Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock () or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

January 2021Vol. 22, No. 1Beautiful Gifts and Lumps of Coal

Written by Jerry Milner

As we transition from 2020 to 2021, the newsfeeds on my phone and the few glimpses of live news I see when passing through an airport applaud the passing of 2020 as one of the worst years in recent memory. We welcome 2021 as a relief from difficulty and suffering and a source of hope that the world will be a better place shortly (although the "shortly" part may be somewhat optimistic).

I agree that we have had overly abundant lumps of coal in 2020.

Although I did not suffer the travails of illness and loss that so many did, I know those who did, and I suffered in less mortal ways like many of you.

With very little forewarning, the joy of my work and my life—being present in the child welfare workspaces across the country; meeting face to face with youth, children, and parents with lived expertise; sitting with agency and program staff serving families every day; encouraging and supporting attorneys and judges in our child welfare court system, service providers, advocates, and countless others—came to an abrupt halt, like crashing into a wall at full speed. My ability to connect to the field suddenly became a casualty of a travel ban.

My friends and colleagues who sustain and nourish my soul, emotions, intellect, and mind became fuzzy images on Zoom with the same familiar backgrounds depicting their new workspace environs.

Across the country, there were more hurricanes than ever on record, and it seemed that each trip I made home from DC to Florida involved prepping for the latest hurricane to cross the Gulf and land on the southern shores that I call home. 

There were prolific wildfires everywhere and the losses were unfathomable. Even in my slice of paradise in the Florida panhandle, I was forced to evacuate my home in the face of an encroaching wildfire with only minutes notice and to watch from a safe vantage point as the orange wall came closer and closer. That experience of having maybe 5 minutes to gather whatever I could take from my home was a sobering reminder of what so many of our children in foster care experience as a normality in their lives of moving and transitioning.

Apart from my own selfish frustrations with 2020, our families, children, and youth in child welfare suffered immensely more.

Those who have long been disproportionately represented in child welfare—Black, Indigenous, and poor people of all races—were unsurprisingly affected disproportionately by the ravages of the pandemic through loss of jobs, their inability to continue to work remotely, their reliance upon public transportation, their inability to remain at home with their children when schools closed, among other things.

Our youth in foster care, already fragile from the losses and disruption that led them to foster care, suffered increased social isolation, mental health concerns, and loss of essential supports to help them move forward.

Many of our youth from the foster care system became homeless when their college dorms closed, experienced food insecurity when college dining halls closed, and lost access to essential technology that allowed them to maintain some semblance of normality and connection. Many youth were "emancipated" from foster care during this incredibly difficult period with few options for providing for themselves.

Children in foster care and their parents experienced reductions in face-to-face time, which is so essential to their well-being and healthy development, along with delays in reunifications, adoptions, and other outcomes that might have given them a bit of stability and belongingness.

It has been amazingly difficult to see these things happening and made worse by the pandemic. But this is not unique to the pandemic, since some version of these things happens routinely in our child welfare system. 

However, along with the lumps of coal 2020 brought us some precious gifts as well that may serve us as we transition to post-2020.

Personally, I had the resilience and resources to withstand the frustrations and losses. In the end, I was not blown away by a hurricane, and an unexpected wind blew the wildfire in a slightly different direction at the ultimate moment. While my home was spared, others' homes were not. I did not contract the virus, although I had dear friends who died of it.

These humbling occurrences increased my empathy for others and gave me renewed appreciation for health, wellness, and, sometimes, just plain good luck. They led me to a regular practice of meditation that is slowly allowing me to see my life apart from my own personal needs and desires and as part of a broader sea of humanity for whose well-being we all have a shared responsibility.

As a response to the lack of travel ability, we brought together hundreds of youth with lived expertise in a dozen and a half virtual town halls and roundtable discussions and assured them that their voices had not been silenced by a raging virus. I believe that these discussions have set the course for a more institutionalized vehicle for regularly soliciting the voices of those who know our system firsthand and have created the expectation that they will be at our table.

The crisis has made people aware of existing shortcomings in our system that can guide the way to the future. We did not just begin allowing 20,000 youth in foster care to leave at age 18 or 21 without permanency in their lives during COVID. We've been doing it for years. If COVID has helped more people to understand what that means, then that is a gift.

And I believe that it has, in fact, helped in that way. Recently, Congress passed the Supporting Foster Youth and Families Through the Pandemic Act, recently enacted as division X of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021. Among other provisions, the act prohibits states from emancipating youth from foster care during the crisis simply due to attaining a certain age. At the state level, a number of governors issued executive orders prohibiting the "emancipation" of youth from foster care due to age during the crisis. These are good things, but if we can do them for the duration of COVID, why can they not be permanent so that we end this inhumane practice? First steps are always necessary.

During the height of the pandemic, the Children's Bureau, in collaboration with Casey Family Programs, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and Prevent Child Abuse America and with the support of other federal child- and family-serving agencies, launched the most substantial and tangible effort thus far to create a child and family well-being system: Thriving Families, Safer Children: A National Commitment to Well-Being. This work offers the promise of creating a true, proactive, and community-based family support system that operates in stark contrast to the harsh child welfare system that we know so well.

Many people in our country have paid and continue to pay painful and difficult costs for these gifts. If we care about them and their future, and the futures of so many to come after them, our obligation is to not let this moment pass without committing to act on these unexpected gifts. This is our opportunity, and more importantly it is our responsibility.

In 2021, we will transition to new leadership in our country. For those of us in our child welfare system, we must all commit to a seamless, supportive, and collaborative transition and to doing our part, from wherever we may be, to ensure a continuing commitment to the values that we believe in so strongly—the value of families, however we define them, to their children; the value of community to families; the value of support over surveillance; and the value of ensuring that we have an equitable and just way of serving children, youth, and families in need.

We can do it. 

We must do it.