November 2020 | Vol. 21, No. 8
Written by David Kelly and Jerry Milner
"Family is essential," a mother who had experienced the removal of and successful reunification with her children told us recently. It was as poignant and profound a statement that can be made on a very complex concept—family. It was said with unwavering resolve and accompanied by tears. She was able to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles—most not of her making—because there was nothing more important to her.
We have heard this sentiment clearly communicated in more than one language. It is a feeling and experience that transcends culture and country of origin, a human experience and truth that is known through living.
"You're part of my family," a young adult recently said to me. He grew up in foster care, and although we are not biologically related, we will no doubt have a lifelong connection. He could not have said anything more meaningful or telling.
Most of us will not know what it is like to not be a part of a family or to lose an entire family. Most of us will only experience family in the most traditional sense—the parents we were born to and the siblings we were raised with. And, perhaps because of that experience, many of us attach labels to family configurations that don't strictly meet those criteria, such as adoptive family, fictive kin, and relational permanency.
When we go to great lengths to name, categorize, and parse out aspects of the relationships we all need for sustenance and connection, it underscores the fact that family really is essential, regardless of the form in which it comes to us.
The preservation, and sometimes the creation, of family is a primal responsibility in the field of child welfare. Our first obligation is indeed to help children remain safely within the families into which they were born, even when that path seems daunting. And, when that is not possible, our obligation is to ensure that one of the most fundamental needs that we all share—the need for belonging—is met in other ways.
Within the Children's Bureau, our priorities have been (1) preventing the maltreatment of children and the need for family separation and (2) focusing efforts on finding families, often through adoption, for those children who must be separated from their families and cannot return. The concept of family brings both priorities into clarity and guides our motion.
Adoption can be a happy or sad thing depending on one's perspective. Most often it's likely a combination of both. For children and young people who are truly without a family or for whom family or kin simply are unable to care for them, it is of course a positive and often joyful beginning. But one beginning requires an ending—the dissolution of the child's first family. Such dichotomous choices may serve systems more than families and youth.
All children and young people deserve and are inherently worthy of love, connection, and a lifetime of familial support. The legal relationship made possible through adoption is a critical option or choice in the permanency continuum that can and does change lives. Yet, we should at all times be mindful and actively reflect on how we arrive at the moment or set of circumstances where ending an existing family is necessary.
The stories of orphans that drove images and ideas of adoption through much of our past are far less common in modernity, and orphanages, thankfully, are a thing of the past in the United States. In more recent times in public child welfare—with the passage of laws that place short time limits on efforts to help families regain custody of their children—we have created more legal orphans than children entering care without living parents. The underlying philosophies behind such laws placed value in getting tough on parents facing difficulties and has disproportionately affected poor parents, Black parents, and Native parents. We have fed a culture of blame.
This should give us considerable pause.
We have effectively tied parenting and family relationships to a calendar, and in so doing, one of the most sacred life experiences and purposes a human being can serve has been placed on a timer.
On an annual basis, we also send approximately 20,000 young people exiting foster care out to live on their own. Far too often, these young people leave our care without the connections and support we have promised and that they need and deserve.
During this time of reckoning, veils are being lifted and society is becoming increasingly aware of barriers to equity and the impact of laws that may appear neutral on their surface but cause harmful consequences. Child welfare legislation should not escape scrutiny.
The ability of government to end a family is a profound power, rivaled only perhaps by life imprisonment or the death penalty. We must treat it that seriously. The fact that it is overwhelmingly poor families that we end should greatly startle our collective conscience.
Given this reality, we should pay thoughtful attention to the design and impact of our laws—old and new—to determine if they represent the knowledge we have about what families and children need to thrive and when they need it. Will a law create or increase disparity, or ameliorate and prevent it? Is it consistent with our values to only provide support in times of crisis? Is it enough to provide only what we have available as opposed to what a family may truly need? What does it say about us that we so often fail to ask families what they need?
To be all in for families requires so much more than we've historically done.
Before terminating parental rights to start a new family, we must be able to say we went all in on preventing the need to do so.
Did we do all that we can or could? Were our efforts to keep this family together truly reasonable? By whose standard? Were they reasonable in terms of what is convenient for our system, or were they reasonable from the perspective of a parent who stands to lose a child and is confronting difficult life circumstances and adversity?
Being all in for families requires us to walk alongside them. It requires us to see families as worthy of investment. It requires us to remain compassionate, understanding, and supportive instead of keeping score, to nurture resiliency rather than erode it.
Being all in for families does not mean disregarding safety or leaving children in danger. It means doing everything we can to support families with the goal of preventing danger from arising in the first place. Should danger arise, being all in for families requires us to do all we can to remove the danger and not the child.
Being all in for families means that we celebrate unification—families staying together—and reunification, loudly. Being all in for families requires recognition that families can look different ways, and that no matter their composition it is love that binds them together.
Being all in for families means celebrating and supporting families brought together through adoption, too. If we are truly all in for families, we can be content knowing we did all we could to keep first families intact.
And, when neither unification nor adoption seem to offer a young person the family they need, we have an obligation and opportunity to help them create networks of relationships that will support them.
Relationships that will demonstrate our understanding that "la familia es esencial."
Family is essential.
Relationships that will allow other lucky people to hear, "eres parte de mi familia."
You are part of my family.
Las familias merecen estar unidas.
Families deserve to be together.
Las familias pertenecen unidas.
Families belong together.
Section: Spotlight on National Adoption Month
For the past 3 and a half years, the Children's Bureau has made it a priority to meet with and listen to parents and young people with lived expertise. Those efforts took Associate Commissioner Jerry Milner and Special Assistant to the Associate Commissioner David Kelly to 40 states, where they were honored to meet with hundreds of parents, young people, and those who advocate on their behalf. The listening has continued virtually during the pandemic and is ongoing. The wisdom shared by individuals with lived expertise has profoundly influenced and continues to influence the Children's Bureau's vision, priorities, policies, and funding opportunities. It is the wisdom we must all seek, listen to, and act upon to transform our system.
As a way to honor and share that wisdom, Jerry Milner and David Kelly reached out to a number of experts they have come to know for insight on the question: What does it mean to be "all in" for families?
The following offers the collective voices and wisdom of those experts, people who show through words and action that they are all in for families:
"To be 'all in' for families means that we would be completely focused on giving to families the very same things that I want for my own family: unconditional love and belonging, justice, respect, inclusion, the opportunity to pursue aspirations freely, and responsive government."—Jeremy Christopher Kohomban, Ph.D., president and chief executive officer, The Children's Village
"To be all in for families starts with the core belief that most families want to take good care of their children, but sometimes overwhelming obstacles get in the way. We can go all in for families by identifying those obstacles and joining forces with a coalition of family-strengthening partners to provide needed resources to keep children safe and stabilize their families. It's simple, really. Children thrive when their families are strong, and strong families make healthier communities."—Brenda Donald, director, DC Child and Family Services Agency
"I believe to be 'all in' first becomes a decision of self. And that decision becomes infectious to those you are connected to. Permanency has to be a decision from a community, a city, a state, a government. Those who serve in this work get weary, not because they don't like the work but because there are not enough people for the work. This work requires hands and resources, neighbors and policymakers, and donors and organizations. Together, this work can and will impact each and every family that is searching for help. Let this nation be 'all In.'"—Carloe Moser, life insurance agent, independent business owner
"From Rise's perspective, being 'all in' for families and young people means working to dismantle the current child welfare system; eliminate cycles of harm, surveillance, and punishment; and create communities that invest in families and offer collective care, healing, and support. It means creating communities that are free from injustice, family regulation, and separation and a society that is cultivating new ways of preventing and addressing harm. It means making a radical commitment to ensuring that all families have what they need to live beyond survival and truly thrive."—Nora McCarthy, director, Rise Magazine
"Keep kids safe. Nurture a healing, affirmative relationship with parents. Create opportunities for families to experience hope through incremental change. These are the tasks of child welfare. Child safety is rarely achieved when we coerce parents. On the contrary, being all in for families means that we address the issues that are important to them, while reducing their stress. Start with the basics, such as food, clothing, and shelter. Dispel the myth that we know what's best for families. Stand with parents and their children. Help them rebuild their capacity. Remind our entire profession that every encounter with a family is an opportunity for healing. And lift up the art of listening as a social justice issue."—Paul DiLorenzo, A.C.S.W., M.L.S.P., interim executive director, Philadelphia Children's Alliance, and National Authority Team, Capacity Building Center for States
"As a former foster youth, being "all in" for families and young people means ensuring we are preventing the entry and re-entry of youth in care and those who have been waiting for forever families; bestowing that becomes a reality. We must create a family child well-being system that allows families to thrive when they need our help and, lastly, ensure our families and youth are safe, supported, and heard."—Ryan Young, national young leader, extended foster youth, and advocate, Phoenix, AZ
"Being 'all in' requires a few things. It requires creating and cultivating a place where those who work with children and families are committed to engaging in a learning and change process. The child welfare system itself must engage in self-reflection, but it is then all of us who must do that. One of our beloved elders said years ago that we need to do this with our heads and our hearts in balance. We have to develop a deep understanding of and be able to articulate the gap between what families need and what current systems/organizations are structured to provide, and then work diligently together to close those gaps. This must include all voices, especially the voices of families and young people. This process and environment requires clarity, kindness, compassion, and bravery. It also requires being fierce. Being "all in" requires us to develop a clear, wide lens and, most importantly, to see and treat each other as relatives, because we are."—Bree Bussey, M.S.W., L.G.S.W., director, Center for Regional and Tribal Child Welfare Studies, Department of Social Work, University of Minnesota Duluth
"Being 'all in' for families means standing with them, not in judgment of them. It means lifting their voices, listening to their wisdom, and learning from their experiences. It means letting them design the systems that will best meet their needs. And it means standing in kinship with them, in both good times and bad. When we are "all in" we don't serve to change people but serve to allow others to change us."—Vivek Sankaran, clinical professor of law, University of Michigan Law School
"Being 'all in' for families and young people means meeting every family with humility, compassion, and optimism. It means understanding that as human beings, we all share a profound need to connect to our own families, and as professionals, we must resist interventions that undermine the humanity of the children and parents we serve. Most importantly, it means knowing that parents and children are the experts on their own lives and that any effort to help must start with centering their voices and sharing our power."—Kathleen Creamer, managing attorney, Family Advocacy Unit, Community Legal Services of Philadelphia
"Most parents are doing the best they can, but now, some are close to breaking points. A September 2020 poll found 60 percent of households with children have lost jobs or wages due to the pandemic. Being 'all in' for families and young people means investing in preventive solutions that support and strengthen well-being and economic mobility. As a kinship and adoptive parent, I have access to parent coaching resources in my area. Families and youth experiencing hardship will weather this storm easier if they too have access to community-based services that help them stay together and strong."—Amy Templeman, director, Within Our Reach, and co-director of Impact, Safety and Resilience, Alliance for Strong Families and Communities
"Being 'all in' for families and young people means that you wholeheartedly support the idea that families and youth are the bedrock of our society—the fabric and the keystone of all that we hold near and dear, that they are the soil in which the acorn sprouts a beautiful oak tree and that they should be extended the greatest level of grace and support. It's the not-so-radical idea that pouring all of our care into these cornerstones of society will result in ripple effects throughout every system and improve everyone's quality of life and resilience."—Lino Peña-Martinez, foster youth intern, Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute
"The notion of being 'all in' is radical. It means to fully commit. And it has never been done. If we go 'all in' for families and young people, we are making an unwavering commitment to change. This means the abrupt and intentional abandonment of policies and practices that have decimated families for generations. This means investing in our communities and providing 'upstream' resources before punitive interventions. This means backing up our words with our fiscal budgets, with tangible support, with services and with equitable access. So, let's go 'all in' and not just say it, but mean it."—Jason Bragg, parent ally, Washington State
"In Allegheny County, being all in for children and families means thinking outside the box to help families BEFORE a tragedy occurs. That means developing creative prevention strategies that are nonstigmatizing, antiracist and culturally appropriate, easily accessible, and supported by the appropriate use of data. Current funding restrictions don't allow for that kind of creativity but instead force us to wait for serious child maltreatment before we can intervene. Flexible funding is a must!"— Allegheny County Pennsylvania Department of Human Services
"Families do over 90 percent of our nation's caregiving, teaching, counseling, health-care, and norm enforcement. Many lack requisite resources and skills, facing blame when they fail. Those who serve them (child welfare, teachers, law enforcement, lawyers, health care providers, etc.) may also lack necessary resources and supports. Family supports require attention to the systemic causes of child maltreatment and the disparities and disproportionalities that affect families of color. 'All-in' strategies require partnerships with families to design and guide tailored resources for family-centered prevention, early intervention, and child protection. Systems that aid children need to have supports for their families."—Katherine Briar-Lawson, professor, National Child Welfare Workforce Institute
"Being all in means truly engaging with and listening to families and doing whatever we can to help ensure that the services and supports they receive are consistent with what they have identified they need. Being all in means challenging the racist policies and practices that have existed in the child welfare system for centuries and advocating for changes that address them."—Angelique Day, Ph.D., M.S.W., associate professor, School of Social Work, University of Washington Seattle
"I can best express what it means to be 'all in' for families and young people with one-word—inclusion. Inclusive practice denotes we have an awareness and acknowledgment of the power imbalances pervasively and destructively woven throughout systems. Inclusion must be intentional and, at times, confrontational, bringing to the forefront policies and practices that contribute significantly to family separation rather than keeping families together. Additionally, inclusion demands that those most affected have an intentional space where their voices are sought and their wisdom valued. With this in mind, let your actions confirm you are listening, inclusive, and, indeed, all in for families."—Shrounda Selivanoff, social service specialist and birth parent advocate, Washington State Office of Public Defense, Seattle, WA
"To be 'all in' means that every individual is included in discussions pertaining to their life, and every individual is able to utilize culturally specific resources. Being 'all in' means every story is given their own spotlight even if they are cut from different clothes. It's recognizing that we should not be listening to only the 'success' stories but every story because we have the most to learn from those who the system failed."—Autumn Adams, youth representative, Yakama Nation
"If we are serious about being 'all in' for families and children, we must understand that families living in poverty are almost never in that position by choice. A litany of causes, notably including decades and centuries of racism; lack of educational and employment opportunities; and disability, trauma, and inadequate governmental and social supports, prevent them from resolving the challenges of poverty on their own. It means implementing a family stability and security system that directly assists parents and children confronting poverty by providing the necessary assistance to address and resolve it—not by traumatizing them though the process of removal. We must be guided by families in identifying their concerns, requests, and needs and not substitute our own judgment. When we are 'all in,' families are able to assert their voices and help us understand how we can better serve their needs."—Jey Rajaraman, chief counsel, Legal Services of New Jersey
"Being 'all in' is taking the necessary steps to meet the needs of all families. Being truly in social service. Taking time to increase the social capital and community supports for children and families as well as providing quality service to those who need things to go right. Being all in is showing up for the mother, father, child, kinship family member, foster care parent and ensuring that your all is given. Everyone needs a champion regardless of where they are from."—Victor Sims, case manager supervisor at a Teen Division Program at SailFuture, St. Petersburg, FL
"For the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA), 'being all in' means sounding a call to advance the vision of the CWLA National Blueprint for Excellence in Child Welfare: That 'all children will grow up safely, in loving families and supportive communities, with everything they need to flourish—and with connections to their culture, ethnicity, race, and language.' This vision is built on the belief that while the formal child welfare system has a varied set of responsibilities, the welfare of children is everyone's responsibility."—Christine James-Brown, chief executive officer, Child Welfare League of America
"Being 'all in' for families and young people means finding creative solutions to complex problems and identifying gaps in services and resources so we can build bridges to new opportunities. It means judicial leadership in systems reform efforts, collaborative partnerships between public and private entities, and coalition building between systems of care and communities. To be 'all in' means meeting every challenge as an opportunity and building capacity where there may only exist a vision. While some may say 'think outside the box,' I would venture to say being 'all in' means we deconstruct the box completely and build something anew—not simply think of what it could be."—Carlyn M. Hicks, county court judge, Hinds County Youth Court, Mississippi
Section: Spotlight on National Adoption Month
Written by Assistant Secretary Lynn A. Johnson, Administration for Children and Families
If you've been in the field, then I imagine you've been in this situation, too. You have a child, or a couple, or a family sitting in your office, maybe in tears, needing one lifesaving service or another. You connect them with a resource, and as soon as you find time to breathe, there's someone new filling that seat. Sometimes—when you're not swamped with paperwork or new clients—you probably sit there and wonder how that problem—whether it be child abuse or extreme poverty—could have been prevented. I know how frustrating—how exhausting—that feeling can be, and, frankly, it's one of the reasons I do the work I do now. Of course, our nation's vulnerable children, families, and communities need the services we provide. But on the other hand, we need a holistic reimagining of our human service delivery system. We need to invest in preventing social issues as much as we care about ameliorating them. We need primary prevention. Moreover, we need you to use primary prevention to imagine a better America.
Most importantly, our nation's children need primary prevention. As the Assistant Secretary of the Administration for Children and Families, I've spent the last 2 years tirelessly fighting for our nation's children, especially those who are waiting to be adopted. We're already seeing results from the "ALL-IN" Foster Adoption Challenge. Leaders from around the country are saying enough is enough; children shouldn't have to grow up without safe, loving families. At the same time, we can do something to prevent kids from being in that situation in the first place.
Reimagining our human service system takes boldness. Boldness looks like President Trump's historic Executive Order, aimed at strengthening our child welfare system. Through this Executive Order, we're acting boldly to improve our partnerships, improve our resources, and improve our oversight. First, we need to focus on partnerships. Complex problems require creative solutions. We must listen to those we want to help—parents whether biological, foster, or adoptive; children and youth; and those in the system or those who have left the system. We must partner with courts, churches, nonprofits, communities, and anyone else who is invested in the welfare of our children. We all have to come together to fight for our children and families. By coming together, we also hold ourselves accountable. Second, we need targeted resources. We need to provide better resources and training for our families. Third, we need more effective accountability. This looks like providing better guidance to states as they utilize flexible funding and encourage legal counsel for parents. These initiatives are bold, and they're already having a profound effect on our system.
Boldness also looks like putting our nation's vulnerable children first. Every day, we do this when we tell children they are worth it, that they deserve a safe, loving, stable family. I did this when I recommended that our children should be back in school in person this fall. This was a tough decision that schools should have the right to make on their own, but, with the principle that our vulnerable children should be put first, I recommended that schools should go back to in-person teaching. For many of our kids, education is one of the few pathways out of poverty. For many more, school is one of the few safe places in their day—a place where they can get a warm meal and encouragement from mentors. A decision like this takes boldness to put our children first.
Reimagining and improving our human service systems take boldness and out-of-the-box thinking, and the responsibility to do this rests with us all, from my office to the field.
Furthermore, reimagining the human service systems will take common-sense reform. The people who know best how to make our systems better usually have actual lived experience with those services. If we're engaged with those we serve—if we listen to what they have to say—then we can transform our systems to be the most effective that they can be. To accomplish this in child welfare, I brought Joshua Christian-Oswald, who spent nearly two decades in the child welfare system, into the team and created our first youth advisory board. This team of young people, who have been in the child welfare system, are using their firsthand experience to improve the system. Once we engage with those we serve, we can implement common-sense reform. We need common-sense reform like keeping families together, keeping sibling groups together, and paying attention to the importance of place-based attachment.
With boldness, creativity, and common-sense solutions, we can reimagine our human service systems. We can improve the services that empower millions of children, youth, and families. We can build a better world for our country's most vulnerable children and families. I challenge you to help me reimagine this world and then to construct it.
Section: Spotlight on National Adoption Month
Written by Sharon L. McDaniel, Ed.D., M.P.A., and alumna of foster care and recipient of kinship care. Dr. McDaniel is the founder, president, and chief executive officer of A Second Chance, Inc., Pittsburgh, PA
No child in need of child welfare supports and placement services ever asks to be placed with a stranger! Every jurisdiction in the country should recognize that children do best in their own families. When you go upstream, you disrupt the current mindset that sees children and families who are poor and/or of color through a pathological lens. Nearly 30 years ago, I founded A Second Chance, Inc. (ASCI), an agency intent on going upstream to disrupt child welfare's typical family engagement—which was culturally and racially biased.
According to 2019 data from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System, only 32 percent of foster children are in relative/kinship placements. This means 68 percent are not with relatives. Placements for children in nonrelative care include nonrelative foster care (46 percent of the total children in foster care), institutional care (6 percent), trial home visits (5 percent), group homes (4 percent), preadoptive homes (4 percent), and supervised independent living (2 percent). An additional 1 percent are classified as runaways. In terms of race and ethnicity, children of color represent more than 46 percent of the child welfare population: 23 percent are African American, 21 percent are Latinx, and 2 percent are American Indian/Alaska Native.
A recent article published by The Imprint argued that there is a critical need for the child welfare system to challenge the current operating paradigm, which equates poverty to neglect. This pervasive posture of the child welfare system both perpetuates and reinforces systemic biases rooted in racial and cultural constructs, which does more harm to Black, Brown, and poor White families, who, as shown by the data, experience poor outcomes more often than not. The common notion that the "apple does not fall far from the tree" is an example of systemic bias. However, based on ASCI's data, our respect for family works, as the percentage of children subjected to substantiated or indicated maltreatment while in kinship care is .00001 percent, and our placement stability far exceeds other forms of care.
Every discussion of child welfare practice must include a racialized and cultural context. This is a guiding philosophy at ASCI, a pioneering human services kinship care agency that trusts and values that children thrive best within the cultural and emotional closeness and care of their families. Unfortunately, the child welfare system's current deficit-based policies, procedures, and practices undermine the trust of families. Before child welfare is even involved, the Black family is suspect, and White saviorism still influences child welfare practice, which maintains the traditional foster care model of separating children from their own families. Why is this the case?
Since its founding, ASCI has narrowed its focus on transforming child welfare by employing a strategy that is "family first" and community focused, meaning the kinship triad (i.e., child/youth, birth parents, and kinship caregiver) is paramount in developing respectful policies, procedures, and practices that address the insensitive and bureaucratic nature of child welfare. In an effective service-delivery model, kinship care offers families the opportunity to self-define their child welfare experiences through their expertise rather than through a systems framework. As such, ASCI will be participating in an upcoming university-based research study exploring the experiences of grandparents raising their grandchildren in an effort to learn how the system can better support them, their grandchildren, and all kinship families.
To address our challenged system, we propose using a values- and practice-based model for supporting families that includes the following components:
Investing in children, youth, families, and communities is and will be an upstream journey. The conversation to transform child welfare moves from imagined to hopeful when we disassociate poverty from neglect; when we actually believe poor families love their children as much as anyone else; when we focus on family strengths, resilience, and belonging; when we fund services that support families; and when we keep families together instead of tearing them apart. This hope reinforces what I have long come to believe: When you protect the family, you protect the child. When you set up healing for the birth parent, you heal the child and caregiver. When you support community, you change the world. Investing in the preservation of families is in the spirit of what ASCI believes as its fundamental work and ultimate purpose.
Section: Spotlight on National Adoption Month
Written by the Indiana Department of Child Services
Transitioning to adulthood is hard—for anyone. Doing so while aging out of foster care without the support of a permanent family is even more difficult. The challenges facing this population are many. The Northwest Foster Care Alumni Study found that the following were occurring nationally for youth formerly in foster care:
In 2019, Indiana expanded older youth services supported by the John H. Chafee Foster Care Program for Successful Transition to Adulthood to age 23 for those who were in foster care after they turned 16. That same year, we extended the eligibility for Collaborative Care, Indiana's extended foster care program, from age 20 to age 21 to allow youth to voluntarily stay in foster care with flexible placement types.
Despite these efforts, our older youth made one thing clear in their feedback: Even this additional support is not enough. To truly help the children we serve, we must dedicate more resources to preventing their removal in the first place.
The foundation of all our older youth services is youth voice, and as we have made changes, we have consistently sought their input. Our youth have many avenues to express themselves directly to Indiana Department of Child Services (DCS) leadership so we can learn from their experiences. We have our Youth Advisory Board comprising youth currently and formerly in foster care from across the state, and in the summer of 2020, we launched Older Youth Town Halls to create spaces for them to engage with us. Lastly, our new monthly Lunch With the Leader series invites youth currently and formerly in care to spend 90 minutes talking about whatever is on their minds with these same DCS leaders, with lunch provided to all.
A key theme has emerged from these conversations: Older youth recognize the extra supports we have put in place, but their continued struggles make it clear that "aging out" must be a last resort. What young people need more than Chafee services and Collaborative Care placements is a permanent family. And for the best outcomes, that family needs to be their own.
Adoption and reunification are a core part of what child services agencies do, but even these are second-best options for children in care. The best outcome is to prevent the loss, disrupted bonding, and traumatic separation that happens to every child removed from their home and family.
In December 2017, Indiana had 16,830 children in out-of-home care. This reflects a 75-percent increase in children in out-of-home placements since the same time just 4 years prior. We knew we could do better, and—for the futures of all of our children and families—we had to.
We started by engaging our providers and many other stakeholders in the conversation about what we could do to keep more families safely together. Collectively, we came to some key conclusions:
Family Preservation Services (Family Pres), a program aimed at keeping families together, was born of these conversations. In the midst of the COVID pandemic, Indiana launched Family Pres in June 2020. This initiative focuses on outcomes that are easily measured, with providers understanding that they must excel at matching each family's specific needs with the right service models and the right intensity. Providers' success at achieving good outcomes protects their ability to continue working with the department.
Family Pres includes the following:
Family Pres empowers providers to teach our families how to identify and lean on their own resources. The providers who are best at helping families obtain and maintain employment, budget their resources, complete public assistance applications, and learn how to use emergency resources (such as the trustee's office or even the faith community) will be the ones that write fewer checks to landlords and utility companies. Most importantly, their families will be much better prepared to meet their own needs.
Indiana DCS is committed to continuous improvement, and launching Family Pres is a step we expect will pay big dividends for those we serve. Its holistic approach to wrapping around our families gives them the best chance to succeed, not only as we walk alongside them but after we have left them—hopefully stronger, safer, and better-prepared to face whatever comes next.
Section: Spotlight on National Adoption Month
Written by Christopher Scott, foster care alumnus and executive director of SUN Scholars, Inc.
As an alumnus of foster care, I often reflect on the proverbial question of "What went right?" However, it's equally important to ask "What went wrong?" Answering these questions ensures that, as child welfare professionals, we do better by our youth. As the executive director and founder of SUN Scholars, Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in Connecticut that supports youth in foster care and youth who have been adopted after high school, I often use the answers to these questions as the foundation toward providing support to the next generation of youth.
I grew up without knowing my biological father. Instead, I spent my childhood with my mother, who—despite her love and compassion—had her demons and lost her battle with addiction. These conditions created the perfect storm for homelessness. I recall months of couch surfing, sleeping in cars, and living in the kitchen of a friend's one-bedroom apartment. Circumstantially, these were the factors that led to my placement in Connecticut's foster care system. While I was fortunate to be adopted, my particular arrangement led to a dissolved relationship after turning 18. (As an adult, I'm grateful to share that this relationship has been rekindled. Forgiveness is a powerful tool to actualize healing.)
I wouldn't change any event or outcome of my life. Instead, I've used my experiences to reflect on how we can best serve children and youth who experience foster care in the present. One positive constant in my life that I credit for my current success is the role of positive mentors and adult figures at every step: my former youth group at Plainville United Methodist Church; my high school theater teacher, Jeff; my mentor, Carlos; Steve at the Commission for Children, Women, Seniors, Equity & Opportunity; , and the list goes on.
We know that a child must have experienced significant levels of trauma to enter the child welfare system, most often quantified through measuring adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). The average number of ACEs for youth in foster care is 3.6, with over half reporting having more than 4. This contrasts with the general population, in which only 7 percent report having more than four ACEs. ACEs and traumatic experiences at an early age have a direct correlation to premature death, reduced earning potential, and lower rates of educational attainment. While this paints a bleak picture, there is hope. Restorative factors and the development of resilience counteract the negative effects of trauma.
While research typically focuses on youth in foster care, it is essential to acknowledge that trauma history does not dissolve simply because a youth was adopted. As such, it is critical that we actively implement postpermanency resources for adopted youth, especially those adopted in kinship arrangements who may not be eligible for resources such as educational training vouchers, state-funded extended foster care, or other child welfare-related resources. While healthy adoptions can be invaluable to a youth, adoption in and of itself is not a silver bullet to combat trauma. To be "all in," services cannot stop once permanency is achieved; we must encourage restorative factors throughout the lives of those who have experienced traumatic upbringings and build resilience.
As evidenced in my own experiences, one effective strategy to develop self-efficacy, improve self-esteem, and improve outcomes for both those adopted and in extended foster care is to create structures that promote mentorship and healthy relationships.
Research consistently shows that healthy relationships are an invaluable combatant against the negative outcomes of trauma and contribute to the development of resilience. For instance, we know there is a correlation between the amount of genuine support and encouragement from professionals that a high school student receives and their likelihood of enrolling in a college or university.
While building SUN Scholars, Inc., mentorship and relationship building were the critical building blocks to our success as an organization. When I look back at my experiences at Tunxis Community College, I gratefully remember Professor Fierro, who encouraged me to get involved in the school newspaper (which was coincidentally called The Tunxis Sun). Can you imagine the impact this had? Unbeknownst to anyone at Tunxis, I was couch surfing, struggling with housing, and was almost last in my high school class. To know that someone had believed in me at that moment changed my life. These positive influences led to my graduation at Central Connecticut State University, AmeriCorps, and ultimately the opportunity to speak before members of Congress and the White House in 2019 through the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute's Foster Youth Internship Program.
Fast forwarding years into the future, it was my professional colleagues and mentors, such as Steve at the Commission on Women, Children and Seniors, who believed in me that allowed me to transfer to complete my master's degree of Liberal Arts in Government at Harvard University's Extension School and ultimately to fully actualize SUN Scholars, Inc. At every point of my life, I have sought out the guidance of mentors. These experiences do not need to be unique or exceptional; they are a result of the power that mentorship had on myself as a postadoption adult.
Professionals are welcome to emulate these ingredients that have allowed for success in both my life and the students we serve. At SUN, we are proud to show improved retention, graduation, and employment rates of our students. Uniquely, we have a staff comprised entirely of youth formerly in foster care and youth who have been adopted. We seek to create a family-like atmosphere, and our success is defined by the success of our community.
The power of mentorship and healthy relationships does not need to be confined to that of nonprofit programming. They can exist in adoptive homes, state agencies, and through the genuine support of allies within the community. Most of my immediate mentors did not have similar experiences to my life. However, they took me under their wing and treated me genuinely and with compassion. I wholeheartedly believe that these relationships changed my life and can be used to actualize the potential of all individuals who have experienced trauma. More so, these strategies can improve outcomes in postadoption youth and their adoptive families.
Section: Spotlight on National Adoption Month
Written by Nancy Kay Blackwell, executive director, Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, Washington, DC
As we continue to face the daily challenges of a global pandemic, our fight to uplift the voices of vulnerable children, youth, and families is more important than ever. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. government, state leaders, and communities have worked tirelessly over the past several years to push preventive measures to protect families and ensure they can and should stay together. There are over 400,000 children and youth in the U.S. foster care system, and approximately 122,000 children and youth are eligible for adoption and in need for a forever family.
The Administration for Children and Families (ACF) and Assistant Secretary Lynn Johnson launched the ALL-IN Foster Adoption Challenge to rally states, nonprofits, businesses, faith partners, and communities to help find forever homes for every waiting child. The All-IN challenge is just the boost the child welfare community needs to improve outcomes and find permanency for children and youth in the U.S. foster care system. A key piece of the ALL-IN challenge is uplifting the voices of youth formerly in foster care and adoptees to inform the child welfare system and communities that we need improvement.
We know that bringing these voices to the table is the key to success in changing the system and building strong families. Our work at the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI) strives to bring these direct voices to lawmakers to influence policy. Founded by Congress in 2001, CCAI is a mission-driven organization that (1) brings awareness to the need for permanent, safe, and loving families for children; (2) works to eliminate the barriers to permanency; and (3) serves as a resource for members of Congress and their staffs.
CCAI has built a significant program around the infusion of recommendations of youth with lived experience and advocacy. In 2003, CCAI launched the Foster Youth Internship Program to give youth with lived experience an opportunity to engage with federal policymakers about the needs and unique perspectives of children and youth in foster care. During the program, youth in foster care are placed in internships in Congressional offices. While participating in a congressional office summer internship, the youth interns spend time researching policy issues affecting children and youth in the U.S. foster care system to create a policy report that is presented to members of Congress and their staffs and released to child welfare advocates across the country. Some of these policy recommendations have inspired and transformed into law.
As the COVID-19 pandemic hit, CCAI prepared for the 2020 Foster Youth Internship Program. CCAI received notification that several congressional offices canceled their summer internship programs entirely, and several others postponed their internships until further notice. Due to the challenges of health and safety to travel to Washington, DC, from around the country, CCAI made the tough decision to take the program to a virtual environment. CCAI created a modified program, the Foster Youth Intern COVID-19 Pandemic Working Group, to explore the impact of COVID-19 on youth in foster care, families, and the foster care system. The Foster Youth Intern program developed policy reports in the following focus areas: safety and stability, aging out and well-being, higher education, permanency, and the child welfare workforce.
As they presented their policy recommendations to Congress, the Administration, and the White House, the need for their voices only grew as the summer came to an end. In August, U.S. Representatives Danny Davis (D-IL) and Jackie Walorski (R-IN) introduced the Supporting Foster Youth and Families Through the Pandemic Act (H.R. 7947) to provide additional support for older youth in foster care, grandparents, and other kinship families; home visiting for at-risk pregnant and parenting families; foster care prevention services; and other child welfare services. This legislation included several direct and indirect implementations of the policy recommendations made during the summer 2020 Foster Youth Internship Program , which included additional support for kinship care providers, improvements that would allow for higher levels of postsecondary access and success for youth in foster care during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond, and an increase in John H. Chafee Foster Care Program for Successful Transition to Adulthood dollars and funds to the Bureau of Indian Education-funded schools, tribal colleges, and universities. The Supporting Foster Youth and Families Through the Pandemic Act provisions were included in the recently updated Heroes Act that passed through the U.S. House of Representatives last month.
Now more than ever, we need to work together to bring these youth voices to the table. We join Assistant Secretary Johnson and the ALL-IN challenge in elevating these voices because we believe that every child deserves a safe, loving, and permanent family.
Section: Spotlight on National Adoption Month
Written by Kevin Campbell, Model Author Family Finding, familyfinding.org
"Revolutionary times call for revolutions, not patching."—William Beverage
We live in an extraordinary time. Never before in the work of child protection have we been able to access the ideas and stories of so many people speaking out about children's safety and the importance of families' well-being. Thoughts and counter ideas appear every day on countless platforms. People from across the country are asking hard questions and having courageous conversations. It seems that we are at a precipice; this building energy and movement must be expressed, but how and, more importantly, whom will it help or hurt?
Looking forward to long-promised reforms is both exciting and frustrating. It can provide a welcome distraction from confronting underlying structural and institutional fractures. However, we cannot safely build a promising future on a foundation that cannot support it or, worse, directly conflicts with the concepts, biological truths, and the design itself.
Several revolutions have been underway in recent decades; these require our unflinching attention and action to make measurable progress. Young people, parents, and former youth in care have been more vocal about their experiences than ever before. We cannot meet this revolutionary moment without listening to and acting on their wisdom based on lived experience. We have long accepted narratives about them that resulted in the present-day foster care and adoption systems. These service traditions remain in deep conflict with the perspective young people, parents, communities, and tribes have been providing for decades.
People affected by social service programs tell us they face tremendous difficulties. They tell researchers they value services that support them and their families to live socially, environmentally, and economically secure lives. They say to be a part of just and dignity-filled experiences, they must be seen for their abilities and listened to for their plans for building and living a good life. They say that services must be in service to them; they do not exist to be in service to government or government contractors or be supplanted by substitute families. They say historical relationships of power between governments, agencies, professionals, youth, and parents must change. The foundational change required is to place youth, families, communities, and tribes and their capabilities—not industry-created models and services at the center of the design, practice, and oversight.
Another revolution has been underway in the biological sciences, neuroscience, and genomic science. The resulting scientific consensus simply cannot continue to be ignored by child protection agencies, their contractors, and courts in the United States. This new science provides a foundational understanding of how health is built for better or worse over a lifetime. A useful application of science can be found in the statement, "Our biology is our biography." The places we live, the relationships we have, and the experiences we undergo as we develop, live, work, learn, and play directly affect our lifelong health, mental health, and even the length and quality of our lives.
This concept provides an opportunity to view its urgent implications for the impact on children's lifelong physical and mental health of being placed in or raised in foster or institutional care. Because of research, we can do better than imagine its impact. A very large recent longitudinal study involving hundreds of thousands of persons raised by systems in the United Kingdom show that 85 percent of persons who had out-of-home care experiences as children and adolescents developed chronic (incurable) physical and mental health conditions 30 years after leaving care. The same studies show that being placed with a relative reduced that risk by half. Finally, the studies revealed a result that stands as a staggering counternarrative to the entire theory of change in child protection. The best life course health and mental health outcomes for children involved with the child welfare system happened with those young people who could stay with at least one parent rather than being removed and placed in foster care or with a relative. Only 21 percent of these children grew up to suffer from chronic illness as adults 30 years later.
Science points to another required foundational change; we must fix child protection's broken relationship with the word "evidence." The evidence needed to build and sustain a just and health-promoting approach to children's safety and families' well-being will come from bedrock truths about human health and flourishing, not industry-made models. The emerging worldwide scientific consensus is clear; operating a foster care system makes its own contributions to distress and disease across the life course. Kinship care provides the best alternative to substitute care for children who cannot live safely with a parent. Children who can remain with a parent have the best long-term health and mental health outcomes. Institutions for children are disruptive to childhood development and harmful to health. We must continue the process of closing them.
The United Nations' Special Rapporteur on physical and mental health rights has called for a global paradigm shift on mental health. Dr. Dainius Puras described mental health policies and services as being in crisis—"not a crisis of chemical imbalances, but of power imbalances." He says member nations have constructed systems and institutions that embody social inequities within vulnerable persons and groups by holding those most affected by inequality and racism responsible for the social and health problems that severely impact their lives. Governments have continued to invest in institutions and programs that offer medicalized treatments and criminalization as remedies instead of deconstructing intentional inequities and the deliberate policies and programs that sustain them.
We know that most (60.8 percent) family separations carried out by child protection, police, and courts in the United States happen due to neglect, resulting from health and behavior health effects caused by unrelenting parental stress. The primary cause of this parental stress is economic, social, and neighborhood-based inequality. Foster care and adoption will never be a just remedy or cure for socially constructed hardships and their effects on American families.
A required foundational change—America never had a foster care crisis in child protection but rather a family engagement crisis. It is time to take this seriously and build funding, enforceable timelines, and policy commitments to address underlying economic and racial inequalities while investing in families' ability to stay together. When families cannot remain safely together, we must support them to remain at the table, central to the process where they and their community can construct livable solutions to the challenges that most affect their lives.
Revolutionary times call for revolutions. We must mindfully position ourselves and any resulting reforms in response to the critical feedback and ideas of those on the receiving end of child protection services. There can be no successful and valued reform without confronting the underlying power structures that shape the government and citizens' relationships and the ultimate ability to collaborate rather than be in the court in a protracted existential conflict.
One last revolutionary thought—I might call it a starting point for rethinking the quality of justice. Until we build a child protection system where every American family would welcome help like that from a medic on the battlefield, firefighter or nurse, we will continue to walk in shoes too small for us.
"Respect your future self who will know what you do not know."—Jennifer Michael Hecht, Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It
Section: Spotlight on National Adoption Month
All children and youth deserve to grow up in a safe, stable, and loving family. The child welfare system exists to support and strengthen children and families so they can remain intact. When children and youth are not able to safely remain or reunify with their families, it is essential to pursue permanency through adoption or guardianship. Since 1995, the Children's Bureau dedicates every November to adoption and increasing awareness about the need for adoptive families through the National Adoption Month initiative. Additionally, over the last 2 years, both the Administration for Children and Families and the Children's Bureau have prioritized permanency for youth in foster care through the Assistant Secretary's ALL-IN Foster Adoption Challenge and the Children's Bureau's Adoption Call to Action. Through these initiatives, States, with the support of nonprofits, businesses, faith partners, and local communities, have worked to examine data to develop new strategies for achieving timely permanency; enact plans for the recruitment, development, and support of adoptive families; and incorporate youth engagement strategies to ensure that young people are guiding their own permanency planning.
Fortunately, the 26th Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System report shows permanency efforts are making a difference. The number of children and youth in foster care significantly decreased to 423,997 in September 2019, as did the number of children waiting to be adopted. Yet, even with these positive trends, the work continues. On September 30, 2019, the number of children and youth waiting for adoption or other permanent homes was over 122,000. Of those children, 13,974 (11 percent) were between the ages of 15 and 17, and we know that older youth wait longer for permanency and are at risk of entering adulthood without necessary unconditional supports. Securing lifelong connections for these teens, both legally and emotionally, is a critical component in determining their future achievement, health, and well-being.
The theme for National Adoption Month 2020 is "Engage Youth: Listen and Learn" which focuses on finding adoptive families for older youth and highlights the importance of engaging young people in both routine and systems-change processes. Youth are the experts about what they want and need for their life and likely have questions and concerns they must discuss in order to move forward with permanency planning. To ensure permanency efforts are successful, it is vital that each young person is able to inform the process and make decisions about their life. Youth engagement is not a one-time action but instead should be incorporated into daily practice.
The National Adoption Month 2020 website includes resources and tips to help child welfare and legal professionals develop and support both formal and informal opportunities for young people to effectively share their voice and perspective. There are resources to help child welfare professionals address common barriers to effective youth engagement as well as resources for legal professionals in support of collaboration with child welfare and supporting permanency for older youth. Youth voice is incorporated throughout the website in tip boxes as well as the Voices of Youth section which features narratives and videos about the meaning of family and permanency.
Youth, families, and professionals can also visit the website to do the following:
National Adoption Month, supported each November by the Children's Bureau, is a partnership between AdoptUSKids and Child Welfare Information Gateway.
Section: News From the Children's Bureau
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
Written by Matt Anderson, director, Institute for Family
The Institute for Family is excited to announce that our website is now live. Please visit our site to learn more about the Institute, our team, our partners, and our vision to elevate family well-being. We are just getting started. Stay tuned as we continue to build our foundation.
The Institute for Family believes that family is the foundation for healthy children and strong communities. We are part of a growing movement to advance prevention-based efforts to strengthen families and reduce our overreliance on foster care. We use the power of real, authentic stories to engage, educate, and inspire people to create new opportunities for all families to thrive. You can read our first family stories on the website.
There are a few ways you can start to engage with the Institute for Family. You can subscribe to our email list and stay up to date on our progress. You can follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube. You can also register now for our webinar series, The Unlearning of Child Welfare: A National Conversation to Advance Child and Family Well-Being. We will be talking with leaders in the child welfare and prevention fields, parents who have navigated the child welfare system, and others who are doing the work to create new ways to strengthen families, prevent child welfare involvement, and improve the foster care experience going forward. We also sponsored a Family Stories Film Challenge, and the winning submissions are on the website. These stories simply celebrate the diversity of family and the important role that it plays in our lives, communities, and society.
We are currently developing both podcast and documentary concepts. We will partner with families to tell their real, authentic stories of child welfare and highlight new insights and innovations from the field, building the momentum to advance strategies that strengthen families. In 2021, we will launch an online platform to offer reliable, relatable parent education content that is grounded in research and informed by parents. The education content will be delivered across easily digestible articles, videos, and other interactive formats on our website, helping parents with their most pressing questions and concerns. We look forward to sharing more over the coming months.
We are early in our development and will do a full launch of our platform in early 2021. In the meantime, we welcome the opportunity to hear from you about how we can work together. You can reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Section: News From the Children's Bureau
Written by the Capacity Building Center for States
Engagement and empowerment of youth in foster care can have powerful positive results for young people seeking permanency. Working toward legal permanency (i.e., reunification, adoption, or kinship care) and relational permanency (i.e., a relationship or connection with a caring adult) for older youth is an important goal for child welfare agencies (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2019a). Such relationships provide a sense of belonging and support that contribute to a greater sense of security and self-assuredness in adulthood and buffer the effects of trauma (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2019a,b).
The strategies below can help child welfare agencies empower youth to take the lead in their own permanency planning.
Help Youth Understand Permanency
To set a foundation for empowerment, child welfare staff need to collaborate with youth to help them understand what the concept of "permanency" means and what it can mean for them. The term can be confusing, so staff should offer clear definitions, explain various permanency options, and intentionally identify opportunities to strengthen understanding over time.
Share Power With Young People
Young people are the experts in their own care. It is important for child welfare agencies to work with, not for, young people on permanency planning as soon as developmentally appropriate for the youth (Center for States, 2020; Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2020a). This engagement of youth should be ongoing, not a one-time effort.
Child welfare staff can partner with young people in permanency planning by engaging youth in (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2020b):
Child welfare staff should actively collaborate with and support youth through engagement and planning processes and work together to explore the best permanency options for them.
Meet Youth Where They Are
Sometimes, young people may hesitate to pursue permanency because they don't see the lifelong benefits of such relationships or because of their feelings of loyalty for their family members (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2020b). Youth may be weary of the process of seeking permanency if it has gone on for a long time (Center for States, 2020). Youth may also be understandably reluctant to make themselves vulnerable to additional loss by expressing openness to adoption or other permanency options. Staff can help young people by offering empathy and understanding of their lived experience, supporting permanency planning at a pace that is comfortable for the youth, explaining that permanency doesn't mean cutting ties with family members, and providing information about what permanency may mean for their current life and future goals.
Provide Opportunities for Young People to Share Their Stories
Speaking with youth formerly in foster care about their experiences with permanency may make some young people see permanency as a positive outcome worth pursuing. Child welfare agencies can support young people by providing opportunities for them to meet foster care alumni who have achieved permanency, hear their stories, and learn about the challenges they faced (Center for States, 2020). Agencies also can provide forums for young people to share their own stories through meetings, speaking engagements, dedicated websites, or social media. These forums can help young people share their experiences with foster or adoptive families and raise public awareness about the challenges youth face in seeking permanency.
It is important to authentically engage youth in permanency planning to ensure that they have stable families and permanent relationships that can support them throughout their lives. Child welfare agencies can best help youth work toward these goals by validating their feelings about permanency, exploring permanency options with them, and empowering them to own important decisions throughout the process.
For more information on empowering youth in the permanency planning process, see:
Center for States. (2020). "Youth engagement and Empowerment – An Adoption Call to Action community of practice virtual event." [Webinar]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WeMTspygSaI
Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2019a). Promoting permanency for older youth in out-of-home care. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/bulletins_permanency.pdf
Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2019b). Belonging matters—Helping youth explore permanency. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children's Bureau. https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/bulletins-belongingmatters/
Section: News From the Children's Bureau
The Children's Bureau website hosts information on child welfare programs, funding, monitoring, training and technical assistance, laws, statistics, research, federal reporting, and much more.
Recent additions to the site include the following:
Visit the Children's Bureau website often to see what's new.
Section: News From the Children's Bureau
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