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December 2020Vol. 21, No. 9Standing in the Breach

Written by Jerry Milner and David Kelly

Transforming a large, blunt, and reactive child welfare system that far too often causes trauma into one that proactively works to strengthen and support families, prevent the likelihood of maltreatment, and become a source of healing requires relentlessness. It requires an enduring focus on the essential mission—creating the conditions for families to thrive—and not being distracted or deterred by voices or circumstances to the contrary. It requires rising above ideology, status, or investment in an industry to ensure that families get what they truly need and are inherently worthy of receiving.

It requires us to be unrelenting in maximizing the tools and resources we have while simultaneously calling out the gaps, deficiencies, and unintended consequences of those very tools and resources. It requires ongoing identification of additional needs and creating ways to meet the needs. Being relentless necessitates a level of positive discontentedness—not settling for what we have, not allowing ourselves to become complacent and resigned, and not being afraid to think and act boldly. 

Being relentless calls us to keep our eyes focused on the end goal and not succumb to celebrations of what we've done if it's something less than what we set out to achieve. Time wasted celebrating incremental accomplishments, even when important to realizing the vision, is time children and families will never get back. While it's important to recognize benchmarks and reinforce forward movement along the way, a relentless approach pushes for more progress until families and children experience the system in dramatically improved ways.

True commitments to family integrity, the power of community, and overall child and family well-being oblige us to be keenly aware of their interconnectedness and their relationship to justice for families in the child welfare system. And, if equity is more than a word in this time, conscience demands both the commitment and the relentless pursuit of it.

In a world that too often judges families for their vulnerabilities and confuses and scorns their advocacy for themselves as resistance or noncompliance, we must see, hear, and act differently.  Who among us would welcome intrusion into and surveillance of our family? Fighting the act of being separated from a child is the very definition of a protective act—even when circumstances warrant removal. It is a most human response—one that would arise or be triggered in any of us should something so dear be threatened or taken away. Our only differences lie in the privileges we hold and our access to resources, supports, and opportunities—all of which remain inextricably linked to social-economic status and the color of one's skin.

The fact is, we are all deeply interconnected to each other—even when we fail to see it. Myopic vision regarding this is what holds us back from being more compassionate and effective—at all levels. We all have the same basic needs and are united by a desire to see our children grow and develop safely and healthy. Acting on this truth can guide us to do more—to do better and different—rather than casting blame at people or a system that often fails to recognize and offer what we all need.  

One remarkable young woman said in a recent conversation that we need to shift our thinking in child welfare from "they to us." The simple elegance of this statement communicates a need to stop thinking of our work and systems as something created for a set of others—people who are different or unlike us, people who are inferior to us. It should awaken us to the reality that, when we fight for our families in child welfare, we are really fighting for all of us. And that should give us energy to continue even in the darkest moments and times.

Standing with families and communities, even when it is not popular or makes us vulnerable ourselves to criticism and liability, places us squarely in the breach. Standing in the breach is not an act of martyrdom or an invitation for those who seek to be saviors, it's simply doing the right thing. It requires us not just to combat pathological views and acts against families but to mobilize to support families in the ways they tell us will be valued. True system change cannot occur without those willing to swim upstream, to take chances, to take the blows, and to hold firm to solid values regardless of the obstacles. In other words, those willing to be relentless.

And, when and if we begin to stop viewing families as the problem—something to be "fixed"—and begin to see them as sources of solution, strength, resilience, and nurture, we can understand an even greater truth. That truth is relentlessness is not a concept reserved for those professionals and advocates in the field. It is a quality that our families must call upon day after day. They must be relentless in their pursuit of better lives, less bias, more time with their children, access to life-saving supports and services, real help in dealing with root issues (including poverty), and justice for their individual needs in a system that often hands out one-size-fits-all responses and doesn't always acknowledge our own contributions to the conditions our families face.

It's time not just to acknowledge that we have been part of the problem but to own the fact that we've made the problem more complex by seeking and employing increasingly sophisticated solutions to matters that require common sense. Simple solutions, such as meeting basic needs, have great potency. The painful ongoing lessons of the pandemic must become instructive to all of us on the importance of basic public health approaches. These approaches apply directly to our work and require us to make the necessary investments in families and communities to keep families strong and children safe and healthy. We've long made the comparison of primary prevention to a vaccine and utilized other metaphors to convey its importance in strengthening families and as a child safety strategy. It's an imperfect comparison but one that should now sound with greater resonance.

There is momentum—great momentum—in moving our system in a more humane, whole-family direction that we all must and can contribute to sustaining, no matter where we sit, work, or live. This movement must be collectively owned and driven and always remain larger than any individual or group.

We must also remain ever mindful that inertia, apathy, and the pull of an industrial complex are ever-present threats to family integrity and the well-being of children, parents, and caregivers.

At the Children's Bureau, we have made our case as relentlessly as we can for nearly 4 years. It has not been welcomed by all audiences. The facts and substance of our case were identified and formed by, with, and for human beings with lived expertise with the system we are charged with overseeing. The relentlessness and wisdom of parents, young people, and the communities in which they live is unrivaled. It is our richest source of guidance and the one most often ignored. But, we've seen the power of those voices in action and what can be made possible by acting on the knowledge shared.

We have not wavered in promoting our two overarching goals—(1) strengthening and supporting families to reduce the need for formal contact with the child welfare system and (2) radically improving the experiences of children, youth, and families who must make contact with our system—because that is what families and young people have told us would be most helpful.

This includes but goes far beyond simply reducing separation due to foster care or acting in times when risk is imminent. To the greatest extent possible, we've laid out the building blocks for doing so in the core set of information memorandums, as well as guidance on legal representation, we have issued:

The knowledge of families, young people, and communities has driven our efforts to be as aggressive, expansive, and flexible as possible in pursuing a child and family well-being system rooted in primary prevention of child maltreatment and strengthening the capacity of families to remain safely together. 

It propels and sustains our efforts to be proactive and responsive during this terrible pandemic and leverage every resource we can to support families and youth—a need that will continue.

And above all else, it is the wisdom of parents, families, young people, and communities that drove us to approach our partners at Casey Family Programs, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and Prevent Child Abuse America to build a coalition to boldly promote a new vision for child welfare in the United States through Thriving Families, Safer Children: A National Commitment to Well-Being.

We have seen a great urgency harnessed and an unparalleled, unified desire for change. During a time of division, we can coalesce around the things we all hold in common: family, need for belonging, community, and well-being.

We have inextinguishable hope and confidence it will continue.

We can and must be relentless in ensuring it does.