August/September 2020 | Vol. 21, No. 6
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.
Section: The Moment Is Now
Written by Vivek S. Sankaran, clinical professor of law, University of Michigan Law School
One of my first cases representing children in foster care involved an 11-year-old boy whose aunt had called child protective services (CPS) asking for help to address his challenging behaviors in her home. But rather than supporting the family, CPS deemed my client a risk to the aunt's other children and immediately placed him in foster care, where he remained for years. I remember driving him around in my car, from one placement to another. I learned quickly he was always more willing to open up on a full stomach, so the smell of greasy fries from McDonald's would fill my car. After a few fries, he'd give me the biggest smile and even crack a few jokes.
But as the years went by, he began to decompensate. He bounced from one group home to another. He grew angry and resentful and became disconnected from his family, who stopped visiting. He eventually aged out of foster care and became homeless.
But he did not remain homeless for long. A short time after he exited foster care, he was arrested for murder. Now, he sits in prison serving a 40-year sentence. Not a day goes by without me thinking about his case and that initial response by CPS to his aunt's phone call. What if the system had responded by offering her meaningful support? What if a social worker had worked with the family to develop a safety plan? What if a therapist had worked with my client to address the years of abuse and other trauma he had suffered? What if a lawyer had ensured my client was receiving the right services in school? If these things had occurred, would the little boy with an infectious smile who enjoyed fries in the back of my car be spending the rest of his life in a prison cell?
Both the pandemic and cries for racial justice have given many of us a chance to reflect about the work we have been engaged in for years. Both have forced us to confront injustices that we have long tolerated despite knowing their harm to families. We have tolerated a system that spends 10 times more to support strangers caring for children than to support the child's own family. We have tolerated a system in which more than half of all Black children will experience a traumatic investigation by CPS by the age of 18. We have tolerated a system that takes away Black and Brown children at a disproportionately high rate compared with White children and is then reluctant to send them home.
Rather than mourn these outcomes as tragedies, we have remained agnostic to them, claiming they are beyond our reach. When a case enters the juvenile court, we proceed without recognizing the oppressive policies that contributed to the family's instability. We impose strict time limits on reunification even when we know that decades of systemic racism played a role in the family's predicament. We celebrate the destruction of families despite acknowledging that families in our system never got the support they deserve, both before and after they became involved with child welfare.
We have all been complicit in allowing these injustices to persist. I have been part of the problem.
But now we have a choice. Do we continue to close our eyes and blindly proceed in a broken system? Or is this our moment of obligation, a time in which we feel compelled to start fighting for a new system that supports and not supplants families; heals rather than fractures; listens rather than fixes; allows families, and not professionals or volunteers, to define what they need to raise their children; and substitutes compassion for judgment?
Is this our time to replace foster care with a family compassion system?
The family compassion system recognizes several truths. First, a system that serves families must be designed by the families it intends to serve. Parents, youth, kin, and community members must lead the effort to redesign foster care.
Second, the system must recognize that healing takes time and should resist imposing arbitrary time limits in the name of securing legal permanency for a child. Children yearn to keep the meaningful relationships in their lives rather than have them severed just so we can claim to have achieved legal permanency.
Third, the system must nurture those relationships. Meaningful relationships—based on mutual respect, kinship, and dignity—are what enables any of us to overcome the barriers in our lives. Radical compassion that honors these relationships is the defining feature of this system.
Fourth, the system understands that it has not earned the right to substitute its own judgment for what is best for someone else's child. Its legal framework reflects only objective questions of child safety and, in turn, rids itself of any invitation to invite discretion and substitute judgment into the calculus of whether a child can remain with their family.
Finally, the family compassion system is funded in a way consistent with these truths. Funding cannot be linked to separating children from their parents and placing them into foster care. Rather, the family compassion system allows for flexible funding to address the concrete needs of families, such as child care, housing, and health care, so that kids can remain safely with their families.
I can't do anything to help my former client sitting in a Maryland prison cell. That is a mistake that will always haunt me. I hope it haunts every other professional that, like me, was charged with advocating on his behalf. We did not protect him, and we likely damaged him even more with our complicity.
But I have made my choice. I choose to be a part of the movement to replace our flawed approach to foster care with a reimagined family compassion system.
Section: The Moment Is Now
Written by Patrick W. Lawler, chief executive officer, Youth Villages
As 2020 began, many advocates for significant change in child welfare systems were encouraged. Passage of the Family First Prevention Services Act in 2018 had brought the first major change in federal child welfare funding in a generation. With it came the hope for a transformation in child welfare—a real shift toward valuing families and identifying and using effective services to reduce or limit the duration of out-of-home placements. Implementation had been slower than hoped, but funding was available to states to transition as more evidence-based programs and state plans were approved.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic ended business as usual for child welfare departments and private providers across the country. Now, governments at every level as well as private agencies are working together to meet the needs of children and families in new ways: contracts have become more flexible and frontline specialists are our essential workers—our heroes.
The organization I lead works on many levels—as a private provider of services; as a partner developing and sharing evidence-informed program models; as a consultant supporting state systems to improve outcomes; and as an advocate for the children, families, and young people we serve.
Although COVID-19 is an ever-changing challenge, we want to share a few early learnings from our work and what we expect going forward.
Flexibility and family focus. From our organizational experience, we know that a crisis can propel lasting change. In the midst of a state budget crisis in 1995, we gained our first state contract that included intensive in-home services. At that time, the state was only funding our residential treatment programs. We told officials we could help more children with less funding if they would give us the flexibility to also provide services in the child's own home.
We now have 141 intensive in-home services contracts across the country. Very few are performance based, and some are very restrictive. As COVID-19 caused disruptions, we were given more flexibility by state and county officials, as everyone pulled together to get services and support to families and young people. Hopefully, the spirit of collaboration and focus will stay with us after the national health emergency ends so we can put families first.
Safety and support for staff. The safety of the children, families, and young people we serve, as well as that of our staff, is always our top priority. The pandemic added layers of concern for all of us. Our residential staff are essential workers who must be on our campuses every day to meet the needs of children with serious emotional and behavioral problems. We continued to accept referrals in all our programs. To help keep staff and children safe, we obtained personal protective equipment and developed comprehensive policies and protocols. Our community-based and administrative staff began working remotely from home. As a result, we are discovering that some positions may lend themselves to long-term remote status.
Meeting basic needs. We emphasize our evidence-based therapeutic interventions, but our first priority always is to evaluate safety and simple, basic needs. As the crisis began, we surveyed our staff to find out what impact the pandemic was likely to have on the families and young adults they serve. We found a high percentage had become unemployed or were losing hours at work, resulting in housing and food insecurity. Because donations supplement our programs, we were able to immediately distribute gift cards and cash to meet the most urgent needs of young people and families. Meeting basic family needs is critical to helping children avoid unnecessary foster care placements and allowing the reunification process to continue for others.
The well-being of older youth in foster care and those transitioning to adulthood is a particular concern during the crisis, as they are more likely to be disconnected from supportive adults. Many transition-age young people did not receive a stimulus check and have had difficulty accessing unemployment benefits, which puts their housing in jeopardy. We have joined with FosterClub and hundreds of advocates to support targeted relief for these young people in the next federal stimulus package, including a supplemental increase in federal Chafee funding (#UpChafee) to meet emergency and continuing needs as young people recover from the crisis.
Technology and broadband internet access are also basic needs. Four years ago, we issued touchscreen computers to more than 1,100 community-based staff, so that they could work more efficiently in the field using our medical records system and online support tools.
The technology capacity of those we serve was a very different story. In as many as 40 percent of families, devices were unavailable and/or internet service was unreliable or absent. We began working to ensure a solid connection with those we serve. Technology questions are now included in all admission paperwork, and we take steps to get devices and internet access secured on the front end so families and young people can participate fully in digital sessions.
Telehealth now and later. Our community-based models are built on face-to-face sessions in the home and community, which became impossible because of the pandemic.
Now, we simulate face-to-face sessions with telehealth—video when possible and audio only when not. During strict lockdowns, specialists see children, families, and young people in person only when absolutely necessary (such as in a crisis situation, for safety, or when issues simply cannot be handled through telehealth). In-person sessions are generally outdoors on front porches and in driveways—with masks and social distancing enforced. On our residential campuses and children in foster homes, video allows critical virtual visits with parents as in-person meetings were canceled.
We found that some children, families, and young people engage better through digital technology than they did in person. Others do not, and frontline specialists have adapted. COVID-19 restrictions eventually will end, but we believe the use of technology to enhance children's services will be dramatically increased by lessons learned during the crisis. Here are some ideas:
Although we are now more nimble and open to change, the crisis has created new challenges.
Child protection questions. States are reporting a tremendous decline in the number of child protective services reports. By the time children go back to school this fall—if they do—they will have been at home for 6 or 7 months without the oversight that being in public places and at school provides. In this environment, it's more important than ever that each child is protected and appropriate services to preserve and restore families are provided.
Budgets under pressure. Unfortunately, we may have to face an increased demand for children's services at the exact time state budgets are under the most pressure in a decade. The economic collapse that followed the COVID-19 lockdowns has caused a decrease in tax revenue at every level of government. We will be fighting to justify programs and services that save families and give young people a successful start in life—just as many states are preparing to implement Family First.
It will be a while before we know how this upheaval has affected the performance of child welfare systems and providers across the country. Did we keep children safe? Did we give families and young people the support they needed? The numbers will eventually tell us, but I already do know the COVID-19 crisis drew us out of familiar comfort zones and forced us to work together in new ways—always putting the needs of children, families, and young people first.
Youth Villages, founded in 1986, is a national leader in children's mental and behavioral health committed to building strong families, delivering effective services and significantly improving outcomes for children, families, and young people involved in child welfare and juvenile justice systems across the country. The organization's 3,000 employees help more than 30,000 children annually in 21 states across the United States.
Section: The Moment Is Now
Written by Bryan Samuels, M.P.P., executive director, Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago
We are living in an unprecedented time: grave challenges and monumental opportunities call upon us to reexamine, rethink, and redesign our public systems. Widespread outrage in response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others has generated a groundswell of activism and a demand for change. Mobilizing this momentum and directing it toward system change will require a departure from the past as we look toward the future, leveraging the lessons of our shared history to transform the way we support families. The current unrest shines a light on inequities that have simmered for centuries. Widespread disparities and a legacy of discriminatory practices have resulted in institutionalized racism not only in child welfare but also criminal and juvenile justice, health care, education, and financial systems. Disparate rates of COVID-19 infection and unchecked police brutality are symptoms of deeper wounds, inflicted by centuries of imbalanced access to resources and fair treatment.
We now have the opportunity to change the way we structure and implement our public systems. As we consider changes to the allocation of police funding, so should we demand wiser use for over $30 billion spent annually on a child welfare system now predominantly focused on investigating reports of child maltreatment and maintaining out-of-home placements (Rosinsky & Williams, 2018). During the COVID-19 pandemic, reduced reports of maltreatment, which may be related to school closures, have raised alarms regarding potentially unseen abuse, although most reports submitted by educators (85-89 percent) are unsubstantiated (Children's Bureau, 2020b). This highlights a key choice for resourcing "child protective" services going forward. Redirecting resources to promote well-being by meeting the needs of children, families, and communities through prevention—rather than intrusive and punitive intervention—can build trust and fortify the capacity of families to provide safety and stability for their children.
Just as we are overdue in revamping our criminal justice system, we have been delinquent in acknowledging and addressing the institutionalized racism and bias that pervades our child welfare system. The systematic separation of children of color from their parents, without regard for the lasting trauma it entails, is a thread that runs through our nation's history, from slavery and Native American boarding schools to present-day child welfare practice. This has been perpetuated by the misconception we are nobly "rescuing" children from dangerous situations to their benefit, even with research suggesting that many children who spend time in foster care are more likely to experience negative outcomes than their counterparts who were not removed from their families (Doyle, 2007).
Currently, more than half (53 percent) of all Black children and their parents will experience a child abuse or neglect investigation before the child's 18th birthday (Kim et al., 2017). Black and American Indian/Alaska Native children are disproportionately represented at all stages of the child welfare system. Once in foster care, children of color experience higher rates of placement disruptions, longer times to permanency, and more frequent reentry than their White counterparts (Martin, 2015). Yet the most common allegation among their cases is neglect, which is inextricably linked to poverty.
While poverty does not cause neglect, it challenges a family's ability to care for children by restricting access to housing, health care, food, and child care. Families of color are overrepresented among poor families due to systemic conditions that have persisted for generations. Instead of investing resources in fortifying communities and reducing familial stress to prevent child maltreatment, we have built a foster care infrastructure that spends billions on removals and placements. Even our most robust policy to support families and reduce entry into foster care still requires heightened surveillance by the very system empowered to remove children from their families.
Over 260,000 children are taken each year from their families (Children's Bureau, 2019). Most will return home, but removed children are likely to spend over a year in foster care. Given the profound physical and psychological impact of separation, the return home is not itself a reasonable marker of success (Children' Bureau, 2019). Each child welfare system interaction brings an explicit or implicit threat of removal (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2014), and child welfare systems struggle to accurately identify service needs and connect children and families to the supports they need to stay safe and promote well-being (Children's Bureau, 2020a).
The disproportionate involvement and disparate treatment of Black families and people of color by child welfare and other systems is compounded by heightened exposure to chronic intergenerational trauma due to structural racism. To define and implement a well-being framework that aims to free children and families from adversity and encourage families to thrive, we must radically reconsider if and how we call the child welfare system into action (Wulczyn et al., 2018).
Our evolving understanding of the inequities and harms created by the current policy context creates an imperative for child welfare redesign that supports child and family well-being. Bold policy and legislation are needed to create and sustain a vastly different system that coordinates among multiple agencies to prevent trauma rather than create it, promote equity and social justice, and strengthen family and community capacity to ensure children are safe and thriving. To do this will require that we descale existing infrastructure and dismantle racist practices in favor of a new way to work. Some child welfare systems have dramatically reduced the number of children in foster care in favor of community-based services and transitioned to kinship rather than nonrelative placements. These are important first steps, but the task is far from complete.
Comprehensive strategies are needed to link families with financial and concrete supports before insurmountable challenges arise. Even modest financial supports have been shown to reduce child abuse and neglect (Berger et al., 2017; Raissian & Bullinger, 2017). Well-resourced community- and family-driven solutions can alleviate the need for families to fall into a patchwork of bureaucratic safety nets in order to receive supports regardless of race.
New partnerships with communities, parents, kin, and youth with lived experience will be necessary to rebalance the power dynamic and build a system that reflects the priorities and meets the needs of its constituents. We must prioritize community-based, networked, and grassroots strategies alongside evidence-informed practice and develop alternatives to traditional approaches to building evidence. Understanding the effectiveness of these interventions will be fundamental to achieving well-being outcomes for children and families and will reduce the risk that we create a new system in the image of the old.
We have seen how a 4-month pandemic can jeopardize a family's well-being by threatening not only their health but also employment, housing, wealth, and food security. For many families of color, resource deprivation has spanned generations due to structural racism. The same pandemic, however, has demonstrated how swiftly we can change when necessary. We can be unified to achieve what would have seemed lofty just weeks ago. Through this lens, our former goals, such as reducing disproportionality in child welfare, now seem insufficient without structural change. We must seize this moment as an urgent call to action. Solutions at every level are possible to shape a just and equitable society where the well-being of our children, our families, and our communities is the priority.
Berger, L. M., Font, S. A., Slack, K. S., & Waldfogel, J. (2017). Income and child maltreatment in unmarried families: Evidence from the earned income tax credit. Review of Economics of the Household, 15, 1345–1372. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11150-016-9346-9
Children's Bureau. (2019). The AFCARS report: Preliminary FY 2018 estimates as of August 22, 2019 (No. 26). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. https://www.acf.hhs.gov/cb/resource/afcars-report-26
Children's Bureau (2020a). Child and Family Services Reviews aggregate report: Round 3: Fiscal years 2015–2018. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. https://www.acf.hhs.gov/cb/resource/cfsr-aggregate-report-round3
Children's Bureau (2020b). Child maltreatment 2018. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. https://www.acf.hhs.gov/cb/resource/child-maltreatment-2018
Doyle, J. J. (2007). Child protection and child outcomes: Measuring the effects of foster care. The American Economic Review, 97, 1583–1610. https://doi.org/10.1257/aer.97.5.1583
Kim, H., Wildeman, C., Jonson-Reid, M., & Drake, B. (2017). Lifetime prevalence of investigating child maltreatment among US children. American Journal of Public Health, 107, 274–280. https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/abs/10.2105/AJPH.2016.303545
Martin, M., & Connelly, D. D. (2015). Achieving racial equity: Child welfare policy strategies to improve outcomes for children of color. Center for the Study of Social Policy. https://cssp.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/achieving-racial-equity-child-welfare-policy-strategies-improve-outcomes-children-color.pdf
Raissian, K. M., & Bullinger, L. R. (2017). Money matters: Does the minimum wage affect child maltreatment rates? Children and Youth Services Review, 72, 60–70. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2016.09.033
Rosinsky, K., & Williams, S. C. (2017). Child welfare financing SFY 2016: A survey of federal, state, and local expenditures. Child Trends. https://www.childtrends.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/CWFSReportSFY2016_ChildTrends_December2018.pdf
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Trauma and Justice Strategic Initiative. (2014). SAMHSA's concept of trauma and guidance for a trauma-informed approach. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://ncsacw.samhsa.gov/userfiles/files/SAMHSA_Trauma.pdf
Wulczyn, F., Parolini, A., & Huhr, S. (2018). Human capital, child well-being, and child protection. Center for State Child Welfare Data. https://fcda.chapinhall.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Human-Capital-and-Child-Protection.pdf
Section: The Moment Is Now
Written by Dr. Amelia Franck Meyer, chief executive officer, Alia
We no longer need to make the case that dramatic change is needed in child welfare. There is no compelling evidence to continue separating families and placing children with strangers or in institutions. We now know the current system of family separation was built on a set of false assumptions—that "rescuing" Black, Brown, indigenous, or poor White children from their families and placing them with Whiter or richer families provides them a "better" life—and has not, by any measure, produced the desired outcomes. Rather than listing the litany of ways the system has failed children and their families and making a compelling case that the cure has become worse than the disease, let's focus on building a new way, together.
Our new way of work does not yet have a name. Some call it the "family-strengthening system," "family well-being system," etc. What we know is that it is not the current system. So, at Alia, we call this mindset that supports and strengthens families an "UnSystem"—in other words, not the current system. We know a new way of work that keeps children safely with their families will eventually have a commonly agreed-upon name. We also know we have come to the end of what our talking, "task forcing," and work planning can do. Instead, we must start codesigning what we do next with families and those with lived experience in child welfare. It's time to try new things to further our learning.
In May 2017, to define this new way of work, Alia partnered with the human-centered design firm IDEO and 100 innovators in child welfare representing various areas of expertise to host the Ten of Ten for Kids, a 4-day child welfare system redesign event. For this event, half of the 100 designers were from underrepresented groups, and a third had lived experience. After coding what was in common across the 30 different prototypes of what we might do differently, it was clear the wrong design question was asked. Instead of asking "How might we develop a better child welfare system?" we should have asked, "When families struggle—as all families do—how might we keep families safely together?" Because the truth is, when it works well, the perfect child welfare system already exists; it's called "the family." The 100 designers created a collection of ideas (hallmarks of an UnSystem) that would help strengthen families, including ideas such as value and build—rather than disconnect—family ties; build supportive, consistent connections; put the whole family at the center; use local, culturally specific resources delivered immediately; focus on building resilience, joy, well-being, and health; engage natural supports; and ensure responses are family driven.
Additionally, the guidance of the 100 designers gave birth to the following seven guiding principles: (1) protect relational connections as sacred; (2) nurture the capacity for joy; (3) insist on racial equity and radical inclusion; (4) dare to share power; (5) commit to intergenerational well-being; (6) trust the wisdom of children and families to design their own futures; and (7) do what love would do—in other words, if you aren't sure what to do, do what you'd do for someone you love. However great these ideas were, though, they were just that—ideas. That was the case until 14 counties in four states (North Dakota, Wisconsin, Maryland, and Iowa) agreed to form the UnSystem Innovation Cohort and put these ideas into practice to build a proof of concept that public child welfare agencies can become primary prevention agencies. Over the past 2 years, leaders and deputies from these 14 counties, along with lived-experience guides and professional guides, shifted mindsets and practice. Over 1 year, these shifts resulted in a 12-percent average reduction in foster care placements and a 37-percent average reduction in residential placements across the cohort.
The following are the top five lessons learned:
A key learning from the cohort is that if you change a few things, no one will bother you much; however, there can be a dear price to pay if you begin to move the system in substantial ways. The backlash of change can come from many places, and it's essential for leaders to build connections, communication, codesigning, and community at all points in the change process. As a transformation effort is underway, change leaders can create understanding through communicating the "why" of the process, telling the data story, and sharing the human story. The specifics and details of the innovation cohort can be found in the Cohort Year One Report, released in the spring of 2020, which contains a special section called "Guidance for Leaders" that discusses the change process. The Cohort Year One Report, a research brief titled Evidence Base for Avoiding Family Separation, a report titled The Unseen Costs of Foster Care: A Social Return on Investment Study, and other resources are also available on the resources webpage of the Alia website.
The key to moving forward in transforming the current child welfare system into a new way of work that keeps children safely with their families is requiring systems to work together and in partnership with families and communities. Transformation is a goal too massive for any one person, organization, or system to do alone. True change will come when we work together to create the community conditions where all people, especially children and their families, can thrive. We don't need to know exactly what to do to begin, and it's not up to professionals or systems to figure this out by ourselves. We just need to take the lead from families—who know better than anyone else what their needs are—and start "doing." Helping families to safely raise their own children is the key. Hero-based rescuing and removing and out-of-family placement must end. We simply know better; now let's do better.
Section: The Moment Is Now
Written by parents from the Birth Parent National Network
Now is the time to develop a strong and widely available community-based approach that promotes family well-being. As members of the Children's Trust Fund Alliance's Birth Parent National Network (BPNN), we are sharing our perspectives as parents on (1) what changes need to occur to create a strong community-based family strengthening approach; (2) why we need to make this change; and (3) how this approach will help children and families.
According to Kimberly Mays, a parent with lived experience with the child welfare system, "As parents, the hardest thing in the world to face is not being able to meet the needs of our children and having to ask for help. We go back and forth in our thinking—should I pick up the phone and ask for help? Will you judge me for asking? Are you going to call child protective services? All we want to do is provide for our children." Kimberly Mays lost custody of 9 of her 10 children, and they have now all reunited with her as adults. Kimberly has a master's degree in public administration and helped start the first parent partner program in Washington state.
Across the country, we already have some established community-developed prevention programs that strengthen and support families. These programs reduce the need for child welfare to remove children from their parents and communities. We need to greatly expand these effective strategies with dedicated funding. Below are some key components of this approach:
The current system too often fails to identify the strengths and needs of families it is intended to serve. Below are key reasons we must develop a broader family well-being, community-based approach:
Additionally, as stated by April Lee, a BPNN parent advocate from Pennsylvania, "The Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) puts parents on a time clock that starts as soon as the state takes custody. After 15 months, you risk losing your child forever. This law results in permanently separating families who are disproportionately Black and Brown. The presumption that adoption is the solution when a family cannot reunify quickly is short sighted, especially when foster care is financially incentivized by the government and reunification of family is not….ASFA needs to be abolished because it prioritizes permanently destroying family relations when other more family-friendly options, like legal guardianship, are available."
This new strengths-based approach to families and communities will cultivate creative solutions to build resiliency, well-being, and healing for generations. Some benefits include the following:
Alise Morrissey, a BPNN parent advocate in Washington, noted, "It is the kindness and compassion from people who saw in me what I could not see in myself. This is the power of peer mentors, of amazing parent attorneys, social workers, community agencies, and of every professional who is excited to partner with families to be the best they can be. My three children will never have to experience the pain I did because the cycle stops here…."
Action is urgently needed. Strong families are essential to strong communities. Please join us now to ensure communities have the capacity to support safe, strong, and resilient families.
Child Welfare Capacity Building Center for Courts. (2020). Outcome evaluation report for Washington state's Parents for Parents program. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children's Bureau. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/56b0d6d4e707eb68892b71c1/t/5e1d001e44a61407bc11f187/1578958880190/P4POutcomesReport.pdf
Section: The Moment Is Now
Written by Teresa Rafael, M.S.W., executive director, Children's Trust Fund Alliance
At the Children's Trust Fund Alliance, we help parents and communities provide a quality childhood and a strong start for children. Recent events have challenged us to think more deeply and move swiftly to meet unprecedented challenges.
The COVID-19 pandemic shows how suddenly lives can change. The pandemic uncovered serious problems already facing many families—racial and social injustice; serious and constant economic challenges; lack of access to needed resources, such as health care and food; gaps in access to technology; and other concerns. In the past few months, we have seen innovative strategies to meet those challenges being implemented by children's trust funds, prevention and family support programs, schools, courts, child welfare systems, and others.
The Black Lives Matter movement and videos documenting police brutality have also raised awareness of the vastly different life experiences of people across the United States. We are all more aware of historical and structural oppression faced by generations of Black Americans. For years, we have known about the disproportionality of Black children and youth in the foster care system. It is time to address these disparities without delay.
Just as there have been breakthroughs in technology and medicine, we know a great deal about what helps strengthen families so children can thrive. We have a better understanding about the risks of adverse childhood experiences and the impact of community conditions on families. We also know the importance of protective factors for families, the power of partnering with parents, and the importance of working across the social ecology to support families.
This knowledge shows us the best way to serve children is to help their parents provide them with a safe and nurturing home. Permanency within the child's own family is the primary goal. For many years, there has been a debate about whose rights take precedence—the child's or the parents'. We know now those rights are intertwined. Parents have a right to do the best they can for their children, and children have a right to be with parents who are supported in the context of a caring community.
A recent Alliance a relationship-building guide quotes Kodi, a foster care alum, "I didn't want the system to save me FROM my parents; I wanted the system to help my parents FOR me." Yet, our current system expends most of its resources on protecting children from their families rather than supporting their families.
We must work together to implement a collective vision to help every family in this country be as strong as possible and work with our communities to provide safe, stable, and nurturing homes for families. Achieving this vision requires the committed engagement of policymakers, service providers, parent partners, and leaders in all systems that touch the lives of families. A better normal for our future would include the following:
We have the beginnings of a strong prevention system in this country through the work of children's trust funds and the community-based programs they fund, as well as Prevent Child Abuse America chapters and the Community-Based Child Abuse Prevention programs funded under the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. For example, the Massachusetts Children's Trust is implementing an initiative to build prevention communities. They envision working with leaders across the state to build family-centered hubs of supportive services that are universally accessible to all families with children. They will pair these services with their effective home visiting model. In other states, many children's trust funds are supporting statewide networks of family resource centers that provide a range of services.
State children's trust funds are ready to continue building this new infrastructure and helping lead prevention systems in communities nationwide. They have the needed expertise and often already serve as hubs to bring together researchers, practitioners, policymakers, parents, and community members to help design, implement, oversee, and evaluate systems to better support families and communities.
Our future depends on our ability to come together to ensure a system that promotes family well-being and prevents child abuse and neglect. The Alliance is a leader in prevention strategies, helping families build protective factors; partnering with parents who use their life experiences to educate and inform policymakers; and providing training, written materials, and virtual communications to help unite our field. We are eager to work with you to recreate this new normal.
Section: The Moment Is Now
Written by Andrea Smith, Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe
"Every child should have a happy growing-up life."
The quote from a Port Gamble S'Klallam tribal elder encompasses the belief that all children need and have the right to happiness, love, and security. It is in tribal codes and policies as a reminder of why tribal systems are developed to assist children and families. Family includes those who are connected by bonds of love, friendship and caring, reliability and responsibility, and willingness to take care of one another—and the tribe itself is considered family. The tribal community works together in times of hardship and in times of celebration to ensure children and families are taken care of and supported. Everyone has a role as a participant, whether it is serving an elder the first plate of food, sharing a song about a past experience, or helping put the chairs and tables away after the event is done. Other communities work this way as well, taking care of one another based on bonds of caring, mutual respect, and the need and desire to help one another through shared experiences.
And despite all barriers and historically tragic events that have unfolded in communities faced with issues arising from persistent poverty, economic and social imbalances, and the prevalence of institutionalized racism, these communities still exist—stronger than ever because communities work together as cohesive family units to support one another. Sickness, chronic underfunding, and lack of access to services are not new. The current pandemic is a new circumstance. The spotlight on racial and social injustices embedded in antiquated systems that never truly addressed preventing or healing trauma for children and families provides an opportunity to lean into difficult conversations and work things out. All human beings are mere steps away from being the person who needs help and are, whether conscious of it or not, part of the unfolding story of the pandemic.
Native Americans are a small percentage of the population and a disproportionately high percentage of those in the child welfare system. Disproportional representation in the child welfare system is true for other communities faced with poverty, racism, and economic barriers as well. Language in federal law and policy, such as best interests of the child, have historically been used to remove children from their homes rather than keep families intact. This has led to justified mistrust of child welfare and legal systems. This has to change. We cannot move backwards to fund a system when a family is broken apart or create law or policy to create insurmountable barriers for a family to knit themselves back together after a crisis. We have the chance to explore the interconnectedness of all of our systems and thoughtfully take down the silos creating more issues. We can remodel the child welfare system to reflect the values of the people and communities who touch it and work on healing the hurts inflicted by the old system to ensure future generations do not experience the same.
We can invite children to the conversation, ask their opinions, respect the answers, and support their roles as participants. They may come up with simple answers to questions our child welfare system has purposely complicated beyond resolution. If racism is bad, do not support it. If prevention services are good, find ways to provide more of them and wrap services around the families' need to access them. Everyone has a role. Our collective story can be about truth, and truth is something that makes sense. If something does not make sense, it does not matter whether there is historical precedent for it; it should fall away. We are all human beings, and we are all a part of this. The purpose for changing and creating a better child welfare system is crystal clear. Every child deserves a happy growing-up life.
Be a part of the story that helped make it possible.
Section: The Moment Is Now
Written by Judy Perry Martinez, president of the American Bar Association (ABA), 2019–2020; Judge Ernestine Gray, Orleans Parrish, LA, and chair of the ABA Commission on Youth at Risk; and Prudence Beidler Carr, director of the ABA Center on Children and the Law
This is a unique moment, marked by the convergence of a global pandemic and a national call to eliminate racism within public and private life in America. The former arose unexpectedly and has wrought widespread human and economic havoc and cultural, faith, and familial disruption in our country like nothing we could have anticipated just months ago. The latter, racism in America, is not new. Whether by apathy or design of the majority, over the centuries it has been allowed to continue as the norm.
As much as these two extraordinary forces—one unexpected and one long known—are distinct, they are also intertwined. As Jelani Cobb recently explained, George Floyd's death "cannot be understood outside the context of a pandemic in which African-Americans have died at three times the rate of White Americans." This connection was perhaps made most starkly by Mr. Floyd's autopsy, which revealed without fanfare that he was positive for COVID-19.
The pandemic has forced us to confront the realities of our public systems that we have previously chosen to hide. For example, the pandemic has challenged us to question what it means when many among us lack access to health care, child care, stable housing, adequate food, quality education, and economic security. The pandemic has also challenged us to question what it means when we allow public systems to treat people differently because of their race.
The child welfare system is not immune from these realities. As Sharon McDaniel recently wrote, "[i]f child welfare was on trial for the charge of systemic racism, decades of demonstrative, real, testimonial and documentary evidence could be used against it...we have exceedingly met the burden of proof." In addition to the deep history of structural racism in child welfare, we also must confront clear evidence of the means by which bias continues to shape the way child welfare interacts with families of color.
As difficult as these realities are to confront, they also give us a vantage point on where the greatest fault lines of our system lie. For that reason alone, the opportunity presented by this moment is invaluable and cannot be wasted.
We write today to examine three realities of the child welfare system that have become more apparent during the pandemic and require attention to build a "new normal" moving forward: children's rights to family, mandatory reporting, and causes of foster care entry. A common thread in each is that, above all, we want the child welfare system of tomorrow to be understood for what it is—a legal system with extraordinary power to affect individual lives. Just like any other legal system in America, child welfare requires checks and balances to make sure that power is wielded appropriately and responsibly.
Children's Rights: How Could We Not Talk About Family When Family's All That We Got?
The pandemic has taught us about the value of family. Sheltering in place means something very different for a child surrounded by family than it does for a child who has been separated from family by state action. This reflection of our system is evident in stories about children in foster care who feel isolated because they cannot see their siblings or kin, infants and toddlers in care who are not bonding with their parents during crucial months, and older youth who have aged out of the system and have no family support in place when confronted with challenges like job loss, food insecurity, and lack of housing. This reflection of our current system forces us to ask what costs we impose on children when we initiate separation from family without any guarantee of what comes next.
So often, the child welfare system focuses on the rights of children to be safe and raised in what we describe as their "best interests." We juxtapose these children's rights against parental rights to maintain custody and care of their children, rights we describe as "family integrity." This is a false dichotomy. Children, too, have rights to family integrity. All children have rights to be cared for by their parents and maintain relationships with siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. In 2019, the ABA passed ABA Resolution 118, which calls for all decisions in child welfare to be rooted in a recognition that both children and parents have rights to family integrity.
Existing state laws already affirm the importance of family integrity. Yet, we rarely invoke these laws from the child's perspective when making decisions about removal, placement, and termination of parental rights (TPR). That should change. For example, Minnesota law provides that "all children are entitled to live in families that offer safe, nurturing, permanent relationships, and that public services be directed toward preventing the unnecessary separation of children from their families."
These laws need to be enforced in practice by judges who incorporate the concept of children's rights to family integrity into the "best-interest" analysis. Decisions to apply the law and deny a petition for removal or TPR require courage. If grounded in constitutional principles, such as children's rights to family integrity, those are also the decisions that will help most to reshape a system that truly values the individual lives at stake. The Iowa Supreme Court provided useful guidance in a 2019 decision finding children's best interests are served when their parents "have a full and fair opportunity to resist the termination of parental rights." As we take this moment to build a better child welfare system, children's rights to family integrity should be a foundation upon which everything else is constructed and against which every decision is checked.
Revising Mandatory Reporting
The pandemic has revealed that in America, instead of focusing on parents as champions, our public attention focused on stories about the dangers of removing children from the view of mandatory reporters when schools closed and the numbers of referrals to child protective services (CPS) declined. This, too, is a reflection of our current system. Public reaction assumed all unreported children must be in harm's way. But a closer look at the data shows that only 15 percent of reports from school administrators and teachers are substantiated by CPS after they come in.
Rather than jumping to conclusions about the inherent dangers of removing children from settings with mandatory reporters, perhaps this momentary reprieve from incoming referrals should spur us to ask another question: Is our system working as we want if only 15 percent of all school-related calls reporting families to the authorities result in substantiated cases of abuse or neglect? Are we comfortable knowing that the remaining 85 percent of unsubstantiated referrals come with extraordinary governmental power to investigate and intervene in a family's life? This often means an investigator enters a family's home, examines refrigerators and kitchen drawers, inspects bedrooms and closets, interviews children apart from their caregivers, and, in some cases, asks them to show parts of their bodies.
The number of affected families is not small. By the age of 18, one in three American children will have been the subject of a child welfare investigation. For African-American children, this number is one in two. Consider the following questions:
There are real rights at stake from the moment of a referral to CPS onward. Government intervention in a family's life, no matter how well intentioned, comes with extraordinary power and authority. The broad reach of CPS investigatory authority also raises the secondary question whether limited resources are being effectively deployed to focus on children most in need of attention.
As we look to create change based on the reflections the pandemic has presented about our child welfare system, we propose a careful reassessment of the effectiveness of the current model of mandatory reporting. For example, training for reporters should include examples of what types of concern merit a referral to CPS and what concerns may be better addressed through supports that do not come with investigatory authority. Additionally, training and guidance should be shaped by legal professionals who understand the complexities of balancing concerns about child safety with rights to privacy and family integrity that belong to children and parents alike. Finally, careful attention should be paid to the outcomes of civil rights lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of child welfare investigations, including those that raise questions about qualified immunity for investigators, such as in the recent Sixth Circuit decision, Schulkers v. Kammer, 955 F.3d 520 (6th Cir. 2020).
Limiting Causes of Foster Care Entry
No one would suggest that in response to the pandemic we should remove children from all parents who have suffered from food insecurity, job loss, or housing instability. Yet national child welfare data suggest that these are precisely the reasons many children enter foster care each year. Here, too, exists a powerful reflection of our current system. In 2018, physical abuse accounted for 13 percent of all entries into foster care, while unstable housing accounted for 10 percent of cases. Another category, generally cited as "neglect," accounted for 62 percent of all entries. This category is often correlated with financial strain, food insecurity, and lack of access to child care—pressures that have become acute for almost all families in recent months.
When we emerge from the immediacy of the pandemic, we have a chance to handle these kinds of entry causes differently. Fred Wulczyn recently explained this by comparing the concept of "services" in the child welfare system with medical supplies for COVID-19 patients. As a result of the pressures falling on families from the pandemic, he explained social workers may soon "be faced with service demands for which there are no services, just as doctors face the possibility that their patients who need them will not have respirators."
Removing children from their families and placing them into foster care is not an ethical answer to the lack of services to help families address challenges such as food insecurity, lack of child care, or housing instability. Rather, the lack of services for families in need should be met with an increase in supports designed to meet those needs directly so that, if at all possible, the family remains intact.
There are several specific steps we can take to address this change in the legal field.
To begin treating cases differently, the legal concept of neglect should be separated from child abuse. There are times when neglect rises to the level of requiring removal from a family, but it is wrong to lump these two concepts—abuse and neglect—together as though they are coterminous. This also requires a system of support services built on trust in which mothers and fathers believe they can seek help and get it without the risk of losing custody of their children or losing connections to their extended family and natural community support system. Rebuilding trust in the provision of services and supports designed to help families is an especially critical issue for African-American families and immigrant families, who often fear engagement with public services.
Service delivery should also incorporate access to legal services that support families facing adversarial proceedings in other legal contexts where basic human needs are at stake, such as proceedings involving shelter, sustenance, safety, health, or child custody. This is consistent with ABA Resolution 112A, which endorses a concept of civil Gideon, or the provision of legal counsel at public expense in proceedings where basic human needs are at stake. This ABA policy, adopted in 2006, has been cited widely in the legal field as a baseline of legal services support for basic human needs, the absence of many of which are root causes of foster care entry.
As an additional check on children's entry into foster care, attorneys for parents—and when appropriate, children—should be appointed as soon as an investigation into a family begins to ensure rights to family integrity are protected and services are provided and accessed as part of the responsibility to provide reasonable efforts to prevent the child's removal. If a child does need to be removed from the family, child and parent attorneys should continue to be a part of the full trajectory of the case, and resources should be invested to make sure all families receive legal representation that meets standards for high quality. The federal government has made tremendous advancements in this area by providing access to funding to help pay for the cost of child and parent counsel, as well as social workers and peer advocates, on a legal team. State child welfare agencies have an opportunity to build on this new federal support to invest in legal counsel and improve case outcomes.
Finally, judges overseeing dependency cases must ensure due process protections apply at all stages of the case and that all families are treated equally under the law. Judges have a responsibility at every point to assess whether a case should move forward, including at the point of foster care entry. As part of that responsibility judges should ask, "Would this case or its outcome be the same if the family were a different race?"
This is not only a question to ask internally; judges have an opportunity to educate others by asking this question openly of other participants in the proceedings who in turn can help address racism in the child welfare system more directly. In moving forward to create a better child welfare system, it is not enough for judges to just "call balls and strikes." Judges must hold everyone, including themselves, accountable to ensure institutional racism and implicit bias are not perpetuated. When judges see something, they must say something.
This is a unique moment. It is also a moment full of opportunity. We are learning about our abilities to change and adapt as a society to help ourselves and the common good. In the context of the child welfare system—a legal system that affects our fundamental interests in family relationships—changing and adapting is long overdue. Yet we have never had an opportunity for transformation like we do right now. We look forward to working in partnership with the broader field to seize this moment and all the possibility for change that comes with it.
Section: The Moment Is Now
Written by Judge William Thorne, retired state and tribal court judge and Pomo/Coast Miwok tribal member
It is sometimes said that a system is perfectly designed to deliver exactly the results we get. If so, we need a better-designed system to help the families struggling with adequately caring for their children. After 40 years as a judge, I can attest that we can—we must—do better.
There are so many studies documenting the poor outcomes for children who wind up in the foster care system that none of us would willingly let our children, or any child we truly care about, find their way into it. Yet, in too many places in this country, foster care is the system's primary response to inadequate or abusive parenting. For too many decades, I was a participant in that response, comforted by the idea that I was "saving" a child. It wasn't until I started looking at the outcomes for those children that I realized I was doing little to improve the lives of those children and their families. Instead, I was setting them on a trajectory that too often led to intergenerational failure. As long as I didn't look too far into the future, I could sleep well at night knowing I had helped rescue a child. By the time I was done, I realized I had been seeing second-, third-, and even fourth-generation children in foster care, which meant we had been failing for generations.
Today, we are facing a reckoning that is long overdue. We are challenged to look not at our good intentions or beliefs but at the actual outcomes of our actions and judgments. The burden of our child welfare system failures rests all too often on Black, Brown, Native, and poor families. The outcomes for them are significantly worse. All our rationalizations and excuses won't change the very real impact of what we do.
The permutations of the system are many, but the result is almost universal. Foster care should not be a preferred intervention strategy, and the services and goals of the system are misdirected. There are tragic short-term and long-term outcomes associated with our child welfare system. We need to stop pretending otherwise. We need to stop blaming the families for the fact that we as professionals are not getting the job done right.
But all is not lost. Success is possible! Sometimes, success is found in places you might not expect. For example, there is a program in southern California serving a consortium of seven Indian tribes. Fifteen years ago, they had 487 children in state-run foster care. Today, they have 14 children in care. They achieved that result by reorienting their family support system. They didn't just offer "services" to families "at risk." Instead, they offered events, services, and engagement to the entire community and then took special efforts to make sure the at-risk families were a part of, not separate from, the community. They approached the families as they would their own, sometimes referring to it as My Two Aunties. In other words, being both supportive and correcting in the way aunties have traditionally been rather than treating parents and families as case files or clients.
Too often, our system has been more than ready to offer moral judgement along with minimal services. How much better would it be to be supportive and nurturing while guiding and supporting change? And success becomes contagious. In those same tribal communities, relatives of struggling parents are now hauling their family members into the tribal family services offices knowing that they won't be met with threats or judgement. Instead, they know that the professionals there will respond with help that most likely will prevent a crisis from occurring or help them weather the storm successfully.
The response to the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that systems can change when they need to. Our system NEEDS to change.
If we can't truly believe that their own families are the best place for children, we need to go do something else. Build bridges, design rockets, paint or draw, or compose. Our families need people who believe in them and are willing to help, not judge. What would we demand if these were our own families? What would we demand if these families mattered?
Section: The Moment Is Now
Written by Jeremy Christopher Kohomban, Ph.D., president and chief executive officer, The Children's Village
In the December 2019/January 2020 edition of Children's Bureau Express, we acknowledge the historical role that The Children's Village has played in U.S. family separation practices. Following our founding in 1851 as the New York Juvenile Asylum, we cofounded and co-operated the Orphan Train movement that would transport over 200,000 children from eastern cities into the Midwest, where they were indentured and forced to work and live among rural families. We influenced the American Indian boarding schools of the late 19th century and served as the inspiration for the therapeutic residential treatment movement that continues to have an outsized influence in today's child welfare practice. Yes, this is us. Yes, our history closely resembles the history of the United States, where family separation policies are inextricably linked to race and poverty in a cycle of injustice.
Despite our best intentions, systemic and institutional racism dominate child welfare. The process begins with our choice of target. In New York's urban areas, those most often targeted are families living in intentionally segregated neighborhoods—neighborhoods that are systematically deprived of investment, lacking in safe public spaces, and filled with failing schools. In these neighborhoods, poverty-driven neglect is an imposed reality. Unlike abuse, this neglect usually involves the omission of appropriate child caretaking rather than violence. These poverty-driven reports of neglect feed the child welfare system, most often driven by an implicit bias that Black parents are a danger to their own children.
The joint mechanisms of heightened surveillance of Black neighborhoods and the mandated child protective reporting culture are in effect akin to the Black Codes of the 19th century. We've created a system that Black and poor Brown families must fear every day. Today, this system has free reign to search homes without a warrant, has no obligation to advise parents of their rights, and has the power to separate children from their families to be placed in a system where we see Black children languish longest and exit with the worst outcomes.
We have spent the last 16 years striving to undo the damage we have caused. In this moment of national awakening, we are compelled to raise our voice and admit our progress has been slow. We still don't have all the solutions, and we recognize that comprehensive solutions—demanding reforms in both the public and private sector—will take time. However, if you are a leader in a child welfare organization, you don't need to wait. This is our moment to refuse complicity and create a new history. There are three concrete actions that you can and must take now:
Section: The Moment Is Now
Written by Sandra Gasca-Gonzalez, vice president of the Center for Systems Innovation at the Annie E. Casey Foundation
The COVID-19 pandemic and the most expansive racial justice movement in recent history has propelled every sector of society—including child welfare—to a day of reckoning, a moment to confront structural racism and disrupt policies and practices supporting family separation, institutionalization, and inequitable treatment of families and communities of color.
Child welfare must be reimagined through prioritizing the voice and lived expertise of young people and their families in decisions, case planning, and policymaking. Even as jurisdictions grapple with the crises of the moment, many are finding ways to suspend policies and practices that aren't working, prioritize safety and well-being over compliance with cumbersome policies and procedures, and take critical steps to address the debilitating effects of bias and racism long embedded in our systems.
Every young person deserves to be with their family, particularly at a time when the health of those living and working in institutions is imperiled. Young people have a right to remain safe without sacrificing other aspects of well-being or losing connection to family and culture. The humbling reality is that very few young people feel safer or experience more stability after entering foster care.
We reimagine a system that no longer criminalizes poverty, particularly in this time of acute economic stress. Families in financial crises don't stop loving their children. Supporting families with economic and educational resources is an underpinning of a strong community and removes barriers from decades of policies disadvantaging people of color.
We reimagine a system for youth and young adults, for whom child protection policy is poorly designed, and enlist young people as leaders who understand their influence and pave the way to system change. Many child welfare leaders are eager to realize this vision. They're asking, "Where should we start?" It all begins on the road less traveled. It begins with a focus on race equity and inclusion.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation's Race Equity and Inclusion Action Guide and related tools outline seven key steps that any organization can begin to follow:
Young people should be leaders in these conversations, and facilitators can use these four guides to encourage that process.
Equipped with these priorities and tools, child welfare leaders can summon the compassion that led them to this work, the fortitude to stop doing things that aren't working, the ability to listen to youth and families as experts, and the imagination to see the upending of our world as an opportunity for innovation. We must seize this moment to reimagine and act!
Section: The Moment Is Now
Written by Cheri Williams, senior vice president of Domestic Programs at Bethany Christian Services; and Kimberly Offutt, national director of Family Engagement and Support at Bethany Christian Services
COVID-19 has placed an extreme amount of stress on children in foster care. Many children haven't been able to see their parents during the pandemic; others have had limited access to the services and resources they need because of lockdowns. Families are questioning whether this is the right time to foster or adopt. Isolation takes the greatest toll on vulnerable children, and this strain has disproportionately affected Black children.
Why? Because across the United States, Black children are nearly twice as likely to be put into foster care as White children. They stay in foster care longer, and they are less likely to be reunified with their families or adopted.
If you've worked in child welfare, you already know these tragic statistics, and you know how they came to be. It's about systems, and the child welfare system wasn't designed to protect Black children or Black families. Systemic racism has led to the forcible separation of Black families at disparate rates for generations.
If you consider poverty, a lack of health care, and a higher risk of incarceration and addiction and it becomes easier to see why there are more Black children than White children in the foster care system. But whose fault is it? Is it right to blame the parents, many of whom started their own journey in similar traumatized circumstances?
As lifelong child welfare professionals, we have advocated for children in foster care day after day, painfully aware of the systemic problems that led them there. It isn't their fault that they were removed from their homes; in many cases, it is not their parents' fault either. To address the disproportionate number of children of color in the child welfare system, we must be willing to take a long, hard look at the system itself and the role we child welfare "lifers" have played.
One systemic cause comes from reforms enacted in the mid-1990s through the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA). Prior to ASFA, social workers were required by law to make "reasonable efforts" to reunify children who are in the foster care system with their families.
ASFA was enacted because too many children languished in the foster care system for many years without permanency. As sometimes happens with well-intentioned laws, ASFA only addressed one side of the equation. When ASFA weakened the "reasonable effort" requirement and prioritized moving children from the taxpayer-funded foster care system into permanent adoptive homes, it failed to invest in family-strengthening, preservation, and reunification efforts. This has disproportionately hurt Black children and families.
The Multi-Ethnic Placement Act of 1994 also intended to remove barriers to adoption for children of color in foster care by prohibiting a child's or family's race from being a factor in placement. Again, while well intentioned, this law prevents social workers from ensuring the protection and support of Black children's cultural heritage within their temporary or permanent homes.
Please hear our hearts. We are not blaming child welfare advocates who supported these policies for decades. Today, we are better educated about the impact these policies have on Black children. We believe that we must do better because we know better. We can't claim that the lives of all children in foster care matter when Black children in foster care continuously experience the worst outcomes. Support for Black children must start with support for Black families.
Congress has taken steps in recent years to invest in keeping families together by passing the Family First Prevention Services Act and the Family First Transition Act, which increase funds for programs designed to prevent out-of-home placements. This is a great start, but it takes more than just program funds. It takes antiracism training, compensation, and more resources for overworked social workers. It takes more Black foster parents and more Black social workers. It takes wraparound community support for struggling parents, especially from church leaders, who are more likely to be aware of which families need support. It takes a community that listens, cares, and advocates for change.
Finally, it takes child welfare professionals, like us. Even though we didn't design the U.S. child welfare system, we have helped it survive. We must consider how we have contributed to this broken system. The fact is, we have been complicit in these negative outcomes for Black children, families, and communities. Let's dismantle this broken system and build a new one that protects children through true family and community care, even if it means sacrificing the interests of our organizations. If it's in the best interest of children, it's worth it.
Are you in?
Section: The Moment Is Now
Written by Sheila Weber, director of Strategic Initiatives, Lutheran Services in America
To say that these past several months have been an "upheaval" or "awakening" feels like a major understatement. The intersection of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic recession, police violence, and injustice—all disproportionately impacting the lives of Black people, indigenous populations, and people of color (BIPOC) in America—have laid bare in undeniable form just a portion of the impact of systemic racism in American society. Many of the root causes tied to the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 illness and death affecting the BIPOC population in America—including job loss, food scarcity, impending housing loss, and lack of access to health care—are root causes that impact other systems as well. One such system is America's child welfare system.
As evidenced by the following concerning facts, we must conclude that the child welfare system in its current form is not producing the outcomes desired for those it was designed to protect:
The intersection of these devastating realities of our society, coupled with the clearly disparate impact they have on BIPOC and their families, has sharpened the focus around the urgent need for primary prevention efforts to stabilize families within their communities. If we shift our thinking from how to protect children in families that are in crisis to creating societal conditions that equitably protect and strengthen families, then we will be closer to being a source of prevention.
Many have noted that past catastrophes and recessions have resulted in an increased number of children entering the foster care system. We are hearing warnings of a pending flood of children entering foster care once school and day care resumes. However, in making such predictions, we are missing the opportunity to ask the truly meaningful question: What would it take for that to not happen this time? If we can create a stronger community system that prevents children from entering foster care during this crisis, then that same community system could be a portal to a fundamentally better child welfare system than what exists today.
Nationally, Lutheran Services in America's network of 100 children-, youth-, and family-serving organizations impact 12,000 children in foster care and 40,000 children and family members across 43 states in 363 cities and 523 locations. Our goal is to ensure that all children in the United States live in safe, stable, and permanent family homes. As we navigate these crises, it is critical that we work together to identify and support equitable solutions that move us closer to this goal.
To this end, our Results Innovation Lab is activating our members serving children, youth, and families throughout America around this very question: What will it take to stabilize families in their communities so that families remain intact and children do not enter out-of-home care? We do not accept the assumption that these crises must result in more children entering the child welfare system. As such, we are prepared to be active partners, listeners, and leaders in our communities to re-envision prevention and the child welfare system as a whole—to create a community system that supports families, listens to their needs and expertise, and brings together necessary resources and supports.
Resources must include much-needed state and federal investments in primary prevention efforts that strengthen families' protective capacities and factors, such as resources that provide educational programs for families and children, address trauma, and support community services and strategic partnerships so families have access to positive social connections and concrete support in times of need. Equitable access to concrete services and supports must include, for example, health coverage, access to affordable housing and food, day care, early childhood education, literacy efforts, and higher education.
Together we can reenvision the child welfare system. But becoming a source of prevention and strength for America's children and families will require a fundamental shift in our mindset of what child welfare is versus what it must become.
Section: The Moment Is Now
Written by Judith Meltzer, president, Center for the Study of Social Policy
We are in a moment of incredible disruption—from the COVID-19 pandemic to reckonings about entrenched racism in society and our public systems, including child welfare. NOW is the time to radically shift how we view the safety and protection of children by imagining a society in which the forcible separation of children from their families is no longer an acceptable solution. All children experience trauma when they are forcibly separated from their families by child protection systems, and Black, Native, and, increasingly, Latinx children experience this separation and resulting trauma at rates disproportionate to their presence in the general population. The removal of Black and Native children from their families has a long, troubling, and racist history. With roots in slavery and the decimation of tribes and native culture, the routine separation of Black and Native children from their families is influenced by pernicious stereotypes of Black and Native parents and maintains enormous state power over families. Unaddressed systemic and interpersonal racism in our society results in policies and practices that support the oversurveillance of Black and Native families; the removal of their children; and, ultimately, the termination of parental rights.
For too long, the child welfare field has worked to reduce racial disparities and remedy the trauma children experience. However, efforts at reform have seen limited success. Now is the time to do the work to dismantle our systems and reimagine how our collective efforts and financial investments can be redesigned to achieve just outcomes for children and families in need of support and assistance. Families involved with child welfare systems often are already facing social and economic hardships caused by inherently racist policies that go back generations and that challenge their ability to care for their children. The child protection system is not designed to mitigate these problems by providing meaningful income, housing, and job support to families. Instead, child welfare policies and practices focus primarily on fixing an individual family after troubles arise. At their best, systems offer limited programmatic interventions, such as parenting classes, mentoring, substance use treatment, and anger management services. As a society, we can do so much better.
This is why the Center for the Study of Social Policy and the University of Houston's Graduate College of Social Work launched the upEND movement. The upEND movement calls for abolishing the child welfare system as we know it, because we view the safety and protection of children as resting with families and communities first. We recognize on this journey there will remain a need for a small number of children to be separated from families due to conditions of severe abuse, but foster care should never be a primary solution. Abolition as a goal requires that we create and implement antiracist policies and practices that promote healing and reduce harm to families already involved with the child welfare system and, at the same time, work to dismantle racist policies that undermine a family's dignity and their ability to care for their children. This work of reimagining the care of children must be led by the experiences of those most marginalized by public systems, especially Black and Native parents and the grassroots organizations that have been supporting their advocacy efforts for years.
Reimagining the care of children and dismantling the current system will take time, but there are several immediate ways to move forward, including supporting the creation and expansion of critical safety-net programs like paid leave for all and a universal child allowance that provides concrete economic supports to families; supporting legislation that increases safe, affordable housing; eliminating rules and policies that make it harder for families to access concrete supports such as food assistance and health care; expanding the financial support for kinship care; ending the use of congregate care placements for children and youth; strengthening and meaningfully applying reasonable and active efforts standards to prevent the removal of children and to promote family reunification; and investing in grassroots preventive services to address individual family needs.
UpEND means that we must listen to families. UpEND means that we must increase community investment and strengthen social supports so that families have adequate income, housing, and health care and family stresses don't require a child welfare response. UpEND means that we must apply an antiracist lens to protecting children, a lens that begins with a societal commitment to assisting, supporting, and preserving families. To upEND is to create a movement and, ultimately, a world in which the needs of children and families are centered and valued.
Section: The Moment Is Now
Written by Ann Flagg, senior director for policy and practice, American Public Human Services Association; and Mary Ann Cooney, chief program officer, Health Equity and ASTHO Challenge, Association of State Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO)
"There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they're falling in."—Desmond Tutu
States, counties, and communities across the country are meeting the impacts of the public health emergency and related economic shocks with innovation, rapid adjustment to service models, and a renewed sense of urgency in aligning programs and funding to better support children and families. At the intersection of the public health emergency, economic crisis, and spotlight on structural inequities, we have an opportunity to reimagine a health and human service delivery system that invests in children, families, and communities; focuses on health and prevention services; and eradicates the structural inequities that have led to untenable disparities among communities of color and families with low income. Swift action to advance a collective vision that shifts to a preventative child welfare model—driven by communities and enacted by state and federal policy and investments—is a critical joint opportunity to dramatically enhance our public health and human services partnerships.
Based on the most recent data, more than 400,000 children are in foster care (Children's Bureau, 2019). Between 2011 and 2018, more children entered foster care than exited care nationally (Children's Bureau, 2019). Of the cases referred to child protection agencies nationally (an estimated 4,327,000 referrals in 2018), the vast majority are referred for neglect, and only 19 percent of all investigated cases are substantiated on average (Children's Bureau, 2019). Children in poverty experience more abuse and neglect (Forston et al., 2016). Rates of child abuse and neglect are five times higher for children and families with low socioeconomic status compared with children in families with higher socioeconomic status (Forston et al., 2016). In addition, although the overall child mortality rate has been decreasing, the number of child abuse and neglect fatalities, of which more than 80 percent are children under the age of 5, has been increasing for over a decade (Children's Bureau, 2019). Up to 88 percent of all child deaths are NOT known to child protection, and many were seen by other professionals (e.g., health care), highlighting the importance of coordinated and multisystem efforts (Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities, 2016).
When comparing maltreatment rates across race and ethnicity in 2018, American Indian/Alaska Native and African-American children have the highest rates of being in foster care at 16.0 per 1,000 for American Indian/Alaska Native children and 9.1 per 1,000 for African-American children versus 5.3 per 1,000 for White children (Children's Bureau, 2019). Research indicates that these disparities are driven by environmental and systemic risk factors and not race alone (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2016). However, it is incumbent upon the health and human services sector to recognize that further investment in the infrastructure of communities that address the social determinants of health and build protective factors and resilience in families and communities is an imperative to reducing disparities in the child welfare system.
It is critical that we outwardly and honestly acknowledge our need to entrench family- and community-based solutions within a prevention framework and commit to a new legacy of child well-being. This requires intentionality in all we do. We must prioritize community investment, address social determinants of health through a life-course model approach, and maximize cross-collaborative, boundary-spanning strategies and systems.
States and localities are making real-time, frontline decisions regarding where to direct resources. The lifetime economic burden of new child maltreatment cases in the United States is $428 billion per year, factoring in tangible costs, such as medical care, special education, and criminal justice involvement, and intangible costs, such as pain and suffering of the child and broader community (Casey Family Programs, 2019). What if we reimagined a system where maternal and public health, economic assistance, mental health, and housing systems aligned to invest in the prevention of incidents of maltreatment occurring in the first place? What if we stopped pulling kids from the river and prevented them from falling in?
The reactive model embedded in our day-to-day systems was built on how we address familial challenges and adversity rather than on pillars of change in how we prevent neglect coupled with universal investments that allow all families to thrive. The importance of embedding evidence-based, psychosocial support systems and programs such as Moms Helping Moms, the parent partner programs, home visiting models, and others is paramount.
Leaders from multiple sectors are already poised to take action at local, state, and national levels to leverage public health and human services systems to make this paradigm shift. Together, we can put the following in place:
The American Public Human Services Association and the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials are partnering to support states and counties in seizing this monumental opportunity to shift the paradigm through changing mental models so that child and family well-being becomes a core priority of all health and human services agencies. The window of opportunity toward shifting the public discourse and understanding to a collective vision rests on building a foundational family well-being roadmap based on known protective factors, strength-based approaches, and necessary universal supports for all families. Should we seize the opportunity, the promise of successful transformative reform will fulfill a legacy of family and child well-being.
Casey Family Programs. (2019). Transforming child welfare systems: What is a population-based approach to child welfare? https://caseyfamilypro-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/media/TS_Population-based-approach-to-CW.pdf
Children's Bureau. (2019). The AFCARS report: Preliminary FY 2018 estimates as of August 22, 2019 (No. 26). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. https://www.acf.hhs.gov/cb/resource/afcars-report-26
Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2016). Racial disproportionality and disparity in child welfare. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children's Bureau. https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/issue-briefs/racial-disproportionality/
Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities. (2016). Within our reach: A national strategy to eliminate child abuse and neglect fatalities. https://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/cb/cecanf_final_report.pdf
Forston, B. L., Klevens, J., Merrick, M. T., Gilbert, L. K., & Alexander, S. P. (2016). Preventing child abuse and neglect: A technical package for policy, norm, and programmatic activities. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/can-prevention-technical-package.pdf
Section: The Moment Is Now
Written by Chris Wu, principal court management consultant, National Center for State Courts*
In the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, our nation is currently engaged in a crucial dialogue on the meaning of racial justice. The implications for the child welfare system, including the courts, are profound. The "rescue" mentality of the past resulted in gross inequities. Striving for racial equity must be a primary goal for all of us in the judicial and child welfare system,
The modern history of the court's oversight responsibilities in child welfare dates back to the passage of The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 (P.L. 96-272). The act required courts to determine whether child welfare agencies made "reasonable efforts" to (1) prevent or eliminate the need for removal of children into foster care; and (2) to reunify children with their parents if removal was necessary. In recognition of the courts' central role in the child welfare system, Congress created the Court Improvement Program (CIP), which provides grants to the highest court in each state (and now to tribes that qualify) to improve juvenile dependency courts and encourage the courts to work collaboratively with child welfare agencies and other stakeholders. CIP remains one of the only sources of direct federal funding to the state courts.
In 2004, the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care issued recommendations on two major areas: federal child welfare finance reform and improving the court process for families and children. As the Commission noted, "No child enters or leaves foster care without the approval of the court." One of the Commission's recommendations was that every state develop its own multidisciplinary commission on child welfare, ideally led by the Chief Justice and Director of Child Welfare. In order to promote judicial leadership and facilitate this collaboration, a series of national summit meetings took place over the next 5 years. Nearly every state sent multidisciplinary teams to the summits, many led by their chief justice. The Pew Commission report and subsequent national summits put a spotlight on the role of the courts in child welfare. Several states developed the major state-level infrastructure called for by the Pew Commission, such as the California Blue Ribbon Commission on Children in Foster Care, the Texas Permanent Judicial Commission for Children, Youth & Families, and the Minnesota Children's Justice Initiative, among others.
In September 2019, the time was right for a Fourth National Judicial Leadership Summit, which took place in Minneapolis, MN. The summit was convened by the Conference of Chief Justices and Conference of State Court Administrators. Teams from almost every state and, this time, several tribes, heard inspiring presentations and collaborated on plans to improve judicial leadership, access to justice, legal representation, and prevention services to safely reduce the need for foster care.
It seems like (and, in many ways, is) a different world since the summit just a few months ago. Little did we know then that Minneapolis would become the focus of attention for the whole country following the killing of George Floyd. The national dialogue on racial justice has had a significant impact on state courts. Many courts took the extraordinary step of issuing public statements on this important topic. Numerous editorials in recent weeks have made the connection from the Black Lives Matter movement to racial equity in child welfare. Decades of work to address racial injustice in child welfare has left us with much work still to be done. Variations on the phrase, "defund child welfare" are becoming more prominent.
In response to these dramatic developments amid the disruption in court and child welfare operations caused by the pandemic, the summit partners recalled participants to a virtual summit meeting that took place on August 10–11, 2020, "Ensuring Justice in Child Welfare." Teams of judges, court administrators, child welfare officials, attorneys, and other stakeholders from every state; three U.S. territories; and six tribes attended the event. Many teams were led by the state chief justice or other Supreme Court justice. Due to the virtual nature of the event, other interested stakeholders were invited to join as well. Peak attendance was almost 800 connections.
Two prominent juvenile court judges, Judge Ernestine Gray from New Orleans and Judge Hiram Puig-Logo, issued the call to action on racial justice at the outset of the summit. Highlights from the rest of the program included powerful testimony from a panel of youth and parents with lived experience in the child welfare system. Participants also heard "field example" presentations on practices that made a difference in their communities—judicially led collaboration to reduce racial disparities in Travis County, TX, and high-quality, preventive legal services for families in King County, WA.
Another important presentation highlighted an innovative collaborative approach to a federal intervention already familiar to child welfare. The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was passed in 1978 to address many years of policies and practices that removed Indian children from their homes and communities and placed them in non-Indian foster homes, orphanages, and other institutions. Many children did not survive the isolation from family and tribe. Forty-two years later, effective implementation of ICWA still has far to go in many states, and its survival as law continues to be threatened by litigation. Harmony Bercier described the state/tribal partnership in North Dakota that is making a big impact on implementing the spirit and letter of ICWA. Ms. Bercier pointed out that understanding and using ICWA principles in other dependency cases would improve justice in the child welfare system. Indeed, ICWA has been called the "gold standard" for child welfare practice.
The Children's Bureau's Jerry Milner and David Kelly implored the summit teams to revisit their reform plans with a racial justice lens as they closed out each day with powerful remarks on the summit themes. Materials from the summit may be found here.
The time for this discussion at every level of our state courts and child welfare systems is now. Bold steps needed to address the racial equity crisis cannot wait for the pandemic crisis to pass. Through this virtual national summit and follow-up to come, the Conference of Chief Justices, the Conference of State Court Administrators, and their partners ask all of us to use the lessons from these crises to envision a more equitable child welfare system and redefine the role of the courts to prevent the need for foster care and pursue racial justice for families.
*The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the National Center for State Courts.
Section: The Moment Is Now
Written by Matt Anderson, M.S.W, vice president of programs and business development, Children's Home Society of North Carolina
I began my child welfare career without prior knowledge of the system. I had a lot to learn. Over the years, kids and families have been my greatest teachers. They have taught me to listen, trust, and act with them. Initially, they taught me to prevent kids from aging out of foster care. Today, they are teaching me to prevent foster care altogether. When we remove children, we make their family a promise that we can do better than they can. Too often, the system cannot live up to that promise. We must make a new promise, a commitment to strengthening families.
Early in my career I worked with youth aging out of foster care. My job was to help them finish school, secure employment, and be ready for independence. When they aged out, they were nowhere close to prepared. This was discouraging but cemented my commitment to improving services for kids and families. I began to have very different conversations with youth. They talked about their life stories, what they needed, and what they wanted for the next generation. I listened and trusted their truth, and together we produced a documentary, From Place to Place, about America's foster care system. In their individual way, they said, "my life is important, my story needs to be told, and I want to speak to people in a position of power to make things better for the next generation." The film is often cited as part of the origin story of the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA), a landmark piece of child welfare legislation. One of the primary authors of the bill said that the youth who came to Capitol Hill to share their experiences and ideas were the catalyst to what led to FFPSA. The audience listened, trusted, and acted in a way that honored their stories.
Today, I work for Children's Home Society of North Carolina (CHS) to promote the right of every child to a permanent, safe, and loving family. I am responsible for our foster care program and the 1,200 children we serve annually. We have amazing families and talented and committed professionals, and we are making our program the best it can be. We recently partnered with Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago to improve our program model. Through that process, we listened to the kids and families we serve and decided to focus our efforts on reunification and kinship care. Fundamentally, we believe our job is to help kids exit foster care as quickly and safely as possible. I believe in this goal. I am also learning from our families that a strong foster care program is not nearly enough. As I listen to their stories, I am starting to have different conversations about what families need.
Parents are teaching me that they love their children and want the best for their family. They want to be treated equitably and with dignity and respect. They want to be empowered to overcome what puts their children at risk of foster care. One mother said, "I was a product of the system myself, so when it became involved with my family, I felt like my whole world was going to end. I didn't want that for my children." We can see child maltreatment only as a problem or also as a symptom, and if we listen to parents, we can uncover its root causes. Parents may not be able to find adequate employment, affordable housing, reliable transportation, or accessible child care. They may need quality legal representation or someone they trust to coach them on new parenting strategies. They may need access to mental health and substance use treatment. I am learning that parents want us to listen and learn from them as we imagine the future we are building.
We need more than just the intervention of foster care. Our system is organized to investigate, remove, and place children. This approach has significant limitations in strengthening families. We must imagine and create a reality where we can meet families in their communities well before the crisis of foster care. Now is the time to build a family well-being system that prevents child maltreatment while drastically reducing our reliance on foster care. Our field is beginning to move in this direction, and we can capitalize on this by working together as public and private sector leaders, advocates, and families to create a new reality for the families we serve.
This is our call to action. This is what kids and families are teaching us. It will not be easy, but it is necessary. It begins with building relationships, listening, trusting, and acting with families. This is the work that CHS will launch in 2020. We are making a dedicated effort to evolve in how we accomplish our mission. We will elevate families' stories and work together with them and others who intend to build a family well-being system. We believe this will contribute to the same kind of transformational impact for families that "From Place to Place" had for older youth. This is how we fulfill our promise.
Section: The Moment Is Now
Written by Ronald E. Richter, chief executive officer and executive director, Jewish Child Care Association, New York
Like all crises, the COVID-19 pandemic has created widespread opportunities for change. The Jewish Child Care Association's (JCCA's) experience during the crisis highlights several ways our profession can—and should—interrupt the cycle of injustice to which families of color are subjected even as we have long sought to "help" them.
The Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) offers many reasons for optimism—it advances values that we embrace (i.e., keeping families together and reducing out-of-home care). Critically, the act also encourages the use of approved, evidence-based models to provide innovative prevention practices that can transform both outcomes and equity for families. However, getting models cleared for FFPSA dollars presents a conflict, especially given the financial constraints imposed by the economic contraction of the pandemic.
Using title IV-E funds to develop and research programs for FFPSA approval necessarily takes funds away from high-quality child protection and foster care services, a Solomonic choice for states. JCCA is currently engaged in a promising, multiagency project to track a cohort of youth (and former youth) who entered care between the ages of 0 and 5 and ended up in residential care in their late teens. Mining this data will help us discover what would have worked better for these young people and their families before they entered care, costing them years of separation. This will improve permanency, equity, and quality, especially if the most intensive resources are targeted at the subset of children at highest risk for reentry.
Ensuring that we have the flexibility to push forward with research and model development should be a high priority during and after the pandemic—flexibility that is important at every level of our work. The grueling appointment schedule of housing, public assistance, Medicaid, and more is burdensome for families, replicating aspects of the carceral state and perpetuating distrust and resentments that derail our efforts to support stability and well-being for children. While there is no replacement for in-person family visits and assessments, virtual services have indeed been effective. The human service system's status during the COVID-19 pandemic implores us to transition to a hybrid model to eliminate the indignities that our current model creates.
Antipoverty efforts must also be dramatically strengthened for the sake of our country's children. Long-term systemic racism and economic deprivation have devastated a disproportionate number of families affected by the child welfare system, ripening risk factors for child neglect and, less often, abuse. In the early days of the crisis, the immediate response of JCCA's donors and institutional partners to provide financial support to the families we serve was instructive. It engendered tremendous trust among our clients, relieving stress for caregivers and, in turn, improving engagement in therapeutic options. By bringing families relief in the face of unemployment, illness, and isolation, relationships with our clients evolved. No longer seen as threatening, we are supporting families' capacity to survive together. If we could provide this concrete support generally, we would be able to stabilize and empower caregivers far more effectively.
Communicating with parents, young people, and foster families consistently throughout the pandemic has promoted each cohort's participation in our agency's practice, engendering a new level of trust and engagement. We have also had the unique opportunity to help our clients develop skills to increase their own self-advocacy behind the Black Lives Matter movement in their communities. The momentum of this period must not be lost as we involve families and young people in determining the best path forward as they move through the child welfare system.
The COVID-19 crisis will drive paradigm shifts in almost every aspect of our lives: health care, education, relationships, and work spaces. It is incumbent upon us to ensure that the inevitable shift in child welfare addresses inequities for families of color; empowers their participation; and, most importantly, acknowledges the role that we, as child welfare professionals, have played in a system that has often failed those we are committed to helping. Now is the time to design and build a family and child support system that heals the fractures of our society exposed by the pandemic, leveraging the strengths of our stakeholders, the expertise of professionals in the field, and the dedication of elected officials to commit the resources necessary to change the lives of children and young people in this country for the better.
Section: The Moment Is Now
Written by Melissa T. Merrick, president and chief executive officer, Prevent Child Abuse America
The stress of this moment is palpable. As we exercise our first amendment rights during the time of an unprecedented global pandemic, things we long considered "normal" are nearly 5-month-old faint memories. The only thing we seem to be able to count on for certain these days is the extreme uncertainty of it all! We know, unfortunately, that much of this uncertainty comes in the form of diminishing wages and job security; housing and food instability; and, of course, the fear and anxiety of going out in public amid an (un)masked citizenry while purportedly being protected and served by systems that were founded on racism and oppression. Indeed, the stress of this moment is palpable, and any one of us can totally unravel at any moment.
But, we as a nation can and must do better than normal for children and families in the response and recovery phase of this current pandemic and into the future. To truly achieve a world where all children grow up happy, healthy, and prepared to succeed and thrive, we must focus on a comprehensive public health approach, proactively creating the conditions for well-being, productivity, and prosperity. We must actively dismantle the root causes of stress and anxiety that can lead to child abuse, neglect, and other adversity and trauma. And while all parents and caregivers are currently experiencing profound stressors that increase risks for children, research consistently highlights the disproportionate impacts of adversity within underresourced communities and communities of color because far too many of our policies and systems have been designed to produce, rather than eliminate, such disparities.
One step on the road to a better normal is to strengthen and support families before they find themselves in crisis. By providing concrete and economic supports for families through policies like tax credits, paid leave, and child care subsidies, parental stress is decreased and families and communities are strengthened and better equipped to recover and be resilient in the aftermath of even a sustained stressor, and our children are protected from harm. Creating the conditions for health and health equity requires a multisystem, multisector approach that is fundamentally different from the way we normally do business. A coming together across child welfare, health, philanthropy, and other sectors can model at the national level what we know has been increasingly effective in communities for prevention and will necessarily create more positive outcomes for children, families, and communities.
We know that we can do better and that most Americans want every child to grow up feeling secure. And many are calling—begging—for a new normal, for a child and family well-being system that recognizes that we all have a role to play in ensuring that children and families thrive and that we need systems and stakeholders in communities that partner in purpose to keep families strong and children safe in their own families. A new normal means that every voice is heard and integrated into our collective prevention approach and every sector and every discipline join in this transformation. By definition, a new normal requires moving away from what is typical, standard, and commonplace. We must emerge from this moment steadfast in our need for a more compassionate, collective approach to prevention.
The stress of this moment is palpable, indeed, but to return to normal would be a great disservice and disappointment to our children, families, and future.
Section: The Moment Is Now
Written by Kim Dvorchak, executive director, National Association of Counsel for Children
We will all remember the spring of 2020. Months of pandemic and then protest—a time of isolation, fear, upheaval, and reckoning. It was a season that forced each of us to re-examine almost every facet of our personal and professional lives, from our households to our jobs to our roles in systems and society. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed child welfare professionals to a small yet potent dose of the disruption, separation, and uncertainty the children and parents we serve experience every day. And the killing of George Floyd and calls for racial justice necessitate that we undertake a systemic analysis of the root causes of inequities and dismantle the pathways to racial disparity and disproportionality. To create a more equitable child welfare system, we must lean into this discomfort, begin to grapple with uncomfortable truths, and make critical choices that disrupt the status quo.
Racial justice work in the child welfare system is not for parents, parent advocates, and parent's lawyers alone; children's lawyers and advocates must be active listeners, learners, and instigators of change. To start, our role in the child welfare system and its outcomes must be candidly appraised. We speak for child well-being, rights, and opportunity, yet our work has perpetuated racial disproportionality and disparity at nearly every decision point in the child welfare system. Black and Native American youth are overrepresented in foster care at a rate twice their representation in the U.S. population. Black and Latinx families and communities are more likely to be surveilled, and Black and Native American youth are more likely to be separated from their families, placed in congregate care, and charged with crimes. Due to the arrests of Black youth in foster care, the child welfare system has been identified as a significant source of racial inequity in the juvenile justice system.
Children's lawyers must look inward; reflect on our biases, fallibility, and complicity in compounding racial bias; and acknowledge mistakes in past case work. Children's lawyers must take action to challenge implicit bias in decision-making and systemic racism in the value-laden structures that surround foster care. And as the Children's Bureau has urged all child welfare stakeholders, children's lawyers must engage youth in case planning and systems improvement.
What are some concrete steps to transform calls for action into effective antiracist work? It starts with each of us taking responsibility at an individual level to question established systems and elevate the voices of those disproportionately affected:
We have a professional and ethical responsibility to not just know better but to do better. It is incumbent upon the children's legal advocacy community, a predominantly White and upper-middle-class field, to lead with these efforts—to listen, to learn, and to reimagine our role and our advocacy on behalf of children and youth. It will not be easy, but if we lean into the discomfort and disruption together, we can exercise the individual and collective leadership required to meet this moment and dismantle the structural inequities that undergird the modern child welfare system. This much we know is true: There can be no children's justice without racial justice.
We will all remember 2020. But if we are thoughtful and intentional about how we face and address the discomfort, disruptions, and challenges in our profession, we will remember it not as a year that came and went but as a turning point toward a more just and equitable child welfare system.
Section: The Moment Is Now
Written by Celeste Bodner, executive director, FosterClub, Seaside, Oregon
As child welfare stakeholders across the country scramble to meet the needs of vulnerable families and children during these challenging days in America, it's imperative that we take time to really see the cracks in the child welfare system that have been revealed and widened by the crises of 2020.
Our country is once again reckoning with how our systems and institutions perpetuate racial inequity and racism against people of color. Despite intentions to protect and safeguard the well-being of children, the child welfare system also contributes to racial injustices ranging from disproportionate numbers of Black, American Indian, and Latino children removed from their families, to inequitable services and outcomes for older youth of color who age out of the system. Children of color are more likely to cross directly over from the child welfare system to the juvenile justice system, doing so at rates greater than their White peers. We must open our eyes to the injustices that pervade our policies and practices and hold ourselves fully accountable to examining the racist roots of the system. Because the sad truth is that implicit racism in foster care harms children, youth, and families of color on a daily basis.
Further, as we navigate the tumultuous and destructive waves of this COVID-19 pandemic, it's plain to see that families are the ultimate port in the storm for many young Americans. We should be providing every child and youth in foster care with a safe, permanent family of their own before they exit care, as it is family that will be there through life's storms. Safe, permanent family may be found in reunification, relatives or fictive kin, or adoption. This pandemic has hit young people from foster care particularly hard. We at FosterClub recently conducted a poll to assess just how hard. What we found regarding connections was alarming: Many youth from care have no connections to family or mentors they can turn to for assistance or guidance on how to survive these difficult days. For the approximately 20,000 youth who age out each year, the biggest crack in the foundation occurs when a young person exits foster care without a family to call their own.
Too often, the adults in the child welfare system make a decision to separate a child from their family then fail to ensure that the child returns to that family when possible, or fail to place the child with a safe, permanent family in a timely manner. The Family First Prevention Services Act strives to prevent the separation of families and children whenever possible and prioritize a rapid path to permanence. However, state budget crises, political agendas, and the emergencies-du-jour all threaten robust implementation of Family First. And, while an important move in the right direction, we all know that Family First is just the start of the major shifts needed within the system. Much more work is needed to strengthen families.
At FosterClub, we acknowledge the great difficulties faced by child welfare systems in light of the tremendous societal challenges before us. However, while 2020 illuminates the weaknesses, inequities, and tragedies of the child welfare system as a whole, our young people from care have long been telling us and anyone who will listen, that growing up in foster care sucks.
Foster care is no place to raise a child. While we are facing grave difficulties now, it is FosterClub's hope that we can use this time to reinvent the delivery of child welfare services in America. We hope that the bright lights emerging from this moment can coalesce into a national call to action to rebuild and reshape the child welfare system into a system that prioritizes a family for every child, is actively committed to becoming antiracist, and works every day to eliminate racial inequities.
We believe system change cannot be effective in achieving these goals unless young people with lived experience in foster care help power that change. We've seen and applauded the renewed commitment to engaging with young people from care; we must not lose that once this crisis has passed.
Rebuilding a child welfare system where youth and families don't fall through the cracks requires listening to, hearing from, and engaging with young people who have experienced the system firsthand. It requires us to allow the young people to lead us to a better system, a better place, a better future for the children and youth still in care. Organizations and agencies who make this ongoing, renewed commitment to engaging with young people from care should prepare themselves to do so successfully (I suggest starting with a self-assessment like this resource from Family Voices United). It will not be easy, and it is my hope that where and when our best efforts fall short, we will be willing and committed to correcting our course by keeping this simple goal in mind: Every child deserves to grow up in a safe, permanent family that can help them weather life's storms.
And, it's up to us to make sure no child leaves care without a family they can count on.
Section: The Moment Is Now
Written by A. Nikki Borchardt Campbell, executive director, National American Indian Court Judges Association; Ansley Sherman, staff attorney, National American Indian Court Judges Association; and Hon. Richard Blake, president, National American Indian Court Judges Association
Miquas, my name is Nikki Borchardt Campbell. I'm Southern Paiute and Ute, and I am an attorney and the executive director of the National American Indian Court Judges Association. When I was born, my mother was a single teenager. At one point when I was a kid, I lived with my maternal great grandmother and grandmother, my three teenage aunts, and my adult aunt in a three-bedroom HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) home. My mother temporarily lived with another relative while she completed school, but eventually she and my father also lived in the home with all of us as well. My memories from that time are filled with an overwhelming sense of love, duty, and safety emanating from my family. I played a lot, visited relatives, attended preschool and Head Start, ate well, and really disliked that my grandmother braided my hair so tightly every day. In addition, I learned my language and Paiute circle dance songs, traveled to cultural events, and learned how to fancy dance. Although I slept in the same room as my grandmothers, and my family was technically poor, my childhood was incredibly rich.
Today, given my work with judges, courts, and systems, it is not lost on me that if I had come to the attention of the child welfare system during my childhood, I could very well have been removed from my loving home—during a period of my life where I draw some of my happiest memories and built my own personal resiliency. Fortunately, that did not happen. My mother received help when she needed it, and my family and I were allowed to thrive. Those important formative years paved the way for the entire path for my life and my personal and professional successes. Sadly, my story is not the norm for children and families of color. But it should be.
The current iteration of the child welfare system has its foundations in systemic oppression and racism. Black and Brown children and families have been at the mercy of a system that equates poverty with abuse and neglect—a system that is supposed to care for children and reunite families but inflicts more trauma and harm than healing. Native American and Alaska Native communities have been subjected to racist ideology and historic U.S. policies that removed children from tribal homes and placed them in boarding schools and adopted them out into to White homes. Because of this history, adults my age today are products of intergenerational trauma. Even so, we know we have the solution; Our own communities' love, compassion, and empathy lead to healing our traumas. Immersing and surrounding a struggling family or individual with love, culture, and extended family as early as possible is the start to helping that person fully feel heard and supported and can provide an avenue for getting the person the services they need. But it is vital to provide these services and assistance (including legal advocacy or representation) before a family ever becomes involved in the justice system. We simply can't do that without multisystem coordination and communication.
Tribal courts also derive from a history of oppression (The first tribal courts—Courts of Federal Regulation—were developed to prosecute tribal members for practicing our language and ceremonial practices.). These courts are now run for tribal members, by tribal governments. Members of the National American Indian Court Judges Association and our staff recognize that we have an opportunity to induce transformational change to all justice systems. Our organization looks at justice holistically and believes that it includes all aspects of systems, including our courts, attorneys, tribal services, tribal councils, elders' councils, and, most importantly, our people. While our work focuses on judicial capacity building, we also focus on collaborative approaches to providing legal assistance for tribal members and addressing subsequent collateral consequences. We understand that to dismantle systems of harm and provide meaningful assistance to families, we need to focus on the individual and family as well as the judge. We must train our judges on cutting-edge legal and judicial topics and science, but we also must train our judges on judicial leadership, compassion, and empathy. We stand firmly with our partner, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, and their message that siloed responses do not serve our children and families. Collaborative and interdisciplinary responses are mandatory. Judicial systems cannot change the entire child welfare system alone, but we are a vital partner in doing so.
Unfortunately, programs that purport to save our children from drugs and neglect, fuel bias and perpetuate structural racism. Harmful, pernicious stereotypes fill the media headlines and create false narratives—the welfare queen, the illegal, the drunk Indian, and the Redskin—that are embedded in the public psyche and feed implicit and express bias. This bias informs decision-making in all aspects of the child welfare system and directly affects children and families. If we seek true change to strengthen families and communities, prevent unnecessary family separation, and promote equity, each one of us must address implicit and actual bias and racism and confront it in every aspect of this system. That includes making sure that that every single person a family touches in the system receives interdisciplinary training, including teaching collaborative justice and holistic defense, the intersection of public health and the justice system, collateral consequences, the importance of tradition and culture, social science, and, most importantly, compassion and empathy. Listen to Black and Brown voices when they express needs and state they are harmed. Now is the time to dismantle and rebuild instead of continuing to just state that we hope for better. My story must be the norm. Every child and every family deserve the chance to thrive.
Section: The Moment Is Now
Written by the Honorable Barbara Mack, board secretary, National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ); and Joey Orduña Hastings, chief executive officer, NCJFCJ
The COVID-19 pandemic, racial injustice, and protests over the last few months have made clear how interconnected our systems are: health care, housing, employment, education, child welfare, public safety, and the courts. The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted "essential workers," populations with the greatest risk of infections, and those losing their jobs and access to health care. They may appear in court in eviction, family law, child welfare, garnishment, and employment cases, among others, and are denied justice as a result of pervasive systemic inequity. Systemic inequity permeates our systems and creates unstable families. Courts have acknowledged how systems of justice have been part of that inequity, but courts alone cannot solve this systemic issue.
As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and examine how to restart our judicial system, learn to adapt to new technology, and strive to remedy structural racism, we must look beyond programmatic goals. Fundamentally, people need to be safe and healthy and feel connected, supported, engaged, and included in decisions that affect them. It's time to focus on how to keep people and communities healthy. We can take our long-standing protective factors framework to a broader, community-wide level.
In Enhanced Resource Guidelines: Improving Court Practice in Abuse and Neglect Cases, by NCJFCJ, one principle is the need to engage, empower, and hear the voices of children and families in family court proceedings. Remote court hearings have shown that we can help meet those expectations. Remote hearings may prevent a parent from missing work, driving long distances, or paying for parking, and children don't have to miss school. They allow incarcerated parents to participate and for judges to facilitate hearings for parties and service providers in rural and tribal areas. However, remote court proceedings have exposed our broad digital divide, uncovering disparities among court systems even within a state and among people who do not have access to technology. These hearings can make it difficult for judges to build rapport with parents for cases with multiple interpreters, make visitation challenging, and may interfere with confidential attorney-client communications. We have learned that geography does not have to be a barrier to court access and should continue to ease the burdens for parties, service providers, and case workers, while working to solve problems and prevent disparate access to justice.
How do we, as a judicial system and a nation, move forward? We need to fundamentally change the way we look at the problem. For example, most data collection focuses on people trying to navigate adversity. That makes it appear that people, not systems, are broken. Can we collect data that examine structural barriers people have overcome or not and rebuild to address the barriers? How do we ensure that our decision-making tools are not based on data that reflect bias?
How do we create community-based support systems to help people stay out of the child welfare and juvenile justice systems and deal with trauma? How do we get systems to collaborate on finding and implementing solutions? How do we find and expand on what's working in communities? How do we create strong social networks that support families in addressing their needs and achieving their goals? How do we redirect resources to help families stay together (e.g., workforce training, housing, education, child care, and transportation)?
No single system can answer all of these questions. Courts are a separate branch of government but are a fundamental part of every community. Judicial leadership can play a part in re-envisioning the system. Siloed responses to complex problems do not work. To quote an NCJFCJ past president, "families don't work in silos, systems do." The courts, education, public health, law enforcement, social services, housing, child welfare, federal, and local government agencies and systems must all work together.
To emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic as a healthier nation and to instill equity at all levels, the courts and others must engage in cross-sector collaboration focused on healthy families, communities, and systems that hear the voices of children and families.
Section: The Moment Is Now
Written by Sarah Kastelic, Ph.D., M.S.W. (Alutiiq), executive director, National Indian Child Welfare Association
In looking for inspiration about what a reformed child welfare system could be, we need look no further than some programs run by American Indian and Alaska Native tribal governments. In some tribal communities, like the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon and the Squamish Indian Tribe in Washington, there is a very different approach to child welfare.
It begins with an acknowledgement that parenting is hard and that at some point along the way most of us need some kind of help or support to raise our children. Child welfare systems can be structured with an array of services, both formal and informal, that are most heavily concentrated in prevention. The help that the vast majority of families need to stay out of the formal child welfare system is support meeting basic needs: financial assistance, food, housing, and employment. In fact, the vast majority of child welfare cases in mainstream society, and especially in tribal communities, are based on neglect, and the conditions that bring families into the child welfare system are poverty, untreated mental health issues, and parental substance use. The supports and services that most families need aren't even the purview of the formal child welfare system, but when these needs aren't met, families end up at risk for child maltreatment and come into contact with the child welfare system, often becoming entangled in the system for a prolonged period of time. The outcomes of this approach are dismal for children and for families.
In most tribal communities, the rich cultural heritage is the foundation for a flourishing, natural safety net that keeps children safe. Traditional beliefs about the sacredness of children, our collective responsibility to protect and nurture them, and culturally based child-rearing approaches create the conditions in which the well-being of children is the focus of the community. Child welfare isn't just a formal system that intervenes when parents aren't able to take care of their children. The well-being of children is ensured by community, and it's the responsibility of all community members to "have eyes on kids." Community members don't wait until there's a serious problem, like bruises or abandonment; community can "intervene" earlier. They can ask kids and parents how they're doing. They can ask parents who are struggling what kind of help they need. They can set standards for the acceptable care of children, and they can enforce them as a community. The concept of nonintervention—of neighbors, community members, and extended family looking the other way when there are signs that a family needs help—is a Western idea. How children and families in our community are faring is our business! As Native people, we know our communities are interdependent, every person is important, and we have a responsibility to ensure the well-being of one another, especially our most vulnerable citizens, children.
In this approach, both community and the formal child welfare system are a resource to parents. Children have the right to their families. In many cases, with adequate support and services, parents can safely and effectively care for and nurture their children. When parents are not able to safely parent their children, an out-of-home placement is sought. The goal of a permanent placement for children who can't stay at home with their families is approached by looking at it through the eyes of the child. Good social work practice is to look first to extended family to care for a child. We don't need to replace the child's family with another family to provide quality care and a sense of belonging. Through family group conferencing, families are invited to contribute to the plan for how best to care for a child and identify the most appropriate placement. The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) has emphasized this approach since 1978. ICWA sets minimum standards for the removal of Native children and guides placement, considering the best interests of each individual child, in recognition of the importance of family, community, and culture.
So, if these tenets sound like something we want for all children and families, how do we get there? The Touchstones of Hope movement for reconciliation in child welfare provides a path forward. Touchstones provides principles and a process for reorienting child welfare away from a judgmental, adversarial system focused on child removal toward a recognition that when we ask individual parents to solve the structural problems like lack of housing, lack of mental health treatment, and unemployment in a case plan, we're setting them up for failure.
The Touchstones process involves Indigenous and non-Indigenous people truth-telling about the harm the child welfare system has done to families, acknowledging that a new path forward is necessary, restoring by making changes to redress harm and ensure it doesn't happen again, and relating by working respectfully together toward our vision of a new system. Used in both the United States and Canada, it's guided by five principles:
Touchstones of Hope provides a framework for carrying out transformative visioning for a different kind of child welfare system and the required systems change to ultimately support child well-being and thriving families. We don't have to accept the status quo in our child welfare systems, and the tools we need are already available and in our communities.
Section: The Moment Is Now
Written by Susan N. Dreyfus, president and chief executive officer, Alliance for Strong Families and Communities
Every child in every family in every community deserves the opportunity to thrive. During the current public health crisis that is affecting all of us and as we engage in a national conversation about systemic racism that has been going on for 400 years, it is more important than ever that we embrace a shared vision for America where all families have equitable access and opportunity. We know that far too many families are struggling to weather this storm, which is creating increased economic, physical, and psychological stress. Our human services organizations must not only respond to crisis but use this time to disrupt systems like child welfare and bend the arc toward keeping families strong, supported, and together.
As a former state leader responsible for child welfare in Wisconsin and Washington state and now as current chief executive officer of a national strategic network of community-based human services organizations in thousands of communities, I have come to understand that the change we desire can only come through aligned ecosystems that understand the larger role community-based organizations must play not just as providers but as true generative partners. During this crisis, organizations are demonstrating agility, immense creativity, and a steadfast commitment to the neighbors and neighborhoods they serve. But one reality we must address if we understand their key role in communities, is that organizations can only thrive with adequacy of funding and flexibility. With looming state and local budget cuts and an already striking reduction in charitable giving, we must come together and understand the imperative of our sector.
Though it seems difficult to think beyond the challenges of today, the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities imagines a future in which we emerge from the pandemic more energized and focused on building a new, transformed, and equitable child and family well-being system that works with families using a strengths-based approach to achieve their goals and ensure their children thrive. Within the child welfare community, there is growing interest in a paradigm shift toward a more prevention-focused system that would reduce the number of children needing to be involved with child protective services. While child protection will always be necessary, we envision a new child and family well-being system that is focused on deep, authentic engagement with families; prevention; and a conscious effort to dismantle the current system, which was built to perpetuate the racial disproportionality we can no longer ignore.
As leaders in health and human services, we need to move from program thinking to systems change thinking and understand that the social determinants of health are indeed the social determinants of life. Together they create the context in which we all live our daily lives and are the building blocks that should provide a steady foundation on which everyone can reach their full potential, regardless of where they live, the color of their skin, or their socioeconomic standing.
While all of us desire to be resilient, we now understand, through the advancing neurosciences, the negative physical and psychological impacts of persistently high stress levels. Too many of our neighbors of color are more likely to experience systemic inequities, such as systemic racism, poverty, and violence in their daily lives. Brain science has shown us that years of stress can contribute to negative physical and behavioral health outcomes, which can manifest in chronic conditions and autoimmune disorders.
This is not a problem we can solve overnight, but I truly remain the most hopeful I have been in my career! There is growing momentum to make radical change coming from the federal, state, local, and community levels; a data- and science-driven recognition of the root causes of child abuse and neglect; and now an honest interrogation of how systemic racism is rooted in systems including our current child welfare system. We can do this, but it will require all of us to wake up every day and do all we can to put the current system out of business! America flourishes when we all do well.
Section: The Moment Is Now
The Children's Bureau created a webpage with the latest information on COVID-19, which is caused by the coronavirus, that includes everyday preventive actions to avoid infection as well as the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on how schools, caregivers, and the workforce can prepare and take action for COVID-19.
The Children's Bureau webpage also includes links to additional resources that provide guidance for social workers dealing with families affected by the virus and for caregivers to help them think about how an infectious disease outbreak might affect their family:
The webpage also directs readers to additional relevant resources, including the following:
Section: News From the Children's Bureau
The Children's Bureau has released the following two Program Instructions (PIs) to provide guidance to agencies in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
PI-20-10: Stafford Act Flexibility for Certain Title IV-E Requirements Related to Extended Title IV-E Eligibility, Licensing, and Foster Care Placements was released to provide guidance to title IV-E agencies on how to request flexibility to meet specific title IV-E requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic and national public health emergency. PI-20-10 notifies agencies about flexibilities for certain title IV-E requirements and the process for requesting flexibility.
These flexibilities include the following:
PI-20-11: Supplemental Funding Under Title IV-B, Subpart 1 of the Act to Prevent, Prepare for, or Respond to, Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) was released to provide guidance to agencies administering title IV-B, subpart 1, of the Social Security Act (the Stephanie Tubbs Jones Child Welfare Services Program) on the supplemental fiscal year 2020 funding provided under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), which provides emergency funding to respond to COVID-19. The PI provides information on how agencies can use the funding and actions states, territories, and tribes must take to report on planned and actual use of the funds.
Examples of how the funds may be used including the following:
To learn more about these and other PIs, visit the Children's Bureau website.
Section: News From the Children's Bureau
The Children's Bureau released ACYF-CB-IM-20-05 to inform title IV-B and IV-E agencies about the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act and provide basic information on these new laws.
According to the Information Memorandum, states are temporarily permitted to increase their Federal Medical Assistance Percentage by 6.2 percent for each quarter occurring during the pandemic emergency.
For more information on this and other Children's Bureau Information Memorandums, visit the Children's Bureau website.
Section: News From the Children's Bureau
Written by Cara Kelly, Julie Fliss, and Elaine Stedt from the Children's Bureau, Office on Child Abuse and Neglect
There has never been a more important time to focus on improving the overall health and well-being of our nation's children and families. During even the most stable times, stress on families is not uncommon across the United States. The impact of the current crisis has increased the vulnerability of families as we collectively face new stressors, including physical health risks, school and business closures, family isolation, and economic instability. All of this is occurring within a context of uncertainty, causing children to be stressed as well, as they attempt to cope with unfamiliar routines, disruptions to their everyday lives, and confusion regarding changes in the world around them. For some parents and caregivers, the negative impact of stressful circumstances can wear down on a parents' ability to care for their children safely or meet their needs adequately. Families who are already struggling with poverty, social isolation, and trauma may be particularly vulnerable to current stressors. However, the current crisis presents a risk for loss of parental resilience, even in previously healthy, stable, and protective families. While risk levels increase, professionals in the field have expressed concern that harm to children may be concealed, as school closures and stay-at-home orders have reduced the opportunity for some professionals to encounter or become aware of children who may be victims of child abuse or neglect.
What we know from preliminary reports from child welfare agencies in the United States is that rates of maltreatment reporting have been significantly reduced. This reduction has looked different across the country, with states and tribal jurisdictions reporting decreases ranging from 11 percent to 60 percent compared with the same time last year. Some experts and commentators believe that lack of contact with mandatory reporters who are responsible for the majority of reports made to child welfare agencies across the country explains the decline, and they predict that abuse will increase and go unreported. However, we have no current data to support an increase in child abuse at this point, only a decrease in reporting. States and jurisdictions have responded to this concern by encouraging community members to be diligent in identifying instances of potential child abuse and neglect and reporting this information to authorities when there are concerns about the safety of a child. On the other hand, child welfare agencies are only one small piece of protecting children and supporting families, as children thrive within the context of their family and community. When we focus on families as part of a broader community, we have an opportunity to focus our efforts on preventing child abuse and neglect before it occurs, by supporting children and their families and mitigating risks.
In addition to reporting a reduction of reports, there is a growing concern that states and tribal jurisdictions will experience an influx of reports once physical distancing restrictions are relaxed. While there are anecdotal reports and social, psychological, and family theories that suggest an increase in the potential for family violence after significant disruptive events (Curtis et al. 2000), this anticipated surge is not inevitable. On the contrary, current circumstances provide an opportunity to focus on how child maltreatment is preventable. Together, we can collectively support families and help them build or maintain resilience to weather the difficult challenges that arise and prepare them to deal with stresses that can become toxic and deplete their protective capacities. The present time is a prime opportunity for neighbors, friends, community members, and mandatory reporters to check in on and offer support to families and thus help in the prevention effort during this difficult time of need and beyond.
Disaster and emergency situations often prompt an outpouring of organized support, and the current situation offers clear evidence of this. Child and family-serving agencies, including the Children's Bureau, have moved quickly to identify strategies that would allow them not only to continue services they had been providing but also to address newly identified needs as a result of the crisis. Community-Based Child Abuse Prevention (CBCAP) programs (authorized by title II of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act) are an example of comprehensive support available to children and families. One of few federally funded programs that focus on prevention of harm to children, CBCAP programs offer an existing infrastructure to provide effective assistance and promote family stabilization during this time of considerable uncertainty.
Opportunities for Innovation Through CBCAP
Examples of services funded by CBCAP include voluntary home visiting programs, parenting programs, family resource centers, respite and crisis care, parent mutual support, and other family support programs. Because these services are traditionally conducted in person, CBCAP programs have taken steps to maintain parent education and support activities using telecommunication strategies, when possible. Many states are now conducting virtual home visits, including those targeting fathers, and have maintained successful engagement of parents, which they attribute to the participant's familiarity with technology. When video conferencing is not an option, community providers make weekly phone calls to check in with families, and some have continued in-person interactions while taking necessary precautions. These connections have helped parents and caregivers to maintain critical social and emotional supports while physical distancing. Georgia, Massachusetts, and Texas are a few of many states offering these supports.
In addition to supporting families remotely, CBCAP programs are working tirelessly to increase families' awareness of, and access to, concrete supports to address their immediate needs, such as food, housing, clothing, and others. With the significant increase in unemployment resulting from the crisis and more families struggling to meet their basic needs, these supports and resources are more critical now than ever. States have reported an increase of requests at food pantries, including those from families who had never used the services before. Some programs have started delivering food to enhance opportunities for safe access for families. CBCAP programs are also using funds to help families with infants and toddlers to access diapers, wipes, and formula, with some targeting tribal populations, which have been impacted particularly hard by the crisis. Another concrete support has included assistance with rent and utilities and unemployment counseling, as well as books, games, and other activities for children who are home from school and day care.
A Vision Forward
It is important that we look to these examples of support for children and families for valuable lessons as we plan for life after the crisis. While many have referred to the current situation as "the new normal," it remains fluid, leaving the possibility to better define what we want the new normal to be for our families, communities, and nation. Now is the time for us to capitalize on the daily acts of caring and support for children and families and make this a norm rather than an anomaly. It is the time to recognize the sense of belonging we feel when we share the struggles inherent in parenting and to celebrate requests for help as demonstrations of strength, rather than of vulnerability. It is our collective responsibility to offer encouragement and assistance to parents and caregivers, not just during times of crisis but also as part of our social norms.
The Children's Bureau has long prioritized efforts to strengthen families by connecting them with supports that prevent harm to children and the need for formal child welfare involvement. This pandemic has brought additional challenges in protecting young people from abuse and neglect and has revealed gaps in our existing approach. However, most importantly, it has highlighted the capacity of communities to come together for the common good and has emphasized the vision of the Children's Bureau to reorient the child welfare system to focus more on strengthening families to prevent maltreatment and the unnecessary removal of children from their families.
"Our current crisis has illuminated the pre-existing weakness of a system designed to react rather than to proactively focus on the value and capacity of parents to care for their children. We all have an immediate opportunity to be a support to families, children, and young people who may be struggling—to show them that we care—to check in on those who may be isolated and under stress—to offer help."
—Jerry Milner, Associate Commissioner, Children's Bureau
Focusing our efforts on a proactive approach prevents us from having to wait for the child welfare system to respond after a child has been maltreated and allows us to focus on what families need to thrive. Moving forward, we can emerge from this crisis stronger together by concentrating our efforts on transforming our existing child welfare system into a child well-being system that brings together collaborative efforts that support families, mitigate risks, and allow families to thrive.
Curtis, T., Miller, B., Berry, E. (2000). "Changes in reports and incidence of child abuse following natural disasters." Child Abuse and Neglect, 24(9), 1151–1162.
Section: News From the Children's Bureau
Written by the Capacity Building Center for States
When a disaster hits, agencies must pivot from the established ways of doing things to respond effectively. The situation might be one the agency has faced before, such as a hurricane, tornado, flood, or other natural disaster, or it could be something that agency staff have never encountered, such as a new pandemic or terrorist attack. Because the need to oversee child safety and support families does not stop during times of disaster, agencies must ensure they can balance a rapid response with the need to keep everyday tasks moving forward.
In response to the recent pandemic, the nation's child welfare system has encountered enormous challenges. These range from receiving and investigating child abuse and neglect reports to continuing at-home visits and other in-person contacts with families in the face of stay-at-home orders and other limitations (Welch & Haskins, 2020). In addressing these challenges, child welfare professionals have begun to realize that preparing for a disaster means much more than planning to respond to natural phenomena (Capacity Building Center for States, 2020).
The strategies below can help agencies build additional capacity to respond to any disaster.
Integrate Disaster Planning Into Other Federal Planning Processes
Federal law requires that state child welfare agencies submit annual disaster plans, along with the Child and Family Services Plan and Annual Progress and Service Report. This provides a built-in opportunity for agency leaders and managers to integrate disaster planning with overall strategic-planning processes.
To ensure that disaster plans will be practical and inclusive, agencies can do the following:
Coordinate a Response Before and During Disasters
Working with a team of diverse partners from the agency and community to design a disaster plan and practice the coordinated response ahead of time can help ensure the plan is comprehensive and responsive to agency and family needs during a crisis. By collaborating, participant organizations can coordinate disaster responses to minimize duplication and create community buy-in for the plan.
During a disaster response, sharing timely and credible information with all stakeholders can minimize the potential for loss of life and injury, keep individuals informed, and minimize the overall impact of the disaster event on the community (Capacity Building Center for States, 2020). When developing a communication plan, remember to detail how and when stakeholders will communicate to facilitate their work together (Capacity Building Center for States, 2019).
Do Your Research
Agencies should conduct research to identify best practices and strategies that support the goals laid out in the disaster plan. In response to the current pandemic, many organizations have published useful information on various aspects of disaster planning for child welfare, including the following:
You can begin exploring available resources on the Capacity Building Center for States' webpage, Building Capacity for Disaster Preparedness at a Child Welfare Agency, and the Child Welfare Information Gateway's COVID-19 Resources webpage.
Planning to respond to disasters is an important part of a child welfare agency's work. Doing so can better prepare child welfare agencies to serve children and families—both those who were already in contact with the agency and those who may need the agency's assistance due to the disaster (Capacity Building Center for States, 2020).
Capacity Building Center for States. (2019). Change and implementation in practice: Teaming. Washington, DC: Children's Bureau, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://bit.ly/2ADhsXo
Capacity Building Center for States. (2020). Knowledge management research: Disaster preparedness, response, and communication planning. Washington, DC: Children's Bureau, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://capacity.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/cbc/knowledge-management-research-cp-00189.pdf (317 KB)
Welch, M. & Haskins, R. (2020). What COVID-19 means for America's child welfare system. The Brookings Institution. https://www.brookings.edu/research/what-covid-19-means-for-americas-child-welfare-system/
Section: News From the Children's Bureau
The National Association of Counsel for Children (NACC) is hosting its 43rd National Child Welfare Law Conference on August 24–28. This year's will be virtual and will offer 20 sessions with 50 leading experts on child welfare law and practice as well as related fields, including the Children's Bureau's own Dr. Jerry Milner and David Kelly. Conference registrants can participate in the sessions live and join online discussions and networking opportunities, as well as have access to the desktop conference platform and app for smartphone/tablet, for use during the conference and to access recordings of all sessions for a full year.
Section: News From the Children's Bureau
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