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February 2022Vol. 23, No. 1Cocreating a More Equitable Child Welfare System

Written by the Capacity Building Center for States

 "Historically, the child welfare system has not served all people equitably, and too often, poverty has been treated as neglect and child maltreatment."-Letter From Children's Bureau Associate Commissioner Aysha E. Schomburg, August 3, 2021 

Racial inequity, disparities, and disproportionality are complex and longstanding challenges in child welfare that cannot be addressed in isolation. Rather, the effort to build a more equitable child welfare system calls for building multifaceted and deliberate coalitions with all of an agency's partners, especially the young people and families from the communities served by the agency. 

The following considerations can help child welfare agency teams engage with young people and families with lived experience and expertise to cocreate a more equitable child welfare system.

Start by Building Knowledge About Racial Equity 

The work of advancing racial equity in each jurisdiction begins internally. The first step involves assessing the level of understanding among staff (and partners, such as court staff) of the concepts and history related to racial inequities (e.g., history and prevalence of racial inequity in child welfare, understanding of concepts such as institutional racism, White privilege, implicit bias). This assessment can be conducted through conversations and other methods (e.g., staff surveys). Agencies should ensure staff are made aware of the extent of these challenges in their jurisdiction and have information on how to implement or expand on existing strategies. Child Welfare Information Gateway's bulletin Child Welfare Practice to Address Racial Disproportionality and Disparity provides information and resources to help agencies begin or continue this internal work.

It is also important to include youth and families at this stage to engage in data exploration and analysis that can help agencies better understand the particular challenges their communities face. Depending on the results, agency leaders and training staff can then decide what kind of work and supports are needed for agency staff to gain a better understanding of racial equity concepts and principles and their own implicit biases. 

Agency leaders should be fully committed to this work. Advancing racial equity is always challenging, but without full support, encouragement, and modeling from agency leaders, it has no chance of success. Once agency leaders and staff feel they've reached a good level of understanding, they need to start slowly and build a coalition or partner with an existing coalition within their communities that is committed to racial equity. 

Approach Communities With Humility and a Desire to Learn

When engaging young people and families, agencies should be "wary of the single story," that is, using the experiences and expertise of a single person as a stand-in for an entire community. While finding enough people to represent the racial and ethnic diversity of the communities served by the agency may be challenging, it is crucial that the agency make every effort to do so by reducing barriers to participation. 

It is important for agency staff working with youth and families to listen with humility and an open mind. They should be prepared for hearing new and potentially challenging information that may change their perspective and alter agency policy and practice.

If young people and families with lived expertise are reluctant to engage with the agency, ask "why" to understand the reasons. Have they had negative experiences in the past when engaging with the agency? Is the agency offering to compensate participants for their time and arranging for them to participate in multiple modalities (e.g., virtually)? Does the agency lack internal diversity, causing community members to not feel represented or "seen" by the agency? Is the agency offering to engage in a process of true power sharing and cocreation? Understanding the reasons for unwillingness to engage and trying to mitigate them can help the agency with its internal work of advancing racial equity and also begin the process of rehabilitating the agency's reputation in the communities it serves.

Engage With Young People and Family Members With Lived Experience as the Experts 

Engaging with young people and families with lived experience for the agency's racial equity efforts means valuing their expertise and treating them like experts on their communities' challenges. To partner effectively with team members with lived expertise, agency staff must be prepared to collaborate on every part of the project. For example, instead of having agency staff set preconceived meeting plans and team rules, they can work with young people and family members to cocreate meeting agendas and team charters. 

At the outset, agencies should be prepared to provide resources and support for young people and family team members that will make it easier for them to participate as equals. This includes compensating them for their time and work, offering stipends for meals and transportation (or providing them), and having a comprehensive communication plan to ensure full and active participation. Agency staff should also understand that the work of advancing racial equity may take a mental and emotional toll on participants, especially those with lived experience, and be prepared to provide support if needed (e.g., access to mental health counseling and self-care resources).

If agencies do the work of meaningfully engaging young people and family members with lived expertise in advancing racial equity in their child welfare systems and collaboratively setting real expectations and timelines for what they want to achieve, they will find that it leads to increased trust, better project ideas, smoother implementation, and better outcomes down the road.

The Capacity Building Center for States has developed the following resources that can help agencies meaningfully partner with young people and family members with lived experience in advancing racial equity in child welfare: