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January 2021Vol. 22, No. 12020 Taught Us How to Not Fail Our Children

Written by Laura W. Boyd, Ph.D., owner and chief executive officer, Policy & Performance Consultants, Inc.

As I write this, I am really excited about 2021. Of course, that is easy and obvious given all we have encountered in 2020. We must enter this transition with the hope of an innocent child and with the professional knowledge we have learned. We have a long list of opportunities and not a day to waste.

Leaders learn through their successes and learn even more through their failures. We also learn from the words and works of others. I should be pretty smart in 2021. So should our child welfare system.

As we transition into a new year and a new decade, leaders must take the mantra of a changed world of family care and connections. We have learned the following:

  • Families are resilient. We've talked a lot about children being resilient. Now, with the implementation of the Family First Prevention Services Act, we have broadened our discussion to recognize the resilience of families and their attachments.
  • We are transforming child welfare to be a support to families. This requires new ways of engaging caregivers (e.g., foster parents), new ways of sustaining those willing caregivers and kinship caregivers in their roles, and more individual ways of coaching child welfare workers in their work with families or with alternative care.
  • We know we need a public health approach to preserving families. Indeed, some children need protection. But the vast majority need preservation supports for the family relationships they presently have. These require access to health care, education, technology, jobs, child care, and personal connections.
  • Promote hope and compassion by seeing challenges as opportunities. When adversity strikes, like it did in 2020, a family's ability to learn from and adapt to the challenges is what promotes resilience and growth.

This is what we have learned, and we must build on this foundation.

The year 2020 has given us the knowledge to be successful in child welfare practice in ways beyond the printed manual and state and federal system reviews. We have shown ourselves to be creative in the use of technological tools and community networks, which can free workers anchored to a prescribed workplace and allow for more frequent and personal support to families and caregivers. These are the successes we should build upon.

We must focus on how to involve our community members and services in support of all families and shred the secrecy and isolation of foster care, the shame of poverty, and the terror of homelessness and/or joblessness. This will require courage of leadership to envision new ways of serving families.

Finally, as child welfare professionals, we must add to these tools of "head" and "hands" the most transforming tool: the "heart." It is this heart factor that really sustains us, but we too often forget that.

The work of child welfare personnel is as demanding as health-care workers, first responders, teachers, and title IV-E directors. We get tired, sick, burnt out, and overwhelmed. We, too, have families. Ask yourselves when was the last time you called the family or caregiver whom you know is watching over a child in the hospital with all their heart and prayers; or the grandparent caring for a grandchild and grieving for the destructive decisions of their own offspring? When did you share a "help wanted" notice with a father or perhaps a single mother that pinged your heart and reminded you of that specific person? These questions are not meant to shame or discourage but to remind us that compassion is the heart that keeps the system pumping. When we respond from our heart, we heal; we are revived.

In family-centered treatment (FCT), we have a model that is unique in delivery and backed by a multitude of outcome data regarding the successful preservation and reunification of the families who are struggling the most. Here I will describe some of the tenets that make FCT successful.

FCT uniquely addresses the whole family and the vicarious trauma that each member of the family has experienced and not resolved so as to free their behaviors and choices. The losses, griefs, failures, disappointments, embarrassments, loneliness, and maltreatment that has marked the family members are disclosed, examined, and given a role of insight and hope for the person. This recognition and "reordering" leads to real family change—change in beliefs, attitudes, reactions, and hope going forward. This change is so much more than compliance with service plans or court orders. It empowers the family to move into the future with new competencies for addressing other challenges that come their way.

Through their work in FCT, parents "own" their parts in the family history and dynamics that underpinned the pain, helplessness, and drama that various family members experienced and acted out trying to resolve. Most families complete FCT with an action and a commitment of giving back. As a family, they may choose a project or a community need or service that allows them to give in healthy ways to the support and healing of others. Giving back cements for the family what they've learned, how they can find personal value in new behaviors, how to forgive, and how to show their strength and commitment to being this family.

Not only does the family thrive, but also the heads, hands, and hearts of the provider thrive. This is the future of child welfare practice.

The year 2021 is a real opportunity to heal our children, our families, ourselves, and our system.