- December 2020
- Vol. 21, No. 9
Being Relentless for Families
Written by the Honorable Ernestine S. Gray, Orleans Parish Juvenile Court, New Orleans, LA
In trying to think about what I might say about this topic, I first decided that I needed to ensure that my discussion would be true to the topic. It seemed a good start to look again at the definition of relentless. So, I did. Relentless is defined as the following:
"oppressively constant, persistent, steady, not easing or slackening, unyieldingly severe, strict or harsh"
My preferred definition for the purpose of this topic is the first definition: "oppressively constant, persistent, steady, not easing or slackening." First, it implies movement. Second, it implies that a process has been started.
For several decades now, many have been advocating for a radical transformation of the child welfare system in America, believing the system does not serve our children and families well. The system continues to rely on foster care and the separation of children from their families (parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other kin) as the primary means of protecting them. The radical transformation that is being called for turns this notion on its head and focuses on on primary prevention and child and family well-being.
In this work, one needs to be clear about what is at stake—our motivation for being relentless. Part of the motivation can come from the following poem by Gabriela Mistral:
"Many things we need can wait. The child cannot.
Now is the time is bones are being formed, his mind developed.
To him we cannot say tomorrow, his name is today."
The other part of the motivation comes from recognizing the importance of family as proclaimed in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
"Convinced that the family, as the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members and particularly children, should be afforded the necessary protection and assistance so that it can fully assume its responsibility within the community."
A culture must be created that no matter what year, month, week, or day; whether north, south, east, or west; whether Democrat or Republican; or no matter what ethnicity, the health, safety, and well-being of children is universally considered as the highest priority. We must develop a blueprint for the field that no matter who picks it up the ideals and principles are maintained.
No doubt, the child welfare system is large and complex. However, we must find ways to develop a more unified approach to reforming the child welfare system by bringing together all the different perspectives.
Going forward, here are seven strategies that individuals (federal agencies, state administrators, supervisors and frontline workers, judges, lawyers, and court-appointed special advocates) need to be relentless about:
- Preventing maltreatment so children don't need to enter foster care. The Family First Prevention Services Act is an important step but cannot be the only focus.
- Building strong communities.
- Educating the public.
- Addressing the trauma children have experienced.
- Strengthening families, including relatives, so when necessary children are kept in the system with their parents.
- Eliminating disproportionality and disparate outcomes.
- Supporting judges, lawyers, and caseworkers.
We must be relentless in our belief that all families deserve an opportunity to achieve a better life. We must tell them that there is a better life for them and give them hope that they can achieve it. A critical tenet is recognizing that the individuals in the families that come to the attention of the child welfare system are first and foremost human beings just like all of us who work in the system. And as human beings, they deserve the same respect and consideration that we would want if we, too, had the unfortunate circumstance of being referred to the child welfare agency. We should treat the children and families like we would want to be treated and should be relentless in our efforts to ensure that every other agency/partner does so as well.
Being relentless requires being oppressively constant, persistent, steady, not easing or slackening. It means not giving up but holding fast to your beliefs. It's not being afraid of criticism or failure.
It is my sincere hope that we will be relentless in holding the line on the progress that has been made in the last years and continue to look for strategies that will bring bigger reforms to the child welfare system.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said it this way, "Fight for things you believe in in a way that would encourage others to join you."