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December 2020Vol. 21, No. 9To Truly Be Relentless, We Must...

Written by Nico'Lee Biddle, L.C.S.W., policy analyst at the Center for the Study of Social Policy, member of the Board of Directors for FosterClub, and expert with lived experience

Over the years that I've been involved in child welfare system reform efforts, I have frequently heard the system described as "broken." When this state of brokenness originated depended on who was speaking. Was it a result of the unintended consequences of the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997? Was it when the pendulum supposedly swung toward giving birth parents "too many rights?" Was it a result of underfunding leading to a workforce that wasn't capable of carrying out its responsibilities? Where does this idea of the system being broken come from, and why can't it be fixed?

Let's imagine the child welfare system as a broken-down car. Over the years it has had many owners, and for the past 5 years you've been forced to drive it and use it as your only mode of transportation. You've been pouring money into it nonstop. So far, you've tried to fix problems big and small, but no matter what you do, the car keeps breaking down. You've even taken it to various mechanics, and each one has tinkered around or added a new part; each was optimistic that they had "fixed" the problem, but sooner or later, another problem would appear and something else would be needed to get the car moving again.

The child welfare system is similar: failing, not serving the needs of its owners (the children and families it is intended to serve), and requiring more and more costly interventions to fix what ultimately can't be fixed. There are a disproportionate number of Black and Brown youth in the system. Too often, children sleep overnight in offices because there aren't enough foster homes. Youth have been abused while in congregate care, and young adults age out every single day without any sort of permanency. Those working in the field generally acknowledge these truths and work hard every single day to try to make the system better. The failures of child welfare are not due to neglectful or indifferent staff. So, what is the problem?

Let's look again at the broken car. Eventually, when you consulted the car's previous owners, you realized that they had the same issues as you and that you had in fact inherited a lemon. This car was never going to work no matter how much time, money, and expert care you put into it. 

The child welfare system is like the car—no matter how you attempt to tinker with and fix the mechanics, the entire operating system is fundamentally broken, and it is largely functioning exactly as designed. A historical review makes clear child welfare systems began with a belief that wealthy White saviors can rescue poor children, and later children of color. The system was built on the premise that family separation as the primary means of intervention was needed to keep children safe. The foster care system started with the Children's Aid Society and the Orphan Trains, which essentially removed poor immigrant children from cities and placed them in the country to live and work on White-owned farms, under the guise of giving the poor city children a better life. Seldom acknowledged in White history but also true, is that family separation has its roots in slavery and colonialism. Colonists separated families of color and auctioned them off to the highest bidder based on their perceived qualities (if this reminds you of present-day adoption events where photos and videos of youth are shared with prospective families, you are not alone).

It is on this historical backdrop that the modern child welfare system was born. We know people who work in child welfare want to do well, want to help children and families, and want to do it in the best ways they know how. But in order to do that, the racist and classist foundation on which the present-day system is built must be acknowledged, and present-day decisions must be critiqued with this historical context in mind. For example, most children are removed from their families due to a blanket definition of neglect, which includes things like a lack of food, homelessness or unsafe living conditions, a lack of medical or mental health care, truancy, and so on. These are symptoms of living in poverty. Poverty is not abuse or neglect and yet we, as a society, allow our systems to treat a poor parent as though they are neglectful without ensuring they have the basic resources to succeed.

In the car metaphor, it only makes sense to get rid of the car and find whatever mode of transport will work best for you, something designed to meet your needs. The same is true for the current child welfare system.

Perhaps instead of dumping more money and more resources into a system that continues to uphold racist and classist ideals, we reimagine the child welfare system as something different. What does this mean? Well, it means shrinking the system dramatically and shoring up community supports, so struggling families can receive more than just a service plan and a program they are mandated to attend to simply check off a box. It means meaningfully addressing poverty and making sure there is timely and meaningful access to mental health supports, substance use treatment, and safety for families. It means being innovative and allowing youth and families to lead the design of new ideas. It means being relentless for children and families.

If we are to be truly relentless for children and families, then we must be relentless in advocating against family separation. We must be relentless in demanding social systems that help families get out of poverty without blaming families for being poor. We must be relentless that proposed interventions do not further harm Black and Brown families and children. We must be relentless in demanding access to health care, safe housing, and healthy food for all. We must be relentless for building strong communities that support the well-being of all families and children.

To be relentless means, literally, "to show or promise no abatement of severity, intensity, strength, or pace." The time to be relentless for all children and families is now. We must.