree this drives a child welfare case's dismal outcome. If race comes to the forefront, it is quickly diverted back to the parents and their shortcomings. It is impossible to remove bias; it pervades us from multiple angles. But how do we mitigate its harmful effects and impacts? Racism must be confronted and addressed, and the system must intentionally drive forward in antiracist practice and policies.

After acknowledging bias, we can move to commitment, cemented with a new set of actions, beliefs, and values—a commitment to keep families intact and children in their homes and with their families, while offering the kind of support and help that improves the well-being of each family member.

Focusing on family well-being requires bringing a critical partner to the table: the parent. Families already have many strengths, protective factors, and resilience. There should be far more efforts and resources dedicated to discovering, uncovering, and supporting those strengths because those strengths are irreplaceable. Likewise, community collaboration can support these families so they never meet the threshold for child welfare involvement. Diverting resources to communities means actual financial investment. 

Child welfare has an incredible budget of billions of dollars. Currently, the bulk of the investment goes to upholding the system in its current framework: family separation, foster care, and adoption. Shifting priorities to family's and children's well-being, prevention, and family preservation, as well as addressing poverty, would be monumental. 

Finally, we can commit to act with kindness and to demonstrate that all involved genuinely care for families and that the entire family's needs are equally important. Each member of the child's family is deserving of compassionate care. Indeed, foster care should be renamed family care to send the clear message that the family is in the center and that the system is focused on the needs of the family rather than fostering children outside their homes.

Separating families must be the absolute last course of action. Governments must invest in families and provide tangible support with the objective of keeping families together. Finally, if children are separated, all efforts and resources must be deployed to keep children with their communities and relatives. With these truths firmly established, there is room for authentic dialogue and action.

Now that the people most impacted by child welfare have finally been invited into the conversation, we cannot go back to old ways of thinking. The power of bond and family is boundless. A family firmly planted on solid ground can withstand difficulties and remain intact and flourish for generations to come. Although our nation has dismissed this priceless truth for far too long, the new thinking in child welfare sees families as the seed, soil, and roots. In this new thinking, every individual, sector, and community member can deliberately choose to act as though we are all connected and necessary for growth. There is nothing to discard as there is intrinsic value in keeping families together.