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. 9Is Money the Only Thing Preventing Us From Being Relentless for Families? We Don't Think So

Written by Jeremy Christopher Kohomban, Ph.D., president and chief executive officer, The Children's Village

To be relentless for families means we should be completely focused on giving to all families the same things we want for our own families, things that will be permanent in their lives. This includes unconditional love and belonging, a safe home and community to live in, justice, respect, inclusion, the opportunity to pursue aspirations freely, and responsive government. But poor families touched by our nation's child welfare systems are often denied all or most of these. These families must contend with a system driven by a save-the-child ideology, which continues to dominate because government action has largely legitimized the idea that saving young children from unworthy parents is good government.

Evidence suggests that the save-the-child ideology was always driven by racial animus and the enduring puritan belief that wealth is the grace and gift of God, wherein poverty equates to moral failure. Poverty is the common theme in family separation—where Black and Native American families are investigated and have their children separated from them at disproportionately higher rates than other groups. For most parents, losing their children produces tectonic shifts in their needs and ways of being in the world. The unraveling of family life results in the gradual erosion, and eventual loss, of parental selves.

In child welfare, we have made some progress in reversing our base tendency to treat poor families differently than our own. There is an increased recognition that no child should grow up system dependent; rather, they should be given at least one adult who provides them unconditional belonging. While the ardent protectors of the orphanage ideology remain a powerful force amongst us, there are those of us who are convinced that children should not grow up in institutions. We also acknowledge that, in the rare instances when children cannot return to their biological family, creating a new family must be our primary priority

Nevertheless, the road ahead remains daunting. Rural poverty, intentional racial segregation, an expanding industry focused almost exclusively on serving the poor, and what Jill Lepore eloquently describes as the murky science of risk assessment that "attempts to quantify 'trauma' and 'adversity,' which, on the one hand, are meaningful clinical concepts but, on the other hand, are proxy terms for poverty" are powerful forces consistently promoting the status quo and reinforcing an enduring narrative that poor families are less capable of success because they are dealing with trauma- and adversity-induced mental illness. The mental illness narrative creates yet another diversion of precious funding that could be invested in giving poor people better and safer housing in integrated communities, a basic income to support a family, the opportunity for their children to escape failing schools, and meaningful investment in neighborhoods that are redlined for disinvestment. Yes, there is a plethora of services. There is something for almost everyone in need, but most of these services, even when provided by the best amongst us, including The Children's Village, rarely rise to the level where I would say, "This is what my own children deserve." Rather, in its totality, these services are often mediocre. Success is mostly described by anecdote, and good intent is celebrated despite limited evidence of change at scale.

"The truth about what's wrong with poor children is they were born in America, in a system that doesn't care about them," says New York University's Martin Guggenheim. I agree, we don't care enough; however, this does not mean we don't spend. We spend billions on these poor children. In 2016, state child welfare agencies spent approximately $30 billion on child welfare, and additional charitable donations of at least $50 billion also focused on many of these same poor children and families. But spending money does not equate to love. Sometimes spending money is simply easier and more convenient than the personal investment it takes to create the conditions for success. Success requires that we give poor children the same things that we give our children, things that are permanent! This is the focus we choose.