• October 2020
  • Vol. 21, No. 7

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The Time Is Now for a New Path Forward

Written by David Sanders, Ph.D., executive vice president of Systems Improvement, Casey Family Programs

Now is the time for those of us in the field of child welfare to challenge the status quo of policies, practices, and funding that have for decades limited our horizons and too often failed to achieve the basic goals of safety and healthy life outcomes that all children and families deserve.

The sudden and unprecedented health and economic challenges wrought by COVID-19 have brought into sharp relief the long-standing and inequitable challenges far too many children and families must overcome every day in underserved and marginalized communities. The police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota and the death of 16-year-old Cornelius Fredericks in a residential youth facility in Michigan have led to a long-overdue reckoning of the role that systemic and institutionalized racism plays not only in holding back those same children and families from sharing in the promise of our nation but whether they are even allowed to survive at all.  

We can no longer rely on the old way of doing business when it comes to the health and safety of our children and families. We must seize this moment in our history to support communities in designing and building new, inclusive, equitable, and more effective networks and partnerships that will prevent the trauma of maltreatment before it occurs and ensure that all children and families have access to the opportunities and supports they need to thrive.

This is why Casey Family Programs is partnering with the Children's Bureau, Prevent Child Abuse America, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation to launch Thriving Families, Safer Children: A National Commitment to Well-Being.

We are committed to combining the experience, knowledge, and resources of the many national, tribal, state, and local partners working to improve child and family well-being with the wisdom and perspectives of those who have experienced child protection systems firsthand. Thriving Families, Safer Children will help communities in forging the partnerships, policies, and practices necessary for primary prevention strategies that reduce child abuse and neglect from occurring in the first place while creating the supports and opportunities that all families need to reach their full potential.

Child protection systems should be proud of progress already made, such as safely reducing the number of children and youth in foster care, including congregate care. However, what we know works does not consistently align with what we do.

Too often, we see children separated from their families; placed in multiple foster or group homes; left to languish in state office buildings while workers search for foster families; abused while in care; and aged out of the system without a high school diploma, permanent family, or place to live. Yet, most children who leave foster care return safely to their families. We need to ask ourselves much earlier whether government intervention will actually be better for children and modify the decisions that separate families based on whether the government has something better to offer.

We need to acknowledge that child and family well-being is not solely the responsibility of the child protection agency. Public systems' responsibilities include public health, mental health, early childhood, substance use treatment, housing, and education. Child protection is only one of the public systems responsible for child well-being, and in each community the community-based supports are also significant contributors.

Those with lived experience and expertise are essential partners in developing this new path forward. With this necessary perspective as an equal voice, equity and community health and well-being will be prioritized. This effort, led by community members themselves, will feel, look, and be very different. Yet it will lead to a system that is truly focused on well-being and strengthening families before they come to the attention of child protection agencies.

Thriving Families, Safer Children provides a space and intention to cultivate those partnerships across government, community, constituencies, and other sectors. Alongside that, the Family First Prevention Services Act and the related Family First Transition Act are important tools for prevention and creating a new child and family well-being system.

To see how communities are already responding in new and innovative ways to today's challenges, I encourage you to read our just-published special report, Building Communities of Hope: Creating a Better Future for Children and Families in a Time of Crisis. The stories show that change is not only possible, but it is already taking place.

The urgent need to overcome the barriers to systemic and long-lasting change are personal for me. Prior to joining Casey Family Programs, I led child welfare systems that include the cities of Minneapolis and Los Angeles. I have watched with sadness, pain, and horror the events of the last several months and recognized the same underlying problems that I and many others struggled to address.

Today, it is clearer than ever to me that we must fundamentally change how we work—and with whom we work—to achieve our shared goal of child and family well-being. I believe we have within our grasp the knowledge; experience; and, most importantly, commitment across the public, private, philanthropic, and nonprofit and faith-based sectors to help community members develop truly effective and sustainable solutions to ensure that every child is safe and every family thrives.

Please join us in building this new path forward. Now, more than ever, we have no time to lose.  

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