• October 2020
  • Vol. 21, No. 7

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Creating the Child and Youth Well-Being System We Believe In

Written by Sandra Gasca-Gonzalez, vice president of the Center for Systems Innovation at the Annie E. Casey Foundation   

Every few days, I ask myself, colleagues, and others around me, "Are we creating the world we believe in, or the world we are used to?"

This was a central question a speaker recently put to attendees at the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Activating Youth Engagement Summit. Teams of creative and committed teens and young adults, over 100 strong, both currently in the child welfare system and affected by the system at some point in their lives, met virtually for 2 days. Through all of their meetings and ideas about how to improve outcomes for children and families, it became clear that the answer was literally right in front of us: We can do better by young people and families by listening to them, believing in them, working with them, and investing in the resources they need to support each other.

In short, we need to flip the way we've been investing our resources and put families, children, and young people at the center and align our efforts to help keep them together, strong and healthy, in their communities.

That's why the Annie E. Casey Foundation is joining the U.S. Children's Bureau, Casey Family Programs, and Prevent Child Abuse America in a national effort to prove it is possible to fundamentally rethink child welfare. This first-of-its-kind effort—Thriving Families, Safer Children: A National Commitment to Well-Being—will work across the public, private, and philanthropic sectors to help develop more just and equitable systems that benefit all children and families and break harmful intergenerational cycles of trauma and poverty. Beginning with four select jurisdictions, Thriving Families will help these jurisdictions move from systems that are reactionary to systems designed to provide proactive support that keeps families together and prevent child maltreatment and unnecessary family separation.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation brings a long history of working with systems to this effort because we believe that if we target solutions to those who are experiencing some of the greatest inequities and challenges, we will likely find solutions that improve outcomes for everyone. We also understand that the child welfare system was never really designed for the young people who find themselves in it as teenagers, especially young people of color. As a result, these young people are likely to spend their very first night in the child welfare system in a group placement, far from the experience of growing up with a family, which research shows is central to well-being.

Over and over, young leaders are demanding a say in the decision-making processes that most affect their lives. The promise in our work lies in sharing power with parents, young people, and communities to build an equitable child and family well-being system. Leaders working in child welfare collectively need to get comfortable with shifting power to families, young people, and communities to create a way forward that allows the people we serve to get what they most need—not just what we have to offer.

Creating new systems based on prevention and support services, along with needed cultural and structural changes, will take more than changing a mission statement or name from child WELfare to child WELL-being.

Over these many years, we have spoken to thousands of young people, particularly those facing significant obstacles to success, about what would help them achieve the future they would like to see and could believe in. What we heard from them does not point to one program, resource, system, or policy. Their needs are holistic and require comprehensive solutions for them and their parents early on at the front end before any trauma or crisis condition develops.

We need to ask young people, "What does primary prevention look like for them?" Youth leaders are telling us that preventing abuse, neglect, and unnecessary out-of-home placements are critical for a child welfare system. But child and youth well-being systems need to be as comprehensive as their mission suggests. They need to focus on opportunities and equity that fuel what all families and young people deserve—the ability to thrive in their communities—while incorporating a broad array of primary prevention strategies to make sure young people graduate from high school; put off parenting until they are ready; and avoid the harms of drug addiction, gun violence, police brutality, and homelessness. A true child and youth well-being system faces racism head on and works actively to dismantle it.

As we reinvent and redesign, we need to redistribute power in ways that enable young people to determine the future of child, youth, and family well-being systems along with the power to determine their future by being in control of important life decisions.

There is one good thing about the pandemic we are living with today—it has changed the world we are used to and upended our notions of what is possible. It's time to create the world we believe in.

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