• August/September 2020
  • Vol. 21, No. 6

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We Must Meet the Moment in Child Welfare

Written by Jerry Milner and David Kelly

There are moments in history when society and its leaders are forced to see, think, and act differently—times when facts and conditions cannot be dismissed or denied credibly and moments when clarity about the need for change is ubiquitous.

We are in such a moment in child welfare.

We have too easily accepted the shortcomings and bleak outcomes of our child welfare system for decades. The inequity present in our system is so familiar that it is expected. Most leaders can recite the headline statistics. Black, Brown, or Native children and youth can be up to two or three times more likely to enter foster care. We too often fall short of meeting the most basic benchmarks of safety, well-being, and permanency for the children that are separated from their families. A small city's worth of young people leave foster care every year essentially to life on their own, without the supports and long-term connections with caring adults that dramatically improve the odds of health, stability, and success.

We know that the overwhelming majority of children in foster care are from poor families and that 60 percent of all children in foster care are separated from their families due to neglect alone, not abuse.

And, of course, we know there are deep associations between conditions of poverty, health inequities, trauma, opportunity gaps, and neglect, especially for families and communities of color. Any honest accounting of history reveals how deep-seeded such inequities are, and many of their sources.

Professionals from public health and medicine recognize that we are too often focused on treating symptoms—after they have developed. That approach too often fails to address the root causes, let alone the risk factors, of child maltreatment.

Our message is simple. States and tribes must be permitted to use federal funds more flexibly to strengthen families and promote well-being, safety, and opportunity for all children and families. 

We should not wait for harsh life conditions and imperfect systems to degrade parents' capacities and then deliver the blow of removing their children. If we commit to helping families thrive before child welfare is needed, and focus resources on child and family well-being, there is greater hope for families to realize their potential.

We must have the moral courage to do right by families.

Nevertheless, the standard response  has been to improve the system at the margin, searching for services, tools, practices, or combination thereof that—if done well enough—will improve certain outcomes for some families. These efforts are helpful, as far as they go. But they can easily ignore the larger issues.

The fact is that we continue to spend far more, by orders of magnitude, in responding to familial situations that have deteriorated to such a degree that child safety is at risk, and forcing families apart, than we do in proactively strengthening vulnerable families and helping them stay safely together, in part by providing our dedicated workforce with the tools and resources they need to prevent trauma.

There remains a steadfast attachment to the existing way of operating. But it is time for a different approach. The costs of inaction are too high.

We have been calling for a fundamentally re-envisioned approach to keeping children safe, families together, and promoting equity for over 3 years at the Children's Bureau. We have been calling for an approach that will invest at least as much in proactively strengthening families as it does in taking them apart, one that helps families before children are at imminent risk of separation. The Family First Prevention Services Act was a meaningful move in the right direction, but prevention must start even earlier.

We are calling for an approach that demonstrates that families matter, especially poor families and families of color.

The pandemic and calls for racial justice have brought all of the issues we struggle with as a field into a clear and powerful light. It cannot be unseen. Public child welfare leaders across political parties and private, faith-based, and philanthropic sectors agree that we must change our course now.

The insight gained and lessons from our shared experiences in vulnerability and the inequities that have now become so pronounced call us to action.

We have a shared urgency.

The chorus calling for change has never been stronger or more unified. Incrementalism of the kind we typically see is insufficiently bold to address the traumas we witness.

Meeting the moment requires more.

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