• November 2020
  • Vol. 21, No. 8

Printer-Friendly version of article

Apoyamos a las familias (We Support Families)

Written by David Kelly and Jerry Milner

"Family is essential," a mother who had experienced the removal of and successful reunification with her children told us recently. It was as poignant and profound a statement that can be made on a very complex concept—family. It was said with unwavering resolve and accompanied by tears. She was able to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles—most not of her making—because there was nothing more important to her.

We have heard this sentiment clearly communicated in more than one language. It is a feeling and experience that transcends culture and country of origin, a human experience and truth that is known through living.

"You're part of my family," a young adult recently said to me. He grew up in foster care, and although we are not biologically related, we will no doubt have a lifelong connection. He could not have said anything more meaningful or telling. 

Most of us will not know what it is like to not be a part of a family or to lose an entire family. Most of us will only experience family in the most traditional sense—the parents we were born to and the siblings we were raised with. And, perhaps because of that experience, many of us attach labels to family configurations that don't strictly meet those criteria, such as adoptive family, fictive kin, and relational permanency. 

When we go to great lengths to name, categorize, and parse out aspects of the relationships we all need for sustenance and connection, it underscores the fact that family really is essential, regardless of the form in which it comes to us.

The preservation, and sometimes the creation, of family is a primal responsibility in the field of child welfare. Our first obligation is indeed to help children remain safely within the families into which they were born, even when that path seems daunting. And, when that is not possible, our obligation is to ensure that one of the most fundamental needs that we all share—the need for belonging—is met in other ways.

Within the Children's Bureau, our priorities have been (1) preventing the maltreatment of children and the need for family separation and (2) focusing efforts on finding families, often through adoption, for those children who must be separated from their families and cannot return. The concept of family brings both priorities into clarity and guides our motion.

Adoption can be a happy or sad thing depending on one's perspective. Most often it's likely a combination of both. For children and young people who are truly without a family or for whom family or kin simply are unable to care for them, it is of course a positive and often joyful beginning. But one beginning requires an ending—the dissolution of the child's first family.  Such dichotomous choices may serve systems more than families and youth. 

All children and young people deserve and are inherently worthy of love, connection, and a lifetime of familial support. The legal relationship made possible through adoption is a critical option or choice in the permanency continuum that can and does change lives. Yet, we should at all times be mindful and actively reflect on how we arrive at the moment or set of circumstances where ending an existing family is necessary.

The stories of orphans that drove images and ideas of adoption through much of our past are far less common in modernity, and orphanages, thankfully, are a thing of the past in the United States. In more recent times in public child welfare—with the passage of laws that place short time limits on efforts to help families regain custody of their children—we have created more legal orphans than children entering care without living parents. The underlying philosophies behind such laws placed value in getting tough on parents facing difficulties and has disproportionately affected poor parents, Black parents, and Native parents. We have fed a culture of blame. 

This should give us considerable pause.

We have effectively tied parenting and family relationships to a calendar, and in so doing, one of the most sacred life experiences and purposes a human being can serve has been placed on a timer.

On an annual basis, we also send approximately 20,000 young people exiting foster care out to live on their own. Far too often, these young people leave our care without the connections and support we have promised and that they need and deserve.

During this time of reckoning, veils are being lifted and society is becoming increasingly aware of barriers to equity and the impact of laws that may appear neutral on their surface but cause harmful consequences. Child welfare legislation should not escape scrutiny.

The ability of government to end a family is a profound power, rivaled only perhaps by life imprisonment or the death penalty. We must treat it that seriously. The fact that it is overwhelmingly poor families that we end should greatly startle our collective conscience.

Given this reality, we should pay thoughtful attention to the design and impact of our laws—old and new—to determine if they represent the knowledge we have about what families and children need to thrive and when they need it. Will a law create or increase disparity, or ameliorate and prevent it? Is it consistent with our values to only provide support in times of crisis? Is it enough to provide only what we have available as opposed to what a family may truly need? What does it say about us that we so often fail to ask families what they need?

To be all in for families requires so much more than we've historically done.

Before terminating parental rights to start a new family, we must be able to say we went all in on preventing the need to do so.

Did we do all that we can or could? Were our efforts to keep this family together truly reasonable? By whose standard? Were they reasonable in terms of what is convenient for our system, or were they reasonable from the perspective of a parent who stands to lose a child and is confronting difficult life circumstances and adversity?

Being all in for families requires us to walk alongside them. It requires us to see families as worthy of investment. It requires us to remain compassionate, understanding, and supportive instead of keeping score, to nurture resiliency rather than erode it. 

Being all in for families does not mean disregarding safety or leaving children in danger. It means doing everything we can to support families with the goal of preventing danger from arising in the first place. Should danger arise, being all in for families requires us to do all we can to remove the danger and not the child.

Being all in for families means that we celebrate unification—families staying together—and reunification, loudly. Being all in for families requires recognition that families can look different ways, and that no matter their composition it is love that binds them together.

Being all in for families means celebrating and supporting families brought together through adoption, too. If we are truly all in for families, we can be content knowing we did all we could to keep first families intact.

And, when neither unification nor adoption seem to offer a young person the family they need, we have an obligation and opportunity to help them create networks of relationships that will support them.

Relationships that will demonstrate our understanding that "la familia es esencial."

Family is essential.

Relationships that will allow other lucky people to hear, "eres parte de mi familia."

You are part of my family.

Las familias merecen estar unidas.

Families deserve to be together.

Las familias pertenecen unidas.

Families belong together.

Next Article  >