• December 2019/January 2020
  • Vol. 20, No. 10

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Reckoning With History and Building a New Future: Reflections on Race, Immigration and Poverty in Child Welfare

Written by Kaylene Quinones, M.S.W., cofounder, The Bravehearts, and coordinator, BraveLife Intervention at The Children's Village;
David Collins, L.S.M.W., chief program officer, The Children's Village; and Jeremy Christopher Kohomban, Ph.D., president and chief executive officer, The Children's Village

In the May 2019 CBX spotlight, Julia Jean-Francois, codirector, Center for Family Life in Sunset Park, New York, noted that "children who enter the foster care system should not undergo the secondary trauma that results from being uprooted from their homes, neighborhoods, schools, play spaces and friends, pediatricians, and all that is familiar and stabilizing about their lives."

We agree. The pioneering work of the Center for Family Life inspired many and gave birth to the prevention and primary prevention concepts. Building on the example of the Center for Family Life, The Children's Village spent the last 15 years rethinking our role in family separation and the vilification of poor communities.

The history of family separation in the United States is inextricably linked to race, immigration, and poverty. The Children's Village has been part of that history since it was founded as the New York Juvenile Asylum in 1851 to serve children lawfully removed from community and family. This represented the first documented instance of mandated residential care for children. From 1854 to 1923, The Children's Village, working with two other prominent charities, established and operated the Orphan Train, a movement that transported over 200,000 children from eastern cities to the Midwest, where they were indentured to work and live among rural families. The Children's Village model of child removal and residential care also influenced the American Indian boarding schools of the late 19th century.

In the second half of the 20th century, enduring perceptions of poor families as inept, morally deficient, and dangerous to their own children went on to drive the growth of public child welfare and foster care systems. Research on those systems consistently points to poverty as correlated to neglect and abuse. However, in 2017, almost 75 percent of child maltreatment reports were for neglect, and the majority of children who come into foster care do so solely on that basis. We must understand, then, that while neglect and maltreatment are real phenomena that can and do harm vulnerable children, their definition is socially constructed based on a legacy of systemic racism and disproportionately enforced in poor and marginalized communities. Compounding the problem, public child welfare systems have historically been willing to invest almost exclusively in child removal, often spending far more to needlessly separate families than it would cost to safely support the child in the family home. Based on this history, we know that increased surveillance, disinvestment, and exclusion are not the solution.

While the long-term solution to poverty is beyond the scope of any one organization, it is clear to us that we have an important role to play in creating a new history and a new relationship between The Children's Village and the communities we serve. Our focus today is to give children those things that we want for ourselves and work hard to provide for our own children and those we love. This is called giving children things that are permanent. 

All children need at least one adult who loves them implicitly and unconditionally. Government and charities can never take the place of family and should never claim that they can. For most children involved with child protective services, that person is one or both of their parents or another person in their family of origin, and it is our job to support and strengthen that bond, not tear it apart. We know that poor families love their children. When we needlessly separate children from families, we cause lifelong hurt to the family and the child. When we remove children from their communities, we are also perpetuating the historical narrative that describes poor communities as incapable of caring for their own.

We strive to create safe and beautiful places and spaces. Most families touched by the child welfare system live in neighborhoods characterized by years of disinvestment, low-quality infrastructure, a lack of safe public spaces, and failing schools. In addition, most government and charitable services that cater to the poor also look and feel poor, with beauty and customer service relegated to a distant second or third priority. We have worked with community partners to develop beautiful high-quality, permanently affordable housing in Harlem, including two floors of apartments reserved for youth leaving the foster care system. We know that affordability and beauty can be achieved and should not be denied.

We work to create and support economic mobility. Affordable housing is one key ingredient; youth and families who have a safe and stable living arrangement are more likely to make strides in other areas of their lives. We also provide education and employment programming in our community offices, including free college courses in partnership with Bard College, in addition to job readiness, afterschool, family planning, and mentoring programs for teens.

We value and include people with lived experience in our organization. This means providing meaningful full-time employment and leadership opportunities, not just a seat at the table. It also means that we must be open and attentive to critiques of our practices and structures, engage productively with the tension that comes from empowering different perspectives, and recognize the unique abilities of credible messengers to engage clients, develop trust, and support lasting change. The Children's Village was one of the first organizations to hire full-time parent advocates within our foster care program in 2005. We are proud to count graduates of the Institute for Transformative Mentoring among our staff mentors and to partner with the Bravehearts, an authentically youth-led organization that advocates for young people touched by foster care and juvenile justice.

We are present in the communities we serve. Historically, though most children in our care came from New York City, all our activities were concentrated on our residential campus in suburban Westchester. That distance only reinforced negative stereotypes about the families and communities that our children call home. We cannot support and empower families if we are afraid to visit them in their homes or walk down their block. Today, we have program offices in the Bronx, Harlem, and Queens, in addition to a variety of community centers, school-based initiatives, and voluntary home-based services for families that go beyond child welfare. The closer we get to these communities and people, the less dangerous and damaged they seem and the more often we see the love and tenderness they have for each other and their children.

It takes time, commitment, leadership, and courage to understand and implement these principles. Doing so also requires us to renounce our posture of expertise; listen to youth, families, and advocates; constantly update our thinking; and partner with the public sector to take risks. Change is not a linear process; at times we stumble, fall back on old thinking, or miss the mark. Nevertheless, we know first-hand that change is possible and that reckoning clearly with the past is the only way to move forward. Doing so also requires us to think critically about how concepts of neglect and maltreatment are socially constructed and differentially enforced and move away from a lens of deficit and dysfunction. Only then can we start to lift up the inherent dignity and value in every person, family, and community and support them in their desire to care for one another and build a better future.

 

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