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December 2020Vol. 21, No. 9Supporting Families Gives Children Their Best Chance

Written by Sandy Santana, executive director, Children's Rights

As 2020 draws to a close, our nation's children—despite strides made over the last year to keep them safe—are still being harmed in the very child welfare systems meant to protect them. We keep relearning the same lesson: the state is not a good parent, and it cannot effectively substitute a parent-child bond with a network of stranger families and institutions. Instead, as David Kelly, special assistant to the Associate Commissioner of the Children's Bureau, has said, "We do harm in the name of good."

Take the story of S.A., a girl who entered foster care at the age of 5. Within a few months, she reported being sexually abused. S.A. received no physical examination or medical treatment, and the investigation into her allegations was labelled as a "minor" violation putting her at "low risk." She was moved over 45 times—shuttled between foster homes, restrictive residential treatment centers, and emergency shelters. Along with the repeated placement changes, S.A. experienced a revolving door of caseworkers—approximately 28 different primary and secondary caseworkers.

Thirteen years later, S.A. aged out of the system and into homelessness. Her time in restrictive residential treatment centers left her ill equipped to wash dishes or set a table. S.A. was the product of a system in which, as a federal judge wrote, "rape, abuse, psychotropic medication, and instability are the norm" and where "foster children often age out of care more damaged than when they entered."

As stories like that of S.A. painfully illustrate, child welfare systems are not only ill equipped to help children heal from trauma, but they also too often fail at their most basic function: keeping kids safe. And they cannot recreate the bond between a parent and child that is so essential to healthy child development.

The guiding principle of the child welfare system should be to eliminate the need for foster care by supporting families and helping address the issues of poverty that are often construed as neglect. Yet, our federal and state governments spend more to care for foster children than they do to keep families together. In 2016, nearly half the total federal, state, and local expenditures went toward out-of-home placements, while 15 percent was spent on preventive services.

The incoming administration can take important and meaningful steps right out of the gate to prioritize the health and well-being of our nation's children.

First and foremost, we must embrace a broad antiracist and antipoverty agenda centered on preserving families. It is time to overhaul the Adoption and Safe Families Act, which has led to the destruction of families, particularly Black families. Black children are 2.4 times more likely than White children to experience the termination of parental rights. 

Second, the "reasonable efforts" standard to prevent the removal of a child is not being uniformly applied. In some states, a caseworker is permitted broad discretion to remove a child. In others, case managers must provide evidence of both maltreatment and far more active efforts by the state to keep a child in the home. The Children's Bureau has shown leadership in advocating for judges and attorneys to play a bigger role in enforcing the federal requirement that agencies make reasonable efforts. That is needed, but given the unfair selective application of the standard, we need federal law to greatly increase and standardize the threshold for removal and delineate a series of concrete, meaningful actions agencies must take to prevent removal.

Third, while we applaud U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' decision to unlock title IV-E funds to pay for legal supports for children and families, we need to fund legal services at the critical, early phases of a child protective services investigation to avoid unnecessary investigations and removals.

Programs like Thriving Families, Safer Children allow communities to proactively support child and family well-being and prevent child maltreatment and unnecessary family separation. Agencies also need the flexibility to spend federal dollars on supports that can keep families together, such as obtaining housing and accessing public services, without tying those supports to the threat of removal. And, for the small population for whom removal is absolutely necessary, we must prioritize placing children with grandparents and other relative foster families, emphasize placing children with families over facilities, and vigilantly preserve familial and community connections.

Jerry Milner, Associate Commissioner of the Children's Bureau, has a vision of a new child welfare system where families "are given what they need to thrive, not just survive." If we support families before harm occurs, invest in community-based programs, and prevent maltreatment and the unnecessary removal of children from their families, we can make that vision a reality.