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May 2020Vol. 21, No. 4To Do Better by Kids, Build a Bigger Bench of Loving, Caring, and Supportive Adults

Written by Sandra Gasca-Gonzalez, vice president of the Center for Systems Innovation at the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Have you ever heard about the child who had too much love—too many adults who serve as parents, mentors, financial advisers, coaches, and spiritual guides? Me neither!

As the COVID-19 global pandemic has shaken up our world, many things have changed. The following are two things that have not changed:

  • Every kid needs family.
  • Young people do better in a rich relationship ecosystem.

At the Annie E. Casey Foundation, we have long believed that supporting adults in a child's life is critical to supporting young people. While the COVID-19 crisis has been a disrupter of major proportions, it also provides an opportunity to remake systems and relationships to do better by young people. In this moment of possibility, we must rewrite the way systems work with families and caregivers—in other words, to get different (better) results, we must do things differently. We must accelerate the role of foster parents and kinship caregivers as supports to the entire family—children and parents alike—to help strengthen overall child and family well-being while ensuring our kids are safe.

What's more, we can turn this upside-down experience into a right-side-up system by working hand in hand with young people and their families as they help us create this better, life-sustaining way of doing things.

Ensuring that parents and caregivers partner on behalf of a young person is a value woven into the fabric of Casey's ongoing work. In communities across the country, Casey helps systems modernize their approach to identifying, training, and supporting resource parents, which includes kin parents. Maintaining stable, lifelong connections to family, communities, and culture are key elements of that work.

When I envision child welfare in the future, I see an array of family-strengthening opportunities that surround families with resources that enable them to stay together and grow together. We need these resources to be so widely available that few children and teens will need to enter foster care. To be effective and long lasting, our support must honor and leverage the strength of community, culture, and family. These fundamental building blocks have extraordinary capacity to help children and families heal, restore, and endure. Even when children must be removed from their homes for safety reasons, we must prioritize connections to their families, culture, and communities.

Across the country, I see families supporting families to sustain parents in the challenging, rewarding work of raising their children. I see families who support their own. I see neighborhoods and schools that help children flourish. I see community, faith, and other organizations that listen to young people and encourage their involvement, growth, and positive development throughout their growing-up years.

Stepping Toward the Future

Even when many fewer young people are in foster care, they will need wide networks of support because the need for family cannot be met by systems.

When you think about it, it's long past time to change the ways in which systems and communities partner with the important adults in a young person's life. Many aspects of an improved future child welfare approach are steps that communities and agencies can put in place today.

The steps I suggest have been tested in Casey's work throughout the country over the past three decades. All involve a common thread: A fervent belief that we should be in the business of connecting children to, not cutting them off from, critical family relationships. At each of these steps, young people and their families are critical to helping us develop and sustain meaningful changes that can improve the lives of all involved.

We, in the community, can serve in powerful roles to help develop and sustain these relationships and networks by doing the following:

  • Connectors. We need to help maintain children's connections to their families. Separating children unnecessarily from families is too high a price. When kids lose the familiar routines of school, activities, and their neighborhoods—and are often separated from their siblings—the trauma can be devastating and disruptive to their social and emotional development.
  • Extenders. Maybe a grandmother cannot move her grandson into her home and care for him full time. But can she call him on his birthday? During these days of social distancing, maybe have a weekly online lunch date to catch up? When the asks are tangible and manageable, more adults who want to help in some way can find it more doable.
  • Builders. When families are in crisis, they need as many of us as possible helping help them get back on their feet—not cutting them off at the knees. Let's surround them with resources and relationships.
  • Teammates. When everyone shares a common goal—the well-being of the child—we can do amazing things to help children heal from trauma and support families in rebuilding stable, loving homes.

Agencies can support, engage, and empower these supportive relationships and networks by doing the following:

  • Connectors. Find and keep more amazing caregivers. Agencies must sustain a continually growing and diverse network of resource parents. In a newly focused system, we define resource parents as everyone from parents to kinship caregivers to foster parents—that is, everyone who cares for a child and can influence their path toward well-being. Agencies must find new foster families to replace those who adopt and explore new technologies and data-driven approaches to identify and recruit eager foster families well suited to meet children's needs.
  • Extenders. Redouble our efforts and prioritize support to kin resource families. Kin and resource parents are ordinary people who do extraordinary things for children and families in crisis. Forge strong relationships. Builders. Keep kids in their families of origin whenever possible. Among other things, this disrupts cultural breaks and disparities. Kids do better with kin. Kinship support should not be dependent on licensing. Increase the support for resource families.
  • Teammates. Public child welfare agencies and private foster care providers must envision and implement a system that engages foster parents as respected partners and promotes the value of foster families—and does the same for and with birth families and their children. Encourage—and expect—all adults (birth parents, relatives, caseworkers, mentors, clergy, etc.) in a child's life to work together.

Families are networks. The more loving, supportive, and caring adults in those networks, the stronger the network and the better our children and older youth fare. When we act on behalf of all families the way we would for our own, then all children and parents can heal, grow, and thrive.

This COVID-19 health crisis has turned so many things inside out and upside down. People and professionals of all types in the child welfare system have stepped up in extraordinary ways. We have a defining opportunity to rewrite the playbook on child welfare and make it truly what we know in our heart of hearts it needs to be to truly support and build up children, families, and communities.