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December 2020Vol. 21, No. 9The Great Commitment

Written by David Samuel Hall, teacher

Generational poverty, overt and structural racism, sexism, and being "tough on crime;" initiatives disproportionately affecting people of color; and unaddressed mental and physical health are what drag families into the foster care system. Unfortunately, many caregivers would agree that although they came to the agency's doorstep and said their family became successful despite foster care, it still gives the system too much credit. It's as if you swooped in and did your job and most people just don't agree with your methods, like some detective in a movie who hasn't gotten their character arc yet.

Working in child welfare sucks, but no matter what happens you must be committed. This will be a give-and-take relationship in the literal sense. You will give all you can while much is taken from you. It's quite simple why: Families don't know they need help, but you know they do. You chose to be a part of this, but families don't. Helping families is extraordinary so we gave it our all, but the unrelenting emotional toll was so great that we gave it up. It is because of this extraordinarily unfair relationship that there will be no words of affirmation to get you through hardships, all your triumphs will turn out to be unrecognized acts of service, and the only quality time you'll get is with an infinitely compounding list of child welfare reports that are supposed to remain an equal priority yet feel as though they take all your time to just get sent in time.

But guess what? We're not here to feel good. We're here to do good. That means we must have unconditional, unyielding, and unwavering love and the kind of compassion that drives us to tears when we hear of a disrupted placement 5 years from now, because their happiness is still our burden instead of an afterthought.

We must publicly declare our vows to be relentless, knowing we will fail to meet the expectations of everyone watching. Reciting what a third party tells you, finishing off with an "I do," and doing what everyone else does has only led to decades of sadness for children. We have yet to hear someone publicly commit to having more graduates than dropouts, more homes than arrests, and more families staying than leaving. Perhaps this is why we have so many skeletons—to the point there are piles of little Johnnys and Mariahs busting the hinges off our closets.

So, what if you are committed? There's no way to succeed in this 0/100 relationship alone. You will remain drowning in an abyss, having your emotions gnawed away until all that's left are the unlucky scraps that have to continue the rest of your life. And that is why, if we are committed—if we want to succeed—we must commit to the work.

Most often, we see families exclusively at their worst, and that can either make our job extremely difficult or easy, depending on what we do with this information. I see useful intake and exit as a treasure trove, something we can use to push for budgetary, procedural, and policy changes in collaboration and coordination with other agencies. If we can help prevent tens of thousands of children from experiencing trauma by doing something so simple as providing wraparound or educational services to families all the way upstream to when someone gets laid off, then why not? But we don't know what we don't know, and we can't know unless we ask.

If we want to do big, structural changes like that, we need to commit to having open conversations with people about things that are happening so we can actually fix the problem. Don't worry about those lawsuits—if you're on track to get one, it's probably going to happen. So, when leaders ask you how much you need and what you need it for, don't tell them you only need a few million dollars to re-up your fleet of state cars and a couple of requests for proposals. Tell them the real, hard truths: you need hundreds of millions toward mental health for the families who need it but don't get it because there would be thousands of families on a waiting list if everyone who had a kid in care and needed mental health services got it. If they continue being told by your legislative liaison that all they need is a Band-Aid, they will continue kissing your booboo and sending you off because they aren't psychics.

When we commit to realizing that the only thing we've done well for well-being is being mediocre, we can't stick with our stupid retreats about specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely (SMART) goals. This means we must come up with ideas that are measurable but also holistic, comprehensive, meaningful, and significant. SMART goals don't work because all they measure is how insignificant meaningless services are when we choose to use only one option that addresses only one symptom instead of every available option which addresses all symptoms and the root. Instead of thinking about how we're going to "innovate," using a provider that is not from the community to establish a community-based program, we should start with doing it the smart way—choose one thing you want to improve, decide how much you want to change it, and let that be your focus for the entire year. While we are sure to disagree over the order of priorities, we are certain to agree that 20 years of a slow, yet significant, meaningful, comprehensive, and holistic change will finally mean we aren't playing an unwinnable game of limbo.

Now, you'll notice I have not used "child welfare system" once in this entire article. That is not because I'm bad with synonyms—it's because we have not earned that title yet. Until we are committed to being candid with people who can give us the tools to make a difference, are willing to acknowledge the many mistakes we have and will continue to make on the way without needing a subpoena to do so, and are continuously acting on the fact that foster care cannot and will never solve every issue that a family will face, we are not worthy of that label. You must commit to being relentless by committing to us. Commit to failing by committing to our success; commit to raising stars and lowering statistics; commit to mistakes; commit to meaningful long nights; commit to selflessness; commit to hope. Most importantly, commit to yourself.