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January 2021Vol. 22, No. 1Transitioning to Love for All Families

Written by Alise Morrissey, director of family impact, Children's Home Society of Washington, and a parent ally

Family is at the center of our society—when our families are strong, our communities thrive. If the child welfare system held to this ideal, all actions, budgets, and decisions would be geared toward uplifting and embracing families and building upon their strengths. As a parent who has personally experienced the system and as a professional who has dedicated the last decade of my career trying to change it, I have arrived at a bleak conclusion: The system we currently know is rooted in perpetual bias and stigma toward select members of our community who have fallen on hard times. These individuals have been devalued through bias yet deserve to be treated with dignity, love, and respect. Furthermore, their children did not ask, and do not deserve, to be abruptly uprooted from their homes to be placed in a stranger's care.

Studies show that removing a child from their parents' care causes significant long-term trauma, which is linked to neurological and physiological changes in childhood development. Why do we continue to operate this way amid unfavorable outcomes for children and their parents?

We must stop punitive practices riddled with judgment and blame toward families and transition to a family well-being system that prioritizes keeping families together. After all, by continuing the current cycle, we know that the removal of children from their families can have life-long, devastating impacts in the areas of learning, emotion regulation, and behavior.

We must stop thinking that an infant, child, or youth is better off with strangers rather than seeing their parents for all their worth and working to identify ways to help them through their challenges. We need bold court strategies, such as the Safe Babies Court team, that put families at the core of all decisions and promote their health and well-being.

We need to incorporate proven brain science research on the fundamental benefits of children remaining with their parents during formative developmental years in all federal and state regulations and laws that perpetuate removing every connection a child has to their family and pretending that this is good for them.

We need to ensure states have financial incentives to keep families together, and if a removal is absolutely necessary after all measures of support have been exhausted, we must prioritize relatives and people close to the family as alternative temporary homes to minimize trauma. Additionally, if we could go further and provide more financial support than what strangers receive, I believe this can be the start of real reform for the system.

When reviewing a state's child welfare budget, why do we see a disproportionality low dollar amount going to the biological family in situations where the need is present? We see that the majority of the budget works to promote family separation when a vast number of families are experiencing poverty, which could be mitigated with concrete financial support that helps keep families together. States should receive significant dollars for reuniting families, as opposed to forever separating them; funding should be funneled back to efforts that support keeping families together.

We must also work to promote bold, innovative strategies that aim to dismantle injustices that perpetuate harm for children and families. An example of this effort is the FIRST Legal Clinic, which provides a new parent struggling with a substance use disorder an opportunity to have an attorney who advocates to keep the family together and a parent ally to instill hope in a dark time to help the family remain on track. Additionally, our Parents for Parents program connects parents who have successfully navigated the child welfare system to parents who have recently become engaged with child protective services.

My beliefs stem from my lived experience. I know what it is like to have a baby who was never able to experience staying with her mom at the hospital. I have seen the heartbreak of a family losing its child rather than receiving a show of support to overcome past trauma. I have experienced relatives being passed over and saw how powerless my own mother was in learning she had no legal rights to maintain control of her connection with her granddaughter, as it was at the discretion of the foster family.

I have seen thousands of families going through similar situations and circumstances to what I lived through. I have been in a room with 40 parents who all raised their hand to express that they were told they should never have their children and their children would be better off adopted. I have had professionals across the country hug me after I spoke to a crowd and express that they have seen so many other families let down and that we must unite to stop it.

Why is a transition mandatory? Because I am staring at my 11-year-old and 18-month-old playing with LEGO blocks with huge smiles on their faces. Why are we more special than all the other families that will never be able to experience this because the "system" deemed them unworthy and encompassed punitive practices that broke them down rather than building them up? Why do I hear from youth all over the nation begging for change and from families in hospitals longing to provide their infants with breast milk and ensure their babies can hear the comforting voice of their parent?

As I think about the actions and reactions we need to reform, I am also reminded of so many beautiful people who have spoken life into me and the families I serve, as well as into families across the nation. I am comforted knowing that there are many like-minded individuals who are enthusiastically promoting this needed change.

I love that there are other parents, like myself, who are running or working for parent mentor programs to ensure families succeed. I love that there are agencies across the nation that are uplifting parent and youth voice to ensure cycles can be broken and true change can be everlasting. And I love that I can hold my children every night—I long for others to have the same opportunity.

I am especially thankful for leaders, such as associate commissioner of the Children's Bureau, Jerry Milner, and his special assistant, David Kelly, who have done so much to pave the way for families like mine to find a new way of life. It is now up to all of us to keep the torch lit, to never give up, and to celebrate the sacredness of family.