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December 2020Vol. 21, No. 9Relentless for Families

This edition of CBX focuses on the need to be relentless in the pursuit of a dramatically different vision for child welfare in the United States. It features articles from some of the most relentless voices in the field. At times, some of the contributors to this edition have found themselves in direct opposition to one another. This is not one of those times. There is unprecedented unity among individuals with lived expertise, advocates, child welfare administrators, public health officials, attorneys for children, parents, judges, researchers, professional membership organizations, and others who care for and about children, youth, and families that we must push to achieve a true child and family well-being system. There is growing insistence that we must do all we can to support families and reduce the need for contact with formal child protective services. There is a growing consensus that we must do all we can to avoid unnecessary family separation. The voices included in this addition have been fierce advocates for justice, new approaches, and accountability. They are individuals who hold strong to principles even when it is not popular to do so. Some have started movements. Others will be our future leaders. It is relentless individuals like those contributing to this edition that have helped bring us to the critical juncture we face as a field. They, and scores of others, will be needed to keep us moving forward boldly so we become a vastly more just, equitable, and human system that prioritizes family integrity, family support, and healing.

Issue Spotlight

  • In Pursuit of Growing and Healing: Changing Child Welfare

    In Pursuit of Growing and Healing: Changing Child Welfare

    Written by Shrounda Selivanoff, director of public policy, Children's Home Society of Washington, parent ally, and kinship caregiver

    "Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything."—Martin Luther King

    Everything in life should change. It is a natural progression, and it is necessary for growth. To not be open to the evolution of change is unnatural and disastrous.

    It appears we stand at the brink of deliberate change in child welfare. People from diverse communities, sectors, and experiences have come together and implored states and the federal government to reflect on how the child welfare system is operating and who it is failing. Many have concluded this system, in its current structure, is not merely inadequate to address the needs of children and families but is profoundly harmful. In pursuit of a more promising future, the conversation has abruptly and appropriately shifted to this: how can we design a child and family well-being system?

    As families caught in the child welfare system understand better than anyone, abrupt change produces a variety of emotions and, often, trauma. It is not surprising, therefore, that calls for prioritizing well-being in child welfare have been met with some initial resistance. But change is always possible because deliberate change is a choice. It requires acknowledgment of what needs to change and commitment to adopt a new set of actions, beliefs, and values.

    The need for connection is essential for every human being; it is one of the things that make us human. Most people cannot imagine the proposition of losing contact with those they love; it is a devastating thought. In its current framework, child welfare disregards this essential truth. Many children never return home, and those severed ties deprive those children of one on the main components necessary for a life of meaning and purpose.

    The existing child welfare system is rooted in the faulty premise that family separation is necessary to address a family's need in a crisis. Families are foundational. The adversities that families survive—well before the child welfare system became involved—build strength and often strengthen family bonds. Families who have survived difficulties have strengths that are key to their healing. There are rarely candid conversations about the strengths that families have developed by surviving and enduring the conditions of poverty.

    A large percentage of families enter this system due to neglect. They enter not because a child has been physically harmed but to avoid future harm. Research shows that experiencing neglect is harmful to children. Growing up in adversity is hard on kids, and families need support to improve their circumstances and to heal their trauma. This does not require removing (i.e., further traumatizing) children and shaming parents. Helping these children is better done by helping their families meet their basic needs and compassionately supporting their wellness.

    Change will require facing the uncomfortable fact that systemic racism is deeply ingrained in the system as bias is the other root issue for most families who enter care. Seldom on the ground level are their open discussions to the degree this drives a child welfare case's dismal outcome. If race comes to the forefront, it is quickly diverted back to the parents and their shortcomings. It is impossible to remove bias; it pervades us from multiple angles. But how do we mitigate its harmful effects and impacts? Racism must be confronted and addressed, and the system must intentionally drive forward in antiracist practice and policies.

    After acknowledging bias, we can move to commitment, cemented with a new set of actions, beliefs, and values—a commitment to keep families intact and children in their homes and with their families, while offering the kind of support and help that improves the well-being of each family member.

    Focusing on family well-being requires bringing a critical partner to the table: the parent. Families already have many strengths, protective factors, and resilience. There should be far more efforts and resources dedicated to discovering, uncovering, and supporting those strengths because those strengths are irreplaceable. Likewise, community collaboration can support these families so they never meet the threshold for child welfare involvement. Diverting resources to communities means actual financial investment. 

    Child welfare has an incredible budget of billions of dollars. Currently, the bulk of the investment goes to upholding the system in its current framework: family separation, foster care, and adoption. Shifting priorities to family's and children's well-being, prevention, and family preservation, as well as addressing poverty, would be monumental. 

    Finally, we can commit to act with kindness and to demonstrate that all involved genuinely care for families and that the entire family's needs are equally important. Each member of the child's family is deserving of compassionate care. Indeed, foster care should be renamed family care to send the clear message that the family is in the center and that the system is focused on the needs of the family rather than fostering children outside their homes.

    Separating families must be the absolute last course of action. Governments must invest in families and provide tangible support with the objective of keeping families together. Finally, if children are separated, all efforts and resources must be deployed to keep children with their communities and relatives. With these truths firmly established, there is room for authentic dialogue and action.

    Now that the people most impacted by child welfare have finally been invited into the conversation, we cannot go back to old ways of thinking. The power of bond and family is boundless. A family firmly planted on solid ground can withstand difficulties and remain intact and flourish for generations to come. Although our nation has dismissed this priceless truth for far too long, the new thinking in child welfare sees families as the seed, soil, and roots. In this new thinking, every individual, sector, and community member can deliberately choose to act as though we are all connected and necessary for growth. There is nothing to discard as there is intrinsic value in keeping families together.

  • Child Welfare Needs a Radical Course Correction

    Child Welfare Needs a Radical Course Correction

    Written by Martin Guggenheim, Fiorello LaGuardia professor of clinical law and co-director, Family Defense Clinic, New York University School of Law

    No wealthy country in the world treats children born into poverty as the United States does, nor does any other country in the world run a child welfare system the way the United States does. Neither of these statements should be taken as a compliment. Far from it. On both counts, the United States does these things worse than any country with which it likes to be compared.

    Over the past generation, the United States has become the world's leader of wealthy nations in two respects. First, it has the weakest infrastructure for ensuring child well-being for children born into poverty. Unlike the western European countries with which it is most commonly compared, the United States refuses to have a negative income tax, universal child care, free visiting nurse services, and other essential services routinely made available in the most progressive countries. That, by itself, should be troubling to anyone committed to improving the lives of children born into poverty. As a result, as compared with these countries, America's poor children rank last in virtually every category used to count child well-being.

    But this doesn't come close to revealing just how bad things really are. The United States is rhetorically committed to caring about children, but it manifests that concern uniquely by running a "child welfare" system that, in key characteristics, is the opposite of the rest of the world's systems. Whereas other countries take pride in the degree to which they are able to reduce child poverty and its worst effects on child well-being by ensuring that children are able to be raised by their families, the United States takes great pride in disrupting poor families by placing children in foster care and then forever banishing them from their parents after terminating their parents' rights when the children have spent 15 months in foster care. No other country has laws even remotely similar. Professionals in other countries would count as a tragedy what professionals working in the American child welfare system celebrate. Indeed, were they to learn they were the world's leader in permanently destroying families, the professionals outside the United States would insist they cease doing so immediately and reevaluate where they went wrong so they could radically change course.

    This is precisely what those working in the child welfare system in the United States should do in 2021. I recognize that the language employed here will fall harshly on the ears of most professionals who work in the field. The well-meaning professionals who have made child welfare the focus of their professional lives, including social workers, caseworkers, judges, court-appointed special advocates, children's lawyers, agency lawyers, agency heads, and the leaders of foundations that helped erect this destructive system, sleep well at night believing they are advancing child well-being as best they can. This is a plea to reconsider that belief and see the truth staring out at all of us.

    Surely something is wrong with any system that is as hated and feared by those ensnared by it as is the child welfare system. The subjects—parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, children, and the communities who love those children—see it as highly destructive. They fear it and fervently wish it would cease existing. And their views are widely shared by the lawyers and social workers who fight for these families to be able to live together.

    Children born into poverty are unlucky. But children born into poverty in the United States are uniquely unlucky. In too many countries in the world, those born into poverty understand that no one will pay serious attention to them or their families. Their plight is frequently a life-long struggle for subsistence. Children born into poverty in most wealthy western countries are fortunate to live in societies that guarantee minimum income to all families and other vital services designed to mitigate structural inequality. Children born into poverty in the United States do not get the resources many wealthy countries provide. But neither are they totally ignored. Instead, the predominant form of intervention too many poor children receive is their removal from their families and their placement in foster care, which, far too mechanically, leads to their never being allowed to be part of their family again. As my colleague Chris Gottlieb has written, "We are the only country in the world that routinely pays people to adopt children whose birth parents want desperately to raise them. And we turn thousands of children who will never be adopted into legal orphans, dooming them to remain in foster care until they come of age."

    Now is the time to change what we are doing. The coming year is when the children's rights organizations and major foundations that built the current child welfare field need to reevaluate what they have done, repudiate those efforts, and commit themselves to the world's understanding of children's rights: to create a society in which children born into poverty are allowed to thrive in their families of origin. Children in the United States deserve to live in a society that wants them to grow up in their own families. They deserve to live in a society committed to ensuring that happens. Until we dismantle the current system called child welfare and replace it with this very different definition of child welfare, the United States will remain, to its shame, an outlier in the world of nations.

    Since 1997 when Congress enacted the Adoption and Safe Families Act, the first law in American history that pays states a bonus for each family they extinguished over the number destroyed the year before, the United states entered one of its darkest periods in its history involving children, a period that is sure to be repudiated. We will, I am confident, look back on this era as more than a misguided turn in policy. It will be regarded as a human rights tragedy that historians will struggle to explain.

  • To Truly Be Relentless, We Must...

    To Truly Be Relentless, We Must...

    Written by Nico'Lee Biddle, L.C.S.W., policy analyst at the Center for the Study of Social Policy, member of the Board of Directors for FosterClub, and expert with lived experience

    Over the years that I've been involved in child welfare system reform efforts, I have frequently heard the system described as "broken." When this state of brokenness originated depended on who was speaking. Was it a result of the unintended consequences of the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997? Was it when the pendulum supposedly swung toward giving birth parents "too many rights?" Was it a result of underfunding leading to a workforce that wasn't capable of carrying out its responsibilities? Where does this idea of the system being broken come from, and why can't it be fixed?

    Let's imagine the child welfare system as a broken-down car. Over the years it has had many owners, and for the past 5 years you've been forced to drive it and use it as your only mode of transportation. You've been pouring money into it nonstop. So far, you've tried to fix problems big and small, but no matter what you do, the car keeps breaking down. You've even taken it to various mechanics, and each one has tinkered around or added a new part; each was optimistic that they had "fixed" the problem, but sooner or later, another problem would appear and something else would be needed to get the car moving again.

    The child welfare system is similar: failing, not serving the needs of its owners (the children and families it is intended to serve), and requiring more and more costly interventions to fix what ultimately can't be fixed. There are a disproportionate number of Black and Brown youth in the system. Too often, children sleep overnight in offices because there aren't enough foster homes. Youth have been abused while in congregate care, and young adults age out every single day without any sort of permanency. Those working in the field generally acknowledge these truths and work hard every single day to try to make the system better. The failures of child welfare are not due to neglectful or indifferent staff. So, what is the problem?

    Let's look again at the broken car. Eventually, when you consulted the car's previous owners, you realized that they had the same issues as you and that you had in fact inherited a lemon. This car was never going to work no matter how much time, money, and expert care you put into it. 

    The child welfare system is like the car—no matter how you attempt to tinker with and fix the mechanics, the entire operating system is fundamentally broken, and it is largely functioning exactly as designed. A historical review makes clear child welfare systems began with a belief that wealthy White saviors can rescue poor children, and later children of color. The system was built on the premise that family separation as the primary means of intervention was needed to keep children safe. The foster care system started with the Children's Aid Society and the Orphan Trains, which essentially removed poor immigrant children from cities and placed them in the country to live and work on White-owned farms, under the guise of giving the poor city children a better life. Seldom acknowledged in White history but also true, is that family separation has its roots in slavery and colonialism. Colonists separated families of color and auctioned them off to the highest bidder based on their perceived qualities (if this reminds you of present-day adoption events where photos and videos of youth are shared with prospective families, you are not alone).

    It is on this historical backdrop that the modern child welfare system was born. We know people who work in child welfare want to do well, want to help children and families, and want to do it in the best ways they know how. But in order to do that, the racist and classist foundation on which the present-day system is built must be acknowledged, and present-day decisions must be critiqued with this historical context in mind. For example, most children are removed from their families due to a blanket definition of neglect, which includes things like a lack of food, homelessness or unsafe living conditions, a lack of medical or mental health care, truancy, and so on. These are symptoms of living in poverty. Poverty is not abuse or neglect and yet we, as a society, allow our systems to treat a poor parent as though they are neglectful without ensuring they have the basic resources to succeed.

    In the car metaphor, it only makes sense to get rid of the car and find whatever mode of transport will work best for you, something designed to meet your needs. The same is true for the current child welfare system.

    Perhaps instead of dumping more money and more resources into a system that continues to uphold racist and classist ideals, we reimagine the child welfare system as something different. What does this mean? Well, it means shrinking the system dramatically and shoring up community supports, so struggling families can receive more than just a service plan and a program they are mandated to attend to simply check off a box. It means meaningfully addressing poverty and making sure there is timely and meaningful access to mental health supports, substance use treatment, and safety for families. It means being innovative and allowing youth and families to lead the design of new ideas. It means being relentless for children and families.

    If we are to be truly relentless for children and families, then we must be relentless in advocating against family separation. We must be relentless in demanding social systems that help families get out of poverty without blaming families for being poor. We must be relentless that proposed interventions do not further harm Black and Brown families and children. We must be relentless in demanding access to health care, safe housing, and healthy food for all. We must be relentless for building strong communities that support the well-being of all families and children.

    To be relentless means, literally, "to show or promise no abatement of severity, intensity, strength, or pace." The time to be relentless for all children and families is now. We must.

  • Does Every Child Matter? If Not Now, When?

    Does Every Child Matter? If Not Now, When?

    Written by Judge William Thorne, retired state and tribal court judge and Pomo/Coast Miwok tribal member

    If every child mattered—if every family mattered—why does our system fail so many? Why is there no urgency behind solving the problems that confront and separate a family? How can we ignore the failure when a child ages out? Every termination of parental rights is an implicit admission of failure to successfully engage and heal a family. Too many of our failures end up in intergenerational stories of foster care, penal systems, and hopeless poverty as the discards of our failed efforts pile up.

    One of the maxims circulating today is that every system is perfectly designed to deliver the results it produces. We need to rededicate ourselves to building a different system that heals and helps rather than perpetuates the results we say we deplore.

    Our current child welfare system inflicts a high toll on families and leaves too many behind. Poor people and people of color are disproportionately failed. We can no longer pretend that "good motives" are enough to excuse our poor results. We have, until this year, justified the intransigence of our child welfare system to change with the explanation that "this is the best we can do." But is it?

    The pandemic that is enveloping the world has forced us to take another look at the way we operate. We have adjusted—sometimes painfully—to working around obstacles and risks and doing things we believed impossible. We are expediting children's return home and using technology to expand visitation opportunities. We are finding ways of collaborating without being across the table from each other. These are all positive steps that hopefully will not be lost in the return to "normal." But why stop there? If we want different results, isn't this the perfect opportunity to work smarter? After all, if we want different results, we need to work differently.

    We need to be explicit about our beliefs and values. Children do best in families—including extended families—and communities that love them and keep them safe. Safety is important, but without the love we give our own kids, it is hollow. There is a reason foster care and lack of empathy are paired so often as correlates for people in prison. We learn empathy (an ability to care for someone besides ourselves) from our families. We don't learn it in foster care or in institutions.

    If we believe children need families, what are we doing to invest in those families and support them? During my 40 years as part of the system, I have witnessed that success is incorrectly calibrated as compliance with a court-ordered plan. Instead, success should be aligned with building a support system designed to enhance a family's resilience.

    Our system took a wrong turn when we decided that failure to comply with "our" plans constituted their "failure." In fact, in many jurisdictions, failure to follow a plan is independent (and conveniently easier to prove) grounds to deprive children of their families. This notion that the system knows best is clearly a fallacy given the outcomes it produces. We have created a system where we tell ourselves that success occurs because we created a good plan and demanded compliance. But we also tell ourselves that failure is attributable solely to the inadequacies of the families we say we are here to serve. We cannot have it both ways. We—that is, child welfare—need to own both results (the successes and the failures), especially when failure means we have given up on a family.

    If success is really our goal in child welfare, why are we settling for foster care and termination of parental rights? Why are we demanding compliance instead of building resilience? Are the children not worth the effort? Are we too complacent to care? Or do we simply not believe that we can make a difference?   

    We desperately need to change direction and focus. We need a system where "our" success as professionals is ONLY tied to successfully enabling a family to safely care for its children and where ANYTHING ELSE is failure—OUR failure. We are the professionals in this dynamic. It is our responsibility to succeed, and we cannot in good conscience walk away and say it's "not our fault." The cost is too high to the children, their families, and our communities when we do this. Assisting struggling families should be no more beyond our reach than flying to the moon was 60 years ago. What do we need to figure out? Invent? Reexamine? Repurpose?

    As professionals, our job is to figure out how to assist each child and their family. To do this, we must change our approach, set aside our hubris, and realize that one size doesn't fit all—not in medicine, not in education, not in mental health, and certainly not in child welfare. When we don't achieve success, we need to change strategies. Believing we are "right," while at the same time being unsuccessful in assisting families to safely care for their children, is wrongheaded.

    We need to ASK parents, children, extended families, and others connected to the children about their goals and dreams. What do they need to succeed? How can we help? What roadblocks are they encountering? We need to LISTEN RESPECTFULLY and LEARN. Families may not have all the answers, but they are the experts about their family. They know the history, mythology, and stories of their family, as well as the strengths of individual members. They will also tell us when a particular approach is not working or that a different strategy may be necessary. We need to COLLABORATE. Many different perspectives, skills, approaches, and strengths may be needed. We need to remember this is not about "us"—not about our agency policies, limitations, and resources or an individual worker or judge's proclivities, sensitivities, workload, or convenience. It is about doing whatever is necessary to achieve success. Families and children must be part of that collaboration. Finally, REPEAT AS NECESSARY. Each failure is an opportunity to learn, redirect, and try something a bit (or a lot) different. Each small success is a chance to acknowledge strengths and ability. We must build a web of resilience and not rely on a fragile thread of compliance.

    Success is possible for the families we are assisting, just like flying to the moon. But do we believe in it enough to make it happen? Are we sufficiently dedicated to keep moving forward? If not now, when?


  • They Will Come for You; Be Relentless Anyway

    They Will Come for You; Be Relentless Anyway

    Written by Chuck Price, owner, Price and Associates Consulting, Wisconsin Rapids, WI

    Real change—the shift toward prevention within child welfare practice—is under way. The vision and transformation efforts demonstrated by the Children's Bureau have been crucial to changemakers at the local level. The support and assurance of knowing that the federal agency is sharing the sentiments and heading in the same direction has allowed leaders like myself to become even more relentless and courageous with our own systems transformations.

    For the past 8 years, I was a director of a county health and human services department in rural Wisconsin and led the implementation and integration of a trauma-informed approach to health and human services. There was a heavy concentration on improving, changing, and transforming child welfare practice, including concepts such as "no child will be placed with a stranger," alternative-response models for initial assessments, and moving away from a "gotcha!" system and instead focusing on building relationships with families. The current system continues to use words like "investigate," "investigation," and "substantiation"—a system of shame and blame. We were committed to a compassionate, empathetic, and healing-based system.

    Knowing that you cannot change one system without changing the whole department, we educated all our staff—from receptionist to myself as director—about trauma-informed care and adverse childhood experiences. We developed principles based on trauma-informed care and vision/value statements. We used these pieces for internal decision-making and recruiting staff dedicated to these ideals. The results showed marked improvement in the recruitment and retention of staff, and we assembled a healthy and dedicated staff ready to change the whole system. We were gaining recognition for our successes, such as 13 months with zero children in residential placement.

    The changes we were making, along with a trauma-informed lens securely in place across the department, put us on a path to bigger and bolder goals—to change the child welfare system. Why change the child welfare system? In most cases, the current system invokes more harm than good when we intervene with families as currently prescribed. The data suggest that we would be better off not responding at all. Knowing that a prevention-based, relationship-based, and compassion-based model would be more effective, we sought every opportunity to find changemakers and learn from them.

    What we learned is that people are comfortable hearing about what you want to do. This support is always on a surface level and, in some cases, include thoughts that true change to support families will never happen. For example, when you pitch your ideas, people will nicely reply, "That sounds great! Good luck to you." As you begin your change process, I urge you to pay attention to those same people and really evoke change. The system would much prefer status quo or staying comfortable. When we stay comfortable, families lose. How could this possibly be? I mean, people keep saying "the system is broken" right? Would not everyone, then, want the system to change to help children and families and to support them and prevent deep-end system intervention? I certainly had this thought.

    Here's the thing though, the system isn't broken; the system is doing exactly what it was designed to do. We have set up programming, such as residential treatment centers, group homes, treatment foster homes, and foster care in general, that have all now become an industry. The industry needs to eat, right? The industry relies on the exact processes that are in place—removing children from their families. So, the radical transformation needed is the dismantling of an enormous industry that has been in place for decades. 

    When the changes move from talk to action and begin to impact other systems, be ready because they will come for you. This is advice close colleagues and mentors gave me as our momentum was growing. Who are "they"? The answer might be different depending on your situation and relationships. The "they" could be your county board, city council, human resource department, local sheriff, local police chiefs, local school administrators, or district attorney—anyone who sees and feels that you are creeping out of your lane and affecting theirs. That is who is going to come for you: people and systems who will not be concerned about successful outcomes or those who may have a different philosophy on what defines successful outcomes or safety for children, families, or communities. Be ready for "secret" meetings to take place about you. Be ready for closed-session meetings, and be ready to be outnumbered in these meetings. Be ready for the full effects.

    Be relentless anyway of the oppression of the system. The system does not want to change its ways; it just wants you to fall in line. 

    Families need us to be strong, unwavering, and relentless. They need us to challenge the system. The child welfare system as it currently stands is designed to be punitive in nature. It is designed to investigate, make decisions, and then "do things" to families. It is not designed for authentic engagement that allows for true partnership. In the end, it may have been my peril, but I was not going to compromise with systems. I was not willing to place children unnecessarily out of their homes, and I was not willing to bend rules or laws for system partners to get the results they were looking for, which was essentially giving up on a family or a child to make the other systems feel better. That was not going to happen. Which family or kiddo gets to experience the status quo system? Which gets the full benefit of a relationship-based system?

    There is inherent risk in this change work, and it can come with great personal cost. I urge you to think about what it is costing families, what it is costing generations and the health of our communities. Do not be afraid to step into the arena and stand for what is right. They will come for you; be relentless anyway.


  • What Relentlessness Looks Like in the Nation's Capital

    What Relentlessness Looks Like in the Nation's Capital

    Written by Brenda Donald, director, District of Columbia Child and Family Services Agency

    The District of Columbia (DC) Family First Five-Year Prevention Plan is titled "Putting Families First in DC." It's so much more than a title. It's a value statement embedded in an agenda that has taken the DC Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) from being just a foster care agency to a family strengthening system. The premise is simple—we believe that families want their children to thrive, but sometimes things get in the way. When my own kids were young, my prayer was that they would be happy, healthy, and safe. I fundamentally believe that all parents want the same for their kids, and I have embedded that principle into the fabric of CFSA.

    The families we serve are complex; the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against them. When I joined CFSA many years ago, it was apparent that the breaking points that bring families to the agency's attention were often predictable. So, with the support of other city leaders, we have made it our goal to identify these potential breaking points early enough to help place families on a different pathway. If we reach families before things fall apart and connect them to a helping healing system, they have a fighting chance.

    How do we do that? In addition to establishing a comprehensive family support system, it was critical to build the organizational infrastructure necessary to know when and how to intervene when children are in danger. It's a "both ... and" strategy. 

    At CFSA, we established the Four Pillars, a values-based framework that guides our agenda:

    1. Front Door: Children deserve to grow up with their families and should be removed only as the last resort. The goal is to narrow the front door into the system by meeting families in the "front yard" or on the "front porch" and connecting them to community-based services.
    2. Temporary Safe Haven: Foster care is a good interim place for children to be cared for while we work to get them back to a permanent home as quickly as possible. Planning for a safe exit begins as soon as a child enters the system.
    3. Well-Being: Children should leave foster care better than when they entered. Every child has a right to a nurturing environment that supports healthy growth and development, good physical and mental health, and academic achievement.
    4. Exit to Permanence: Every child and youth exits foster care as quickly as possible for a safe, well-supported family environment or life-long connection. Older youth have the skills they need to succeed as adults.

    The Four Pillars framework stands on a foundation that includes the agency, the community, and the broader system. I often say of CFSA, "We are the child welfare agency; we are not the child welfare system." That system comprises birth and foster families, associated governmental agencies, the courts, community partners, and the numerous stakeholders necessary to support and stabilize vulnerable families.

    Our relentless adherence to the Four Pillars has yielded worthy outcomes. When CFSA rolled out the framework in 2012, we had 1,700 children in foster care. Today, we have approximately 700, and the percentage of families we support in their own homes has increased from 45 percent to 65 percent. 

    So, how do you do this? All jurisdictions are different, and while there is no magic recipe, CFSA has seen results with these essential ingredients:

    • Clearly articulated core values embedded throughout the system. CFSA staff and all our partners understand and are invested in the Four Pillars. We are intentional in using them to guide our performance metrics, training, and promotional materials.
    • The organizational infrastructure to support the values. A "narrowing the front door" declaration in favor of keeping children with their families requires a solid infrastructure with proven risk and safety decision-making tools, training, reasonable case loads, and continuous quality improvement to ensure that the narrow front door does not become a revolving door. 
    • Cross-agency collaboration. In the District, our families' needs and opportunities to receive support span multiple public agencies, including mental health, human services, employment services, public health, education, and housing. We use data to map where our families live and with which agencies they engage, and the results are not surprising—same kids, same families, same neighborhoods. It presents a compelling argument for joining arms across the system and working collaboratively on behalf of families.
    • An investment/reinvestment strategy. As CFSA's foster care population has continued to decline, we have redirected the savings to invest in building the capacity of neighborhood-based nonprofit organizations. This has been a long-term strategy that began over 20 years ago, and it's critical to our ability to support families where they live. 
    • Leveraging federal resources. We used our title IV-E waiver experience, which was primarily focused on prevention, as an on-ramp to the Family First Prevention Services Act. It did not result in an immediate infusion of new federal money, but our strategic choices will allow us to stretch funds for continued reinvestment in upstream prevention and supportive services.
    • Family and constituent voices. Admittedly, CFSA added this important ingredient a little late, but over the last few years, we have intentionally incorporated birth family and youth voices with these additions:
      • Our PEERS birth parent unit consists of full-time employees who not only work with other birth parents toward reunification but also advise on policy and practice.
      • Our Youth Advisory Council gives older youth a platform to advocate for and influence preparedness and transition plans.

    Being relentless for families means being mindful of new threats and challenges. The events of 2020—the pandemic, economic devastation, and racial and social injustices—have and will continue to impact the families we serve for a long time. The family support and strengthening systems we are building must be designed to meet families where they are and take them where they want to go. They deserve no less.

  • Genuine Family Engagement: The Key to Doing Whatever It Takes

    Genuine Family Engagement: The Key to Doing Whatever It Takes

    Written by Paul Vincent, M.S.W., independent consultant, retired from The Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group

    I worked in this field first as a child welfare caseworker and then as Alabama's child welfare director. That was followed by 20 years leading a nonprofit organization committed to improving outcomes by improving practice. In that span, which included involvement in thousands of cases, one case in particular stands out as an example of the power of engaging families. Alabama had settled a child welfare class action lawsuit filed by the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. Early in the reform effort, after completing intensive training and coaching in strengths- and needs-based work with families, a new caseworker described her first experience in using these new skills with a family with many challenges.

    She was assigned the case of a very angry father whose two children were placed in foster care. The father had a long history of alcohol use, resulting in neglect of his children, job losses, and threatening interactions with his workmates, caseworkers, and court staff.  His former caseworkers were very fearful of him. Following some of the principles and techniques she had learned in training, his new caseworker began her first visit by sharing with him an update on his children's status rather than by asking about his compliance with a court order. She had asked the boys to draw a picture for their father, which she gave to him during the visit. She preceded each visit with a conversation with the children's foster parent, catching up on how the boys were doing so she could tell their dad. During her visits, she always engaged him by asking about some of his interests (fishing being a prominent one), in addition to case-related issues. As he grew less defensive, she broached the prospect of developing a team for him, in which he showed some interest. She also convinced the foster parent to let him have phone calls with the boys. 

    Soon, the foster parent felt safe to join the father's family team and began to see the father's behavior as an expression of his many trauma experiences. With the team's support, the father retuned to Alcoholics Anonymous, maintained employment, and was granted unsupervised visits with his children. He invited his brother to join his team. The team tailored other supports for the dad, paying for repairs to his car so he wouldn't miss work and subsidizing the cost of court-ordered counseling. The father had made enough progress that the team was looking to permit overnight visits.

    At the next court hearing, surprised by the reports of the father's progress, the judge said to him, "What has happened you? In past court hearings you were angry with everyone, refusing to complete the tasks ordered by the court and arguing with me. Now you and your caseworker are sitting together in court, and you have accomplished so much. What's happened to you?" The dad motioned to his caseworker and said, "She has. She is the only one of you that has cared about me!"

    At the heart of the progress occurring in this case is the fact that the caseworker genuinely cared about the father's well-being and understood that his well-being was essential to successfully reuniting this family. What also mattered was that the father trusted the worker enough that he willingly identified a family team. And he trusted the team enough to share parts of his history that helped explain his pattern of anger.

    The qualities of empathy, genuineness, and respect toward families that this child welfare caseworker possessed do not always come naturally to staff; however, these qualities can be developed by skilled training and coaching. The techniques used to train this worker helped break through the view that families with challenges are inherently different and show workers that the families in their caseloads face significant life challenges and that their responses are often a natural reaction to a threat—with the involuntary involvement of child welfare in their lives often being foremost among those threats.

    Alabama staff were taught in training and follow-up coaching the essential skills in recognizing and affirming the functional strengths of families, utilizing exploring and solution-focused techniques, and identifying the underlying needs of the families they served. Every worker learned to facilitate their own team meetings. And the service array was both expanded and diversified so that the individualized plans created in child and family team meetings could be faithfully implemented. For these and many other reasons, fewer children entered care, children exited care more quickly, more children were placed in family-based settings, and children in care became more stable. However, those positive results began with the foundational, compassionate steps taken by staff to genuinely engage families one family at a time.

    After the reform's implementation in the first groups of counties, CNN approached the department about being the subject of a news special on child welfare. They initially wanted to interview families about their experience with a changed system. In preparation, they interviewed families and their caseworkers, observed how the new practice model advanced training and coaching, and met with providers. After this orientation, the CNN producer met with me and said they had changed their mind about the focus and instead wanted to follow workers through the training and coaching process and feature their changed relationship with families. When we asked what caused them to change the focus of their examination, they said, "In talking to the workers we shadowed in preparation, it's not the new services and lower caseloads that struck us. It's that your workers are so different. They actually like their families."

    Unfortunately, due to unforeseen corporate events, the filming was never completed, so the program never aired. However, that comment struck me because it demonstrated that it is possible to change a system from a reliance on coercion as a force for change to one of partnership. We acknowledge that it is vital to invest in families. Isn't it also vital to invest in the skills of the workforce that serves them?

  • Supporting Families Gives Children Their Best Chance

    Supporting Families Gives Children Their Best Chance

    Written by Sandy Santana, executive director, Children's Rights

    As 2020 draws to a close, our nation's children—despite strides made over the last year to keep them safe—are still being harmed in the very child welfare systems meant to protect them. We keep relearning the same lesson: the state is not a good parent, and it cannot effectively substitute a parent-child bond with a network of stranger families and institutions. Instead, as David Kelly, special assistant to the Associate Commissioner of the Children's Bureau, has said, "We do harm in the name of good."

    Take the story of S.A., a girl who entered foster care at the age of 5. Within a few months, she reported being sexually abused. S.A. received no physical examination or medical treatment, and the investigation into her allegations was labelled as a "minor" violation putting her at "low risk." She was moved over 45 times—shuttled between foster homes, restrictive residential treatment centers, and emergency shelters. Along with the repeated placement changes, S.A. experienced a revolving door of caseworkers—approximately 28 different primary and secondary caseworkers.

    Thirteen years later, S.A. aged out of the system and into homelessness. Her time in restrictive residential treatment centers left her ill equipped to wash dishes or set a table. S.A. was the product of a system in which, as a federal judge wrote, "rape, abuse, psychotropic medication, and instability are the norm" and where "foster children often age out of care more damaged than when they entered."

    As stories like that of S.A. painfully illustrate, child welfare systems are not only ill equipped to help children heal from trauma, but they also too often fail at their most basic function: keeping kids safe. And they cannot recreate the bond between a parent and child that is so essential to healthy child development.

    The guiding principle of the child welfare system should be to eliminate the need for foster care by supporting families and helping address the issues of poverty that are often construed as neglect. Yet, our federal and state governments spend more to care for foster children than they do to keep families together. In 2016, nearly half the total federal, state, and local expenditures went toward out-of-home placements, while 15 percent was spent on preventive services.

    The incoming administration can take important and meaningful steps right out of the gate to prioritize the health and well-being of our nation's children.

    First and foremost, we must embrace a broad antiracist and antipoverty agenda centered on preserving families. It is time to overhaul the Adoption and Safe Families Act, which has led to the destruction of families, particularly Black families. Black children are 2.4 times more likely than White children to experience the termination of parental rights. 

    Second, the "reasonable efforts" standard to prevent the removal of a child is not being uniformly applied. In some states, a caseworker is permitted broad discretion to remove a child. In others, case managers must provide evidence of both maltreatment and far more active efforts by the state to keep a child in the home. The Children's Bureau has shown leadership in advocating for judges and attorneys to play a bigger role in enforcing the federal requirement that agencies make reasonable efforts. That is needed, but given the unfair selective application of the standard, we need federal law to greatly increase and standardize the threshold for removal and delineate a series of concrete, meaningful actions agencies must take to prevent removal.

    Third, while we applaud U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' decision to unlock title IV-E funds to pay for legal supports for children and families, we need to fund legal services at the critical, early phases of a child protective services investigation to avoid unnecessary investigations and removals.

    Programs like Thriving Families, Safer Children allow communities to proactively support child and family well-being and prevent child maltreatment and unnecessary family separation. Agencies also need the flexibility to spend federal dollars on supports that can keep families together, such as obtaining housing and accessing public services, without tying those supports to the threat of removal. And, for the small population for whom removal is absolutely necessary, we must prioritize placing children with grandparents and other relative foster families, emphasize placing children with families over facilities, and vigilantly preserve familial and community connections.

    Jerry Milner, Associate Commissioner of the Children's Bureau, has a vision of a new child welfare system where families "are given what they need to thrive, not just survive." If we support families before harm occurs, invest in community-based programs, and prevent maltreatment and the unnecessary removal of children from their families, we can make that vision a reality.


  • Fearless Lawyers Lift Up the Child's Voice

    Fearless Lawyers Lift Up the Child's Voice

    Written by Angela Vigil, pro bono partner and executive director of pro bono practice, Baker & McKenzie, LLP, Miami, FL

    An accusation of abuse, neglect, or abandonment. A confirmation that a child's safety is in jeopardy. There is harm or serious threat of harm. What's next?

    What happens from there depends on how enlightened the system is. Maybe services are given to a family to help strengthen it and help it stay together. Maybe a temporary removal to relatives or trusted caregivers may result. Maybe the case evolves to full removal and court involvement. Of course we should try to keep families together. Of course we should look at abuse like a symptom, and not the disease. Treat it, strengthen the family, and then see if you can keep families together or keep them together as much as possible. But if that fails and the child enters the court system, the same focus on the best interests of that child should not slow or change.

    It is not what anyone wants, but if the system does end up in court, enlightenment should continue to guide the way and the whole purpose of the case should not change. The child should remain at the center of the matter between the system, the case, and the court. And while we protect the rights of all parties, the central purpose of the entire proceeding system and industry should still focus on the child. The hundreds of people employed in the system should still focus on the child. And the focus of the legal system, which is so often distractedly focused on itself or the laws and systems that govern it, should instead remain on the child.

    So, shouldn't the child's voice be the most important one heard in that court system? How do you promote that voice? You give it support. You amplify it by tasking professionals with lifting that voice, making sure it is meaningfully heard, making sure it affects the proceedings, and, of course, making sure it is never stifled or ignored. If that communication happens in a court or legal proceeding, then it is governed and structured by a system of laws, regulations, administrative rules, precedent, and judicial reasoning. The supporters of that child's voice be educated and versed in the same laws, regulations, administrative rules, precedent, and judicial reasoning. The assigned advocate who lifts up that voice must help ensure the child's voice can come through the cacophony of court and legal proceedings. That support must come through a lawyer for the child.

    In addition to being knowledgeable and specialized in the child welfare system, lawyers also need to be brave enough to be sometimes unpopular among the other actors in the system. They need to be fearless. Despite advocating for things that others strongly believe are not in a child's best interests, they need to be relentlessly dogmatic in their confirmation that—right or wrong—the child's voice will be meaningfully considered. It is not the lawyer's job to advocate for what the lawyer thinks is in the child's best interests; rather, they should fight for what the child believes is best for him or her. Others in the system may disagree, and they, too, should be heard to inform each other and the decision-makers. Everyone can share with the court facts and incidents in a child's life, but it is a lawyer's job to weave all of it together even between court dates and caseworker appointments.

    To keep the court responsive and moving toward permanency, a child's lawyer has many tools. Fearless lawyers can do all kinds of important things that make a meaningful difference in each day of a child's life, including the following:

    • Motioning the court for therapy and other mental health services
    • Advocating for placement with relatives
    • Fighting for culturally and racially sensitive services, treatments, and homes for children
    • Urging the court and system to make arrangements to set up visits and reunions with siblings
    • Counseling child clients to share their needs with the court, caseworkers, therapists, teachers, foster care providers, and family members
    • Being the voice of children in court when they want to ask for something from the court or other system actors
    • Tackling discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer or questioning children and youth
    • Advocating with schools for better services for children

    Most importantly, the lawyer must keep the voice of the child in everyone's ears and all decisions and actions even when it is unpopular. Lawyers must make sure the child is called on in court by asking a judicial officer to address them. A lawyer can raise the child's questions and concerns. They can do things as simple as advocating that court hearings happen around the child's schedule, not just around the schedules of all the adult professionals.

    On television shows and movies, the case is usually all about the lawyer, the court, or the system.

    Lawyering for children is nothing like that. A child's lawyer in a child welfare proceeding is all about the child client. It is a counseling role where lawyers take direction and guidance from the child they are representing. They spend a majority of their time discussing options with and for the child. They are constantly questioning stakeholders in the system about what they should be doing for the child and what steps are being taken toward the fastest and most effective route to permanency and family.

    A child's life and, therefore, a child's case, moves like an ocean wave—always changing, as life does, but also moving toward the shore of permanency and family. And a good lawyer never lets anyone's attention stray from the child. They remain fearless to help their child clients be fearless in what can be a frightening world.

    If you are a 15-year-old girl, dragged into the system when you were running from home and trading sex to survive because the grandmother you were left with is a drug addict, you need a system that accepts you as an active participant. You are not merely the object of that process. You may not be popular among workers, court personnel, judicial actors, or teachers. You may have no other biological family the system can find for you. You need to make sure that the day-by-day steps you take lead to a safe and successful life. You need every part of the system and everyone in it to be focused on the path to normalcy and permanency to bring families together. But if you end up in the court system, you need a lawyer focused on your expressed interests and needs, to make sure the system returns you to "home," whatever that looks like. You need an advocate relentlessly focused on keeping you in the center of everyone's minds, no matter how busy they are and no matter how many other children are on their dockets. Lawyers must be fearless so children know no more fear. That is justice.

  • Stronger Communities, Safer Families, Zero Fatalities

    Stronger Communities, Safer Families, Zero Fatalities

    Written by Amy Harfeld, National Coalition to End Child Abuse Deaths, Children's Advocacy Institute

    In 2016, the Federal Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities (CECANF) concluded its tenure and issued a report setting forth a robust set of recommendations that resonates today more than ever. The report began with a vision:

    Imagine a society where the safety and well-being of children are everyone's highest priority and federal, state, and local agencies work collaboratively with families and communities to protect children from harm. Imagine a society where all children are equally protected and their families equally supported, regardless of race, ethnicity, income, or where they live. Imagine child welfare in the 21st century...where children are safe and families are strong and where prevention of child abuse and neglect deaths is a reality.

    This realignment is now underway. Greater emphasis on multidisciplinary primary prevention, implementation of new federal laws and policies aimed at keeping families together, and earnest efforts to dismantle deeply rooted racial inequity are beginning to shape a more just, kind, and effective child welfare system. Not only will this lead to fewer families facing unnecessary child protective services (CPS) interaction, it will allow child welfare workers to better focus their expertise on the children and families most in need and intervene more appropriately to address or prevent harm when necessary.

    As we transition to a Biden-Harris administration and a new Congress, this work must continue while acknowledging the full continuum of child maltreatment. Close to two-thirds of the 678,000 confirmed CPS cases in 2018 involved neglect. With earlier support, many families on this end of the spectrum could and should have avoided CPS involvement. But the spectrum of maltreatment does not end with neglect. The other third of victims—225,096 children—comprised the 10.7 percent who were physically abused, the 7.0 percent who were sexually abused, and the 15.5 percent who suffered two or more types of maltreatment.

    At the edge of the spectrum are the children who don't survive—the 1,770 infants and children who died as a result of abuse or neglect. That's one child killed every 5 hours...that we know about. Leading data experts believe the real number of fatalities to be three to four times higher. The racial disproportionality that pervades child welfare seeps through to this end of the spectrum as well, with Black children being 2.8 times more likely than White children to suffer fatal abuse.

    Reviewing a daily national news digest of child abuse fatalities is a necessary but heartbreaking part of coordinating the National Coalition to End Child Abuse Deaths (NCECAD). It is very effective in fueling a continued sense of urgency to prevent the next senseless death and ensuring that ongoing efforts to transform our child protection system fully consider this end of the spectrum. It is this urgency, combined with an awareness of the total lack of political capital of children who suffer fatal and near-fatal abuse, that drives the committed and relentless work of the NCECAD. 

    Yet a parallel newsfeed on child welfare innovations provides ongoing inspiration and an important reminder of the many promising efforts across the country to improve child protection and prevent the next death. In the first 2 years after CECANF's tenure, a report by the Children's Advocacy Institute and Within Our Reach at the Alliance for Strong Children and Communities found that every U.S. state had voluntarily adopted at least one of the CECANF's recommendations, reflecting more than 180 different efforts across federal, state, and community levels. Since that time, innumerable innovations have continued to advance across the spectrum.

    Allegheny County (PA) launched Hello Baby, a voluntary parent-driven program to provide families with a wide range of supports, including postpartum mental health care, in-home visitation, and diapers and food. Los Angeles implemented the E-SCARS system, which enables thoughtful real-time data sharing between CPS and law enforcement. New geospatial predictive risk modeling by Predict-Align-Prevent identifies where child maltreatment and fatalities are most likely to occur—without profiling individuals—and strategically aligns resources where they are most needed. Thriving Families, Safer Children, a first-of-its-kind public-private partnership between the Children's Bureau, Casey Family Programs, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and Prevent Child Abuse America is launching pilots with the ambitious goal of redesigning traditional, reactive child welfare systems into child and family well-being systems meant to prevent maltreatment.

    At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Justice's demonstration initiative, Child Safety Forward, is developing multidisciplinary strategies and responses to address near-death injuries from neglect and reduce the number of child fatalities. The White House issued an Executive order this year calling for national standards on risk and safety assessments and encouraging prepetition legal representation for children and parents to protect rights and enhance safety. The U.S. Senate introduced bipartisan legislation, the Child Abuse Death Disclosure Act, which would require states to develop statewide fatality prevention plans, create a national standard definition of child abuse and neglect fatalities, and enhance training for child death review teams to address racial disparities. All of these developments reflect the strategy and recommendations of the CECANF.

    As the nation pushes through unprecedented economic and public health crises with still-unknown consequence to children, continued pressure and further short- and long-term reforms are still urgently needed. The NCECAD remains determined to push fatality awareness and prevention as central to a smarter, more compassionate, and equitable child welfare system that strengthens families to keep children safe and thriving.

    The strategic framework of the CECANF continues to provide a sound roadmap for the work ahead:

    • Enhance multidisciplinary primary and secondary prevention services for children and families such as mental health services, substance use disorder treatment, housing, child care, education, and home visiting.
    • Support the child welfare workforce by establishing reasonable caseload standards and improved management and supervision.
    • Ground child protection decisions in better data and research by enhancing equity-informed real-time data sharing and cross-notification between law enforcement, health-care providers, CPS, and others.
    • Improve the quality, consistency, and reliability of data on fatalities and near-fatalities.
    • Establish a national standard definition of child maltreatment fatalities and near fatalities.
    • Ensure the advancement of tailored and data-informed state fatality prevention plans required by the Family First Prevention Services Act.
    • Improve leadership and accountability by demanding significant increases in funding and appropriations for federal child welfare laws, such as the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, and safety net programs.
    • Press for more robust oversight and enforcement of federal law by the Administration for Children and Families and greater accountability by states.
    • Review and clarify the roles of mandatory reporters and invest in improved training.

    A long-awaited and hard-fought transformation of child welfare is underway and moving in the right direction. Ensuring the continuation of this work to strengthen families and keep children safe at home will require nothing short of relentless advocacy across stakeholder communities and a shared belief that one child maltreatment fatality will always be one too many.

  • The Great Commitment

    The Great Commitment

    Written by David Samuel Hall, teacher

    Generational poverty, overt and structural racism, sexism, and being "tough on crime;" initiatives disproportionately affecting people of color; and unaddressed mental and physical health are what drag families into the foster care system. Unfortunately, many caregivers would agree that although they came to the agency's doorstep and said their family became successful despite foster care, it still gives the system too much credit. It's as if you swooped in and did your job and most people just don't agree with your methods, like some detective in a movie who hasn't gotten their character arc yet.

    Working in child welfare sucks, but no matter what happens you must be committed. This will be a give-and-take relationship in the literal sense. You will give all you can while much is taken from you. It's quite simple why: Families don't know they need help, but you know they do. You chose to be a part of this, but families don't. Helping families is extraordinary so we gave it our all, but the unrelenting emotional toll was so great that we gave it up. It is because of this extraordinarily unfair relationship that there will be no words of affirmation to get you through hardships, all your triumphs will turn out to be unrecognized acts of service, and the only quality time you'll get is with an infinitely compounding list of child welfare reports that are supposed to remain an equal priority yet feel as though they take all your time to just get sent in time.

    But guess what? We're not here to feel good. We're here to do good. That means we must have unconditional, unyielding, and unwavering love and the kind of compassion that drives us to tears when we hear of a disrupted placement 5 years from now, because their happiness is still our burden instead of an afterthought.

    We must publicly declare our vows to be relentless, knowing we will fail to meet the expectations of everyone watching. Reciting what a third party tells you, finishing off with an "I do," and doing what everyone else does has only led to decades of sadness for children. We have yet to hear someone publicly commit to having more graduates than dropouts, more homes than arrests, and more families staying than leaving. Perhaps this is why we have so many skeletons—to the point there are piles of little Johnnys and Mariahs busting the hinges off our closets.

    So, what if you are committed? There's no way to succeed in this 0/100 relationship alone. You will remain drowning in an abyss, having your emotions gnawed away until all that's left are the unlucky scraps that have to continue the rest of your life. And that is why, if we are committed—if we want to succeed—we must commit to the work.

    Most often, we see families exclusively at their worst, and that can either make our job extremely difficult or easy, depending on what we do with this information. I see useful intake and exit as a treasure trove, something we can use to push for budgetary, procedural, and policy changes in collaboration and coordination with other agencies. If we can help prevent tens of thousands of children from experiencing trauma by doing something so simple as providing wraparound or educational services to families all the way upstream to when someone gets laid off, then why not? But we don't know what we don't know, and we can't know unless we ask.

    If we want to do big, structural changes like that, we need to commit to having open conversations with people about things that are happening so we can actually fix the problem. Don't worry about those lawsuits—if you're on track to get one, it's probably going to happen. So, when leaders ask you how much you need and what you need it for, don't tell them you only need a few million dollars to re-up your fleet of state cars and a couple of requests for proposals. Tell them the real, hard truths: you need hundreds of millions toward mental health for the families who need it but don't get it because there would be thousands of families on a waiting list if everyone who had a kid in care and needed mental health services got it. If they continue being told by your legislative liaison that all they need is a Band-Aid, they will continue kissing your booboo and sending you off because they aren't psychics.

    When we commit to realizing that the only thing we've done well for well-being is being mediocre, we can't stick with our stupid retreats about specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely (SMART) goals. This means we must come up with ideas that are measurable but also holistic, comprehensive, meaningful, and significant. SMART goals don't work because all they measure is how insignificant meaningless services are when we choose to use only one option that addresses only one symptom instead of every available option which addresses all symptoms and the root. Instead of thinking about how we're going to "innovate," using a provider that is not from the community to establish a community-based program, we should start with doing it the smart way—choose one thing you want to improve, decide how much you want to change it, and let that be your focus for the entire year. While we are sure to disagree over the order of priorities, we are certain to agree that 20 years of a slow, yet significant, meaningful, comprehensive, and holistic change will finally mean we aren't playing an unwinnable game of limbo.

    Now, you'll notice I have not used "child welfare system" once in this entire article. That is not because I'm bad with synonyms—it's because we have not earned that title yet. Until we are committed to being candid with people who can give us the tools to make a difference, are willing to acknowledge the many mistakes we have and will continue to make on the way without needing a subpoena to do so, and are continuously acting on the fact that foster care cannot and will never solve every issue that a family will face, we are not worthy of that label. You must commit to being relentless by committing to us. Commit to failing by committing to our success; commit to raising stars and lowering statistics; commit to mistakes; commit to meaningful long nights; commit to selflessness; commit to hope. Most importantly, commit to yourself.

  • Is Money the Only Thing Preventing Us From Being Relentless for Families? We Don't Think So

    Is Money the Only Thing Preventing Us From Being Relentless for Families? We Don't Think So

    Written by Jeremy Christopher Kohomban, Ph.D., president and chief executive officer, The Children's Village

    To be relentless for families means we should be completely focused on giving to all families the same things we want for our own families, things that will be permanent in their lives. This includes unconditional love and belonging, a safe home and community to live in, justice, respect, inclusion, the opportunity to pursue aspirations freely, and responsive government. But poor families touched by our nation's child welfare systems are often denied all or most of these. These families must contend with a system driven by a save-the-child ideology, which continues to dominate because government action has largely legitimized the idea that saving young children from unworthy parents is good government.

    Evidence suggests that the save-the-child ideology was always driven by racial animus and the enduring puritan belief that wealth is the grace and gift of God, wherein poverty equates to moral failure. Poverty is the common theme in family separation—where Black and Native American families are investigated and have their children separated from them at disproportionately higher rates than other groups. For most parents, losing their children produces tectonic shifts in their needs and ways of being in the world. The unraveling of family life results in the gradual erosion, and eventual loss, of parental selves.

    In child welfare, we have made some progress in reversing our base tendency to treat poor families differently than our own. There is an increased recognition that no child should grow up system dependent; rather, they should be given at least one adult who provides them unconditional belonging. While the ardent protectors of the orphanage ideology remain a powerful force amongst us, there are those of us who are convinced that children should not grow up in institutions. We also acknowledge that, in the rare instances when children cannot return to their biological family, creating a new family must be our primary priority

    Nevertheless, the road ahead remains daunting. Rural poverty, intentional racial segregation, an expanding industry focused almost exclusively on serving the poor, and what Jill Lepore eloquently describes as the murky science of risk assessment that "attempts to quantify 'trauma' and 'adversity,' which, on the one hand, are meaningful clinical concepts but, on the other hand, are proxy terms for poverty" are powerful forces consistently promoting the status quo and reinforcing an enduring narrative that poor families are less capable of success because they are dealing with trauma- and adversity-induced mental illness. The mental illness narrative creates yet another diversion of precious funding that could be invested in giving poor people better and safer housing in integrated communities, a basic income to support a family, the opportunity for their children to escape failing schools, and meaningful investment in neighborhoods that are redlined for disinvestment. Yes, there is a plethora of services. There is something for almost everyone in need, but most of these services, even when provided by the best amongst us, including The Children's Village, rarely rise to the level where I would say, "This is what my own children deserve." Rather, in its totality, these services are often mediocre. Success is mostly described by anecdote, and good intent is celebrated despite limited evidence of change at scale.

    "The truth about what's wrong with poor children is they were born in America, in a system that doesn't care about them," says New York University's Martin Guggenheim. I agree, we don't care enough; however, this does not mean we don't spend. We spend billions on these poor children. In 2016, state child welfare agencies spent approximately $30 billion on child welfare, and additional charitable donations of at least $50 billion also focused on many of these same poor children and families. But spending money does not equate to love. Sometimes spending money is simply easier and more convenient than the personal investment it takes to create the conditions for success. Success requires that we give poor children the same things that we give our children, things that are permanent! This is the focus we choose.

  • To Be Relentless for Children, We Must Be Relentless for Families

    To Be Relentless for Children, We Must Be Relentless for Families

    Written by Richard Wexler, executive director, National Coalition for Child Protection Reform

    Crystal Baker-Burr, now an attorney for The Bronx Defenders, has represented children and parents in child welfare proceedings. Two years ago, she began an essay for Vivek Sankaran's Rethinking Foster Care blog this way:

    "Can I have that quarter?" Anita asked me, pointing to the change she found in the chair in the courthouse interview room. I asked her what she needed it for. "I am saving all the change I find on the ground and keeping it with me," she said. "If they ever kidnap me and my brothers again, I can take a cab back home to mommy."

    Anita collects coins. Other children returned to their homes from foster care dive under the bed when they hear a siren. Others cling to their parents whenever there is a knock at the door. We know the outcomes can be far worse. One study found the rate of posttraumatic stress disorder for foster care "alumni" was twice that of veterans of the first Gulf War, and only 20 percent were "doing well" in later life. More foster care alumni go to prison than to college. Although most foster parents try to do the best they can for the children in their care, other studies find abuse in one-quarter to one-third of family foster homes. The rate of abuse in group homes and institutions is worse. 

    In the name of "child protection," "child safety," and "children's rights," we have created a system that sometimes destroys children in order to "save" them.

    It happened because the system is built on a foundation of myth. The mythology has prevented us from building a system based on children's needs.

    One myth holds that the system is blameless for the rotten outcomes for youth in foster care—it was all their parents' fault. But study after study finds that, in the typical cases seen by family-policing agencies (a more accurate term than "child welfare" agencies), children left in their own homes fare better in later life than comparably maltreated children placed in foster care. But this research has been no match for the mythology, a mythology rooted in what's been called "health terrorism"—knowingly distorting the true nature of a problem by generalizing from extremely rare horror stories in the name of "raising awareness."

    So, we get the myth that parents are beating, raping, and torturing their children on a massive scale and the family police are the "thin blue line" protecting millions of children from parents who are at worst evil and at best sick.

    This explains how, even as we are supposed to be having a reckoning about racial justice, we buy into another myth: as soon as mostly White middle-class professionals no longer have their "eyes" constantly on overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately non-White children because schools are closed due to COVID-19, their parents supposedly will unleash upon them a "pandemic of child abuse." The myth continues to spread, even after news organizations such as the Associated Press, The Marshall Project, Bloomberg CityLab, and even Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago debunked it. 

    In fact, out of every 100 calls to child abuse hotlines, 91 are false reports. Six more are cases in which the caseworker thinks there was neglect. In rare cases, neglect can be extremely serious, but more often it means the family is poor. For example, multiple studies have found that 30 percent of America's children in foster care could be home right now if their own parents simply had decent housing.

    Decades of "health terrorism" have led us to accept the biggest myth of all—the idea that even the enormous trauma of removal is worth it because, once in foster care, at least the children are safe. So, we are told the system is just "erring on the side of the child" or "erring on the side of caution." The outcomes for youth in foster care and the studies on the rate of abuse in foster care tell us that's not true either.

    But even that isn't the worst of it. The more caseworkers are overloaded with false reports, trivial cases, and cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect, the less time they have to find children in real danger. That is almost always the real reason for the horror stories that make headlines.

    America's take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare makes all children less safe. In contrast, a system built around children's needs would recognize that there is nothing cautious about tearing apart a family—it is a profoundly reckless act. A system built around children's needs would recognize that if we really want to err on the side of the child, we must err on the side of the family.

    For this to happen, there are things we need to do, but there are also things we need to undo because child welfare has painted itself into a corner.

    We want to create a system that emphasizes prevention. But the people who would deliver the prevention services almost always are legally required to report any suspicion of child abuse or neglect. So, people who need help are scared away from asking for it.

    Mandatory reporting laws were put in place with no studies to see if they work. Many former proponents have changed their minds, and new research shows these laws backfire. They need to be repealed.

    The myth that poverty has nothing to do with child maltreatment led us to pass the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), which encouraged the creation of a child welfare surveillance state so extreme that one-third of all children, and more than half of Black children, will have to endure a child abuse investigation before they grow up. CAPTA should be repealed.

    The myth that child safety and family preservation are opposites led to the enactment of the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA). The law encouraged a sharp increase in children taken from their homes and significantly increased the number of children who age out of care with no home at all. ASFA should be repealed.

    Clearing away the rubble left by health terrorism will make it far easier to actually put in place a system geared to children's needs. Such a system should be built around concrete help—housing subsidies, child care assistance, and similar help to ameliorate the worst effects of poverty. Where substance use really is a barrier to parenting, we need family-based drug treatment on demand. And where concrete help is not enough, we need to embrace proven approaches such as the Homebuilders intensive family preservation services program.

    To accomplish all this, Congress should revive a bipartisan idea: Give states the option to take their foster care money as a flexible flat grant instead of an open-ended entitlement, and allow the money to be used not just on foster care but also on better alternatives. In a 2003 op-ed column, which has been subsequently entered into the Congressional Record, Hillary Clinton and then Senate Majority Leader Tom DeLay said the plan, which originated in the George W. Bush Administration, "deserves careful consideration." Seventeen years later, it deserves to become law. At a minimum, Congress should restore the right of states to obtain waivers from the current financing system, which encourages foster care and discourages better alternatives.

    All of these reforms have one thing in common. They are not something to be done because it's what parents want. We should do it because it's what children need.


  • Kindness


    Written by Jerry Milner

    This article was originally published the November 17, 2020, edition of Rethinking Foster Care.

    I used to say that I grew up in Nowhere, Alabama

    Nowhere was an unincorporated expanse of farmland and cotton fields that stretched as far as I could see, punctuated by the county school that I attended for 11 years of my life. 

    Nowhere was full of climbing trees, swinging vines, and wading streams rife with salamanders and minnows.

    Nowhere was much poorer than not and had few, if any, formal social institutions beyond church and school.

    Nowhere is Reeltown, Alabama. I haven't been back there in too many years to count, but an old friend recently sent me a blog post about Reeltown, written by Sean-of-the-South Dietrich, that flooded my senses and challenged me to acknowledge the tremendous influence that my community had on my development and on my life.

    The blog told the story of Sean encountering an elderly man in Reeltown who, based on the laws of probability, is most likely related to me somehow. He and his wife were selling tomatoes from a stand on the side of the road. The man and his wife told Sean about their lives of volunteer service to a poor community in a place that was a long way from Reeltown. He said all he wanted was for his "whole life to belong to people who just need to know someone loves 'em." He told Sean about receiving an email from a now middle-aged man with a healthy life thanking him for showing him kindness and support in a time of need when he was a boy. The old man said, "That one email made our little lives seem worth it. Reckon life really is about showing people you care about 'em."

    Sean's blog force-fed my mind with memories of the kind people I had known growing up in Reeltown.

    My third-grade teacher who comforted me when my father died.

    My school bus driver who always came searching for me when I repeatedly ran away from school.

    The old man up the road who taught me how to reroof my leaky house when I was a teenager.

    My mother's friends who cleaned my house and cooked for me after my mother died.

    Others . . . 

    Absent many of those kindnesses and those kind people, my life could've been very different.

    Our families and children in the child welfare system have not always known such kindness and support.

    They do know frustration, loss, anger, and hopelessness, without feeling that "someone loves 'em."

    They often know clinical interventions designed to fix their troubling life circumstances, which an old man up the road, a neighbor across the street, or a man selling tomatoes at a road-side stand might have helped them to avert.

    They often do not know the power of a caring community and the healing that comes from feeling valued and worthy of kindness.

    I no longer say that I grew up in Nowhere because I understand that my community was always a place where lives were nurtured and people were kind.

    As people who care about other people, we must move with all haste and urgency to create a family well-being system, not a child welfare system as we know it, that is set up to prevent trauma, to build the resilience of parents and children, and to enable them to thrive even in the face of inevitable adversity.

    We have the power to do that—to change programs and policies and funding, to change lives.

    Prevention has many faces.

    It works best when it shows up in the faces of the people who know and care about us.

    It works best when it is present in the communities where we live.

    It works best when it is delivered with kindness.

  • Building a New, User-Centered Child Welfare System

    Building a New, User-Centered Child Welfare System

    Written by Lexie Grüber, child welfare advocate

    Our nation is in the midst of a pandemic, an economic emergency, and a heightened focus on addressing racial injustice. These urgent challenges have shown that our systems—particularly the child welfare system—demand a systemic overhaul and have inspired the political will to fix them.

    These crises present an opportunity to fundamentally reimagine our child welfare system. Those the system serves have long pointed out that its structural flaws—overburdened social workers, an inability to share information in real time, and an overreliance on congregate care—would cause the system to fail. They were right, and leaders ought to listen. A new vision for America's child welfare system must be charted with those whom the system serves: parents who've been investigated or had their children removed, children and young adults who've spent time in foster care, and the relatives who serve as kin caregivers.

    There's strong evidence that robust stakeholder involvement will help us build back better. Research has found that constituents know best what services they need, and they serve as a powerful source of ideas for social innovation. When invited to codesign services, constituents provide novel ideas that can defy even the best experts, leading to ingenious solutions that best solve the problem at hand. Studies have found that this way of policymaking is quite cost-effective, too.

    Sharing decision-making power with constituents seems simple in theory. Yet, it will require fundamentally redesigning how child welfare agencies function. To ensure it's done well, it will require thoughtful and strategic changes to the way agencies operate at every level.

    The Children's Bureau should lead by example by establishing a commission of people with lived experience dedicated to reimagining stakeholder engagement. This council should report directly to the Commissioner, who can ensure the group isn't siloed away in the agency. Commission members will put forth recommendations on how state and local child welfare agencies can build a user-centered system and channel feedback from constituents to agency leaders to ensure feedback is formalized into policy change. The Children's Bureau should provide technical assistance and funding for state and local agencies to form similar commissions.

    The Children's Bureau should consider modeling their commission after Los Angeles County's nascent Youth Commission, which is the newest example for how those with lived experience can work with policymakers to shape the vision of the agency. The country's largest child welfare agency now has a commission to ensure the system is of, for, and by the people it serves. Los Angeles County supervisor Janice Hahn said of the commission, "If we really want to learn from our mistakes and improve the system for the next generation, we need to engage with the young people who grew up in these systems and know what it takes to make them better." The commission, which will be staffed by young adults who've spent time in foster care, will have the power to monitor the agency's budgets and programs and offer recommendations on policy and programs.

    Although this crisis has illuminated the shortcomings of America, it has also provided an opportunity for reform. All of us—no matter our creed, wealth, or ability—have something to contribute to this beautiful experiment in democracy. Indeed, it's that collective voice that allowed us to emerge stronger from every crisis we've ever faced. And it will be what gets us through this one, too.


  • Standing in the Breach

    Standing in the Breach

    Written by Jerry Milner and David Kelly

    Transforming a large, blunt, and reactive child welfare system that far too often causes trauma into one that proactively works to strengthen and support families, prevent the likelihood of maltreatment, and become a source of healing requires relentlessness. It requires an enduring focus on the essential mission—creating the conditions for families to thrive—and not being distracted or deterred by voices or circumstances to the contrary. It requires rising above ideology, status, or investment in an industry to ensure that families get what they truly need and are inherently worthy of receiving.

    It requires us to be unrelenting in maximizing the tools and resources we have while simultaneously calling out the gaps, deficiencies, and unintended consequences of those very tools and resources. It requires ongoing identification of additional needs and creating ways to meet the needs. Being relentless necessitates a level of positive discontentedness—not settling for what we have, not allowing ourselves to become complacent and resigned, and not being afraid to think and act boldly. 

    Being relentless calls us to keep our eyes focused on the end goal and not succumb to celebrations of what we've done if it's something less than what we set out to achieve. Time wasted celebrating incremental accomplishments, even when important to realizing the vision, is time children and families will never get back. While it's important to recognize benchmarks and reinforce forward movement along the way, a relentless approach pushes for more progress until families and children experience the system in dramatically improved ways.

    True commitments to family integrity, the power of community, and overall child and family well-being oblige us to be keenly aware of their interconnectedness and their relationship to justice for families in the child welfare system. And, if equity is more than a word in this time, conscience demands both the commitment and the relentless pursuit of it.

    In a world that too often judges families for their vulnerabilities and confuses and scorns their advocacy for themselves as resistance or noncompliance, we must see, hear, and act differently.  Who among us would welcome intrusion into and surveillance of our family? Fighting the act of being separated from a child is the very definition of a protective act—even when circumstances warrant removal. It is a most human response—one that would arise or be triggered in any of us should something so dear be threatened or taken away. Our only differences lie in the privileges we hold and our access to resources, supports, and opportunities—all of which remain inextricably linked to social-economic status and the color of one's skin.

    The fact is, we are all deeply interconnected to each other—even when we fail to see it. Myopic vision regarding this is what holds us back from being more compassionate and effective—at all levels. We all have the same basic needs and are united by a desire to see our children grow and develop safely and healthy. Acting on this truth can guide us to do more—to do better and different—rather than casting blame at people or a system that often fails to recognize and offer what we all need.  

    One remarkable young woman said in a recent conversation that we need to shift our thinking in child welfare from "they to us." The simple elegance of this statement communicates a need to stop thinking of our work and systems as something created for a set of others—people who are different or unlike us, people who are inferior to us. It should awaken us to the reality that, when we fight for our families in child welfare, we are really fighting for all of us. And that should give us energy to continue even in the darkest moments and times.

    Standing with families and communities, even when it is not popular or makes us vulnerable ourselves to criticism and liability, places us squarely in the breach. Standing in the breach is not an act of martyrdom or an invitation for those who seek to be saviors, it's simply doing the right thing. It requires us not just to combat pathological views and acts against families but to mobilize to support families in the ways they tell us will be valued. True system change cannot occur without those willing to swim upstream, to take chances, to take the blows, and to hold firm to solid values regardless of the obstacles. In other words, those willing to be relentless.

    And, when and if we begin to stop viewing families as the problem—something to be "fixed"—and begin to see them as sources of solution, strength, resilience, and nurture, we can understand an even greater truth. That truth is relentlessness is not a concept reserved for those professionals and advocates in the field. It is a quality that our families must call upon day after day. They must be relentless in their pursuit of better lives, less bias, more time with their children, access to life-saving supports and services, real help in dealing with root issues (including poverty), and justice for their individual needs in a system that often hands out one-size-fits-all responses and doesn't always acknowledge our own contributions to the conditions our families face.

    It's time not just to acknowledge that we have been part of the problem but to own the fact that we've made the problem more complex by seeking and employing increasingly sophisticated solutions to matters that require common sense. Simple solutions, such as meeting basic needs, have great potency. The painful ongoing lessons of the pandemic must become instructive to all of us on the importance of basic public health approaches. These approaches apply directly to our work and require us to make the necessary investments in families and communities to keep families strong and children safe and healthy. We've long made the comparison of primary prevention to a vaccine and utilized other metaphors to convey its importance in strengthening families and as a child safety strategy. It's an imperfect comparison but one that should now sound with greater resonance.

    There is momentum—great momentum—in moving our system in a more humane, whole-family direction that we all must and can contribute to sustaining, no matter where we sit, work, or live. This movement must be collectively owned and driven and always remain larger than any individual or group.

    We must also remain ever mindful that inertia, apathy, and the pull of an industrial complex are ever-present threats to family integrity and the well-being of children, parents, and caregivers.

    At the Children's Bureau, we have made our case as relentlessly as we can for nearly 4 years. It has not been welcomed by all audiences. The facts and substance of our case were identified and formed by, with, and for human beings with lived expertise with the system we are charged with overseeing. The relentlessness and wisdom of parents, young people, and the communities in which they live is unrivaled. It is our richest source of guidance and the one most often ignored. But, we've seen the power of those voices in action and what can be made possible by acting on the knowledge shared.

    We have not wavered in promoting our two overarching goals—(1) strengthening and supporting families to reduce the need for formal contact with the child welfare system and (2) radically improving the experiences of children, youth, and families who must make contact with our system—because that is what families and young people have told us would be most helpful.

    This includes but goes far beyond simply reducing separation due to foster care or acting in times when risk is imminent. To the greatest extent possible, we've laid out the building blocks for doing so in the core set of information memorandums, as well as guidance on legal representation, we have issued:

    The knowledge of families, young people, and communities has driven our efforts to be as aggressive, expansive, and flexible as possible in pursuing a child and family well-being system rooted in primary prevention of child maltreatment and strengthening the capacity of families to remain safely together. 

    It propels and sustains our efforts to be proactive and responsive during this terrible pandemic and leverage every resource we can to support families and youth—a need that will continue.

    And above all else, it is the wisdom of parents, families, young people, and communities that drove us to approach our partners at Casey Family Programs, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and Prevent Child Abuse America to build a coalition to boldly promote a new vision for child welfare in the United States through Thriving Families, Safer Children: A National Commitment to Well-Being.

    We have seen a great urgency harnessed and an unparalleled, unified desire for change. During a time of division, we can coalesce around the things we all hold in common: family, need for belonging, community, and well-being.

    We have inextinguishable hope and confidence it will continue.

    We can and must be relentless in ensuring it does.


  • Being Relentless for Families

    Being Relentless for Families

    Written by the Honorable Ernestine S. Gray, Orleans Parish Juvenile Court, New Orleans, LA

    In trying to think about what I might say about this topic, I first decided that I needed to ensure that my discussion would be true to the topic. It seemed a good start to look again at the definition of relentless. So, I did. Relentless is defined as the following:

    "oppressively constant, persistent, steady, not easing or slackening, unyieldingly severe, strict or harsh"

    My preferred definition for the purpose of this topic is the first definition: "oppressively constant, persistent, steady, not easing or slackening." First, it implies movement. Second, it implies that a process has been started.

    For several decades now, many have been advocating for a radical transformation of the child welfare system in America, believing the system does not serve our children and families well. The system continues to rely on foster care and the separation of children from their families (parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other kin) as the primary means of protecting them. The radical transformation that is being called for turns this notion on its head and focuses on on primary prevention and child and family well-being.

    In this work, one needs to be clear about what is at stake—our motivation for being relentless. Part of the motivation can come from the following poem by Gabriela Mistral:

    "Many things we need can wait. The child cannot.
    Now is the time is bones are being formed, his mind developed.
    To him we cannot say tomorrow, his name is today."

    The other part of the motivation comes from recognizing the importance of family as proclaimed in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

    "Convinced that the family, as the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members and particularly children, should be afforded the necessary protection and assistance so that it can fully assume its responsibility within the community."

    A culture must be created that no matter what year, month, week, or day; whether north, south, east, or west; whether Democrat or Republican; or no matter what ethnicity, the health, safety, and well-being of children is universally considered as the highest priority. We must develop a blueprint for the field that no matter who picks it up the ideals and principles are maintained.

    No doubt, the child welfare system is large and complex. However, we must find ways to develop a more unified approach to reforming the child welfare system by bringing together all the different perspectives.

    Going forward, here are seven strategies that individuals (federal agencies, state administrators, supervisors and frontline workers, judges, lawyers, and court-appointed special advocates) need to be relentless about:

    1. Preventing maltreatment so children don't need to enter foster care. The Family First Prevention Services Act is an important step but cannot be the only focus.
    2. Building strong communities.
    3. Educating the public.
    4. Addressing the trauma children have experienced.
    5. Strengthening families, including relatives, so when necessary children are kept in the system with their parents.
    6. Eliminating disproportionality and disparate outcomes.
    7. Supporting judges, lawyers, and caseworkers.

    We must be relentless in our belief that all families deserve an opportunity to achieve a better life. We must tell them that there is a better life for them and give them hope that they can achieve it. A critical tenet is recognizing that the individuals in the families that come to the attention of the child welfare system are first and foremost human beings just like all of us who work in the system. And as human beings, they deserve the same respect and consideration that we would want if we, too, had the unfortunate circumstance of being referred to the child welfare agency. We should treat the children and families like we would want to be treated and should be relentless in our efforts to ensure that every other agency/partner does so as well.

    Being relentless requires being oppressively constant, persistent, steady, not easing or slackening. It means not giving up but holding fast to your beliefs. It's not being afraid of criticism or failure.

    It is my sincere hope that we will be relentless in holding the line on the progress that has been made in the last years and continue to look for strategies that will bring bigger reforms to the child welfare system.

    Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said it this way, "Fight for things you believe in in a way that would encourage others to join you."                  


  • Relentlessly Protect Relationships

    Relentlessly Protect Relationships

    Written by Vivek S. Sankaran, clinical professor of law, University of Michigan Law School

    At the close of the termination of parental rights trial, the judge remarked, "I do believe that this is a situation where perhaps the mother can go on to be a meaningful part of these children's lives." 

    The evidence supported the judge's assertion. The mother—my client—shared a close bond with the children, who were living safely with her sister. Her sister, while wanting to provide stability for the children, also wished to keep my client involved in their lives. And my client, who could not care for the children herself because of a serious mental illness, desperately wanted to stay connected with her family.

    The judge understood all of this, so much so that he felt compelled to say it out loud. Nevertheless, he still terminated my client's parental rights to her children, permanently destroying her legal right to ever have a relationship with them again.

    The judge's actions typify what happens all too often in child welfare, in which we have embraced a culture that welcomes—and even celebrates—the destruction of meaningful relationships. 

    We separate children from their parents because the family might lack the funds to pay for housing.

    We deny children in foster care the ability to see their parents due to the system's lack of resources.

    We permanently destroy relationships between children and their parents because parents suffer from a mental illness, an addiction, or poverty, despite close bonds between children and their parents.

    We have embraced this culture despite knowing that relationships are the foundational aspects of our lives. They provide us our reason for being. They sustain us during difficult times. They motivate us when we face obstacles. They give us meaning in a turbulent world. They are the asset we must relentlessly protect.

    To fundamentally change the lives of children involved in the child welfare system, we must embrace a new mantra to guide our work: relentlessly protect meaningful relationships.

    In such a system, we would never separate children from their parents due to their family's lack of income.

    If removed, we would never deny children their right to see their parents absent clear evidence of harm.

    And we would never terminate parental rights where children benefit from a relationship with their parent, even if that parent cannot personally care for their child.

    Over the past 4 years, the Children's Bureau has taken important steps to implement a vision for child welfare that prioritizes the sanctity of familial relationships. Leadership has laid out a bold new vision of what the child welfare system should look like and how its intent should be to prevent unnecessary family separation by supporting families and disentangling poverty from neglect. It has moved to implement it through statutory reforms to fund prevention work, the interpretation of federal laws that recognize that lawyers can prevent unnecessary family separation, and the spending of discretionary funds to strengthen the health of communities.

    But to truly implement this vision, more work must be done. For example, even with the Family First Prevention Services Act, state child welfare agencies need far more flexibility to spend federal funds on concrete supports that can keep children safe with their families, like obtaining housing, accessing public benefits, or getting the right educational services. The federal government must go beyond the new title IV-E support for legal representation and directly fund legal advocacy aimed at preventing families from even getting to the front door of child welfare. 

    And Congress must amend the Adoption and Safe Families Act to prevent the needless and permanent destruction of families, especially where a child has a loving relationship with a parent, is living with relatives, or does not yet have an identified permanent home. The law must only allow for the elimination of meaningful relationships where no other alternatives exists.

    My client will likely never have a right to see her children. The trial court took away this right from her because life gave her a disease she did not choose to have. But in the pain of her story lies a stark reminder of our need to fight for justice in child welfare. And that fight must center on relentlessly protecting relationships between children and their families.  



    Recent Issues

  • July/August 2024

    Spotlight on Youth, Authentic Youth Engagement, and Lived Experience

    Spotlight on Youth, Authentic Youth Engagement, and Lived Experience

  • June 2024

    Spotlight on Reunification

    Spotlight on Reunification

News From the Children's Bureau

We feature letters from Jerry Milner to child welfare leaders on the needs and concerns of young leaders and the importance of ensuring families have access to the judicial system during these challenging times, an update on the Institute for Family and how to subscribe to its new webinar series, a Philadelphia program that recently added a peer advocate to its wraparound services, recent research about how parental substance use affects child welfare, new contributions from the Capacity Building Center for States, and more.

  • Letter From Jerry Milner Shares Themes From Roundtable Discussions With Young Leaders

    Letter From Jerry Milner Shares Themes From Roundtable Discussions With Young Leaders

    A letter from Associate Commissioner Jerry Milner to child welfare leaders highlights themes that emerged from a series of 12 roundtable discussions with youth currently or formerly in foster care.

    These themes include the following:

    • Many Young Leaders expressed the importance of staying connected with caseworkers/independent-living coordinators and reported examples of how caseworkers/independent-living coordinators had proactively reached out to ask youth if they were okay and what they might need and stayed in regular contact.
    • Other Young Leaders reported that caseworkers/independent-living coordinators had helped ensure that they had access to cell phones and the internet to maintain connections with family, friends, and other critical supports.
    • Young Leaders also reported systems-level support that had been provided by child welfare agencies, such as changing policy to prevent young people from aging out during the pandemic and efforts to work with colleges and universities to ensure young people could remain in dormitory living.

    The Young Leaders also shared some of the challenges they are facing, including the following:

    • Social isolation brought on by the pandemic
    • Mental health and overall well-being issues tied to social isolation
    • Concerns about aging out of foster care during the pandemic without a place to go or means to support themselves
    • Job loss and/or difficulty finding meaningful employment, and the ensuing financial repercussions
    • Safe and secure housing, especially for youth who relied on their college dormitories as their main source of housing
    • Worries about schools and universities shifting to a virtual learning environment due, in part, to concerns about access to technology necessary to learn in a virtual setting
    • Access to health care
    • Reduced access to reliable transportation for many youth due to shutdowns in public transportation or fears of contracting the virus
    • Reunification and adoption finalizations, given challenges with the normal operations of the courts
  • Building Capacity in Child Welfare

    Building Capacity in Child Welfare

    Capacity-building services are an important aspect of the Children's Bureau's approach to supporting states, tribes, territories, and courts with implementing federally funded programs, meeting federal requirements and standards, and improving child welfare and court practices. But what do these services look like on the ground, and how well do they work? Funded by the Children's Bureau, a recent report, Building Capacity in Child Welfare: Findings From a Five-Year Evaluation of the Capacity Building Collaborative, presents findings from an evaluation of capacity-building services delivered by three centers funded by the Children's Bureau: the Capacity Building Center (CBC) for States, the CBC for Courts, and the CBC for Tribes. Conducted by James Bell Associates and ICF, this cross-site evaluation advances what is known about the delivery of capacity-building services to child welfare agencies and court improvement programs, especially as they engage in efforts to enhance organizational capacity and improve practice.

    Beginning in 2014, the Collaborative assisted child welfare agencies and court improvement programs in states, tribes, and territories with identifying issues in their systems, developing solutions, implementing changes, and designing strategies to sustain those changes to improve child welfare and court practices. The evaluation used a variety of tools and new strategies to measure capacity-building services and their effectiveness over time. The report highlights key findings related to the following:

    • The use of capacity-building services by states and tribal child welfare agencies and court improvement programs
    • The characteristics of capacity-building services
    • Satisfaction with and the quality of CBC services
    • The perceived outcomes of CBC services
    • Collaboration among CBCs to deliver capacity-building services

    The report and executive summary highlight the lessons learned about capacity-building services and evaluation. Findings document the effectiveness of capacity-building services to build organizational capacity and support implementation of change initiatives. Read the report and executive summary for more information.


  • Using Research to Help Child Welfare Support Children and Families Impacted by Prenatal Exposure to

    Using Research to Help Child Welfare Support Children and Families Impacted by Prenatal Exposure to

    Parental substance use is estimated to play a role in at least half of child welfare cases, yet child welfare agencies need more research and guidance to identify and serve impacted children—particularly those exposed to alcohol or other drugs in the prenatal period.

    A recent literature review in the Journal of Public Child Welfare identified 32 peer-reviewed articles addressing child welfare policies and practices related to prenatal exposure published between 2006 and 2018. Articles were split evenly between research (i.e., research studies and program evaluations) and nonresearch (i.e., structured reviews of policies, instruments, and evidence-based practices).

    The following are among the literature review's key findings:

    • Roughly half of the articles (56 percent) addressed both alcohol and drugs.
    • Half of the articles focused on newborns and children under 1 year of age, and most concentrated on hospital reports of newborns with prenatal substance exposure. The findings raise concerns of a serious underidentification of prenatal alcohol exposure, which does not show up on newborn toxicology tests.
    • The findings also imply an underestimation of the potentially extreme and permanent impacts of prenatal alcohol exposure among older children. These include cognitive and behavioral factors that likely lead to difficult interactions with parents, other adults, and friends; experiences of maltreatment; child welfare involvement and placement instability; and inadequate or inappropriate services that may over rely on pharmaceutical prescriptions due to a lack of knowledge of what would be helpful to children prenatally exposed to alcohol.
    • There is little research on child welfare policy and/or practice for identifying and caring for children with prenatal substance exposure, particularly alcohol exposure, including how service providers document and share the critical information needed to serve and protect these children.
    • Gaps in the literature around the use of child welfare records and data systems most likely reflect gaps in policy and practice. For example, child welfare court reports merit more consideration as a way to identify prenatal substance exposure, particularly among older children.

    The review was conducted as part of an ongoing project funded by the Children's Bureau and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Project Officer Sharon Newburg-Rinn, a social science research analyst at the Children's Bureau, is among the article's coauthors. The project team is currently conducting a multisite study of policies, practices, and procedures used by state and local child welfare agencies. Findings will inform the development of resources for the field in the project's second phase.


  • Message on COVID-19 From the Children's Bureau

    Message on COVID-19 From the Children's Bureau

    The Children's Bureau created a webpage with the latest information on COVID-19 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:

  • Community Legal Services of Philadelphia's Family Defense Model Now Includes a Peer Advocate

    Community Legal Services of Philadelphia's Family Defense Model Now Includes a Peer Advocate

    Community Legal Services of Philadelphia is a family advocacy program that aims to strengthen families, keep children in their homes and communities, and safely reunify separated families whenever possible. To reach these goals, its Family Advocacy Unit (FAU) provides holistic family defense for parents involved in child welfare cases. FAU's interdisciplinary teams work to meet each client where they are, identify and support their unique strengths and capacities, and help their family overcome crises and thrive.

    Recently, Community Legal Services added peer advocate, April Lee, to its team as part of a pilot program to introduce wraparound services—including attorneys, social worker, and, now, peer advocates—to families involved with child welfare in Philadelphia. Lee, who has experienced removal herself by temporarily losing custody of her three children, is in a unique position to help parents navigate the child welfare system and mitigate the trauma that is often a consequence of child welfare involvement. The goal of this new framework, which provides a family with a social worker, an attorney, and a peer advocate, is to provide families with quality representation and support resulting in positive outcomes for children and youth.


  • Letter From Jerry Milner Urging Courts to Continue Providing Judicial Oversight in Child Welfare Pro

    Letter From Jerry Milner Urging Courts to Continue Providing Judicial Oversight in Child Welfare Pro

    On December 4, 2020, Associate Commissioner Jerry Milner issued a letter urging agencies and courts to continue working together to ensure that critical court hearings occur and to give thoughtful consideration to how these concerns affect the safety, permanency, and well-being of the children and families they serve. In addition, the letter encourages agencies and courts to take immediate action to ensure that quality hearings and reviews include a full opportunity to participate, occur timely, and are consistent with federal civil rights obligations. Associate Commissioner Milner also urges agencies and courts to ensure that critical services and supports—especially family time—be provided to parents, children, and young people involved with the child welfare system.

    The letter also includes examples of jurisdictions that have been successfully demonstrating how they have been ensuring that families have access to the judicial system despite the ongoing challenges of the past year.


  • Institute for Family Launches New Webinar Series

    Institute for Family Launches New Webinar Series

    Written by Matt Anderson, director, Institute for Family

    The Institute for Family is an emerging platform to bring together youth, parents, families, and professionals to catalyze the movement to elevate and prioritize family well-being. We are building this platform to advance the creation of a child and family well-being system that can strengthen families and dramatically reduce our overreliance on foster care. The platform creates an opportunity to convene critical conversations with a diverse group of stakeholders, tell authentic stories that compel people to act, and advocate for new ways to see and support families so that all families thrive. 

    While we have not yet fully launched the Institute for Family (which will happen in early 2021), we have launched the Unlearning of Child Welfare series. This is currently a three-episode webinar series that is convening a national conversation to build momentum toward the creation of a child and family well-being system. Each episode is an authentic conversation among a dynamic group of leaders with both lived and professional expertise to challenge the status quo and inspire new ways of thinking about and doing our work. Each episode addresses big questions related to the following:

    • Why we need to build a child and family well-being system
    • How people are actively building this new approach from the ground up
    • What a more just and equitable foster care system can look like moving forward

    All three episodes will be available on our website in December. We have also curated video, written, and social media content to complement each episode and bring more value to our audience. You can subscribe to the Institute's email list to receive a notification as the episodes and supporting materials are available. You can also follow the Institute for Family on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter.

    With over 1,500 people subscribed to the Unlearning of Child Welfare webinar series, and their enthusiasm for the content, our audience clearly wants to have this conversation. Those who are working with children and families around the country are ready for something different. There is broad recognition that we are not doing enough to strengthen communities and support families and that family stress, child maltreatment, and child welfare involvement are the downstream results. The time is now to begin to work together with youth, parents, families, and professionals to imagine and create new solutions to help more families thrive.

    As such, we are considering how to keep the Unlearning of Child Welfare series continuing throughout 2021. We are considering video content of people's stories, podcasts, closed social media groups, and additional webinars. We want to continue our conversation with you, and we welcome your input on what we do next. We want to know about the conversations you want to have, the things you want to learn and unlearn, the people you want to hear from, the stories you want to tell, and the great things you are doing to advance family well-being in your community. Please be in touch by sending us your ideas to and subscribing to our email list.

    Thank you for joining with us as we build the Institute for Family. We are encouraged by the opportunities ahead and committed to making a significant impact for families.  


  • Use What You Have: Supporting the Child Welfare Workforce During a Disaster

    Use What You Have: Supporting the Child Welfare Workforce During a Disaster

    Written by the Capacity Building Center for States

    The past year's public health crisis and natural disasters have been especially challenging for the child welfare workforce. Throughout the year, child welfare workers had to adapt to working remotely while supporting families and keeping children, families, and themselves safe. In response, many agencies have proactively sought creative ways to use and strengthen existing resources and relationships to support their workforce while moving the agency's work forward.

    The following suggestions reflect some of the most prominent lessons learned throughout the past year about how to support child welfare workers during a crisis or disaster.

    Build on Existing Technological Resources

    Challenge: Throughout 2020, use of remote technology emerged as a key component of workers' ability to keep children and families safe and continue their regular work with families. However, some agencies faced barriers related to lack of resources and familiarity with this mode of working.

    Solution: When looking for ways to support their workforce during a time of crisis, some agencies realized they could use technological resources or programs already in place. For example, in 2017, Washington State's Department of Children, Youth, and Families, working with the Quality Improvement Center for Workforce Development (QIC-WD), implemented a telework program to address low worker retention (QIC-WD, n.d.). When the agency was asked to shut down its physical offices in March 2020, administrators realized they could modify the existing program to streamline the application process and allow more workers to telework (QIC-WD, 2020a).

    For more information on supporting virtual work, check out the Center for States' publications Knowledge Management Research: Telework in Child Welfare and Knowledge Management Research: Virtual Meetings in Child Welfare.

    Use Existing Relationships to Facilitate a Change in Process

    Challenge: Working offsite during a time of crisis or natural disaster challenged supervisors to identify new ways to support a remote workforce.

    Solution: Throughout the year, managers and supervisors built on existing positive relationships with their staff to maintain and strengthen the supervisory process. Approaching the supervisory relationship with empathy and flexibility was one key strategy (National Child Welfare Workforce Institute [NCWWI], 2020b). Other strategies included the following (QIC-WD, 2020b):

    • Staying in frequent contact by phone, email, or an online meeting platform
    • Celebrating successes frequently in one-on-one meetings or team huddles
    • Establishing regular, frequent meetings with each supervisee and being available for additional meetings as needed
    • Monitoring supervisees' mental health and offering supports as needed

    Encourage a Focus on Self-Care and Personal Safety

    Challenge: In 2020, pandemics and natural disasters significantly impacted the health and well-being of all populations. Child welfare staff, in particular, continued to work with families and children under difficult new conditions while facing potential personal stressors such as health crises, social isolation, child care management, and psychological distress (Barbee, 2020; NCWWI, 2020a). They also potentially experienced overwork and fatigue due to the challenges created by the crisis or disaster (Barbee, 2020).

    Solution: Under these circumstances, agencies helped their staff deal with situational stress in the following ways:

    • Offering a space and time to discuss challenges and concerns and process emotions (Barbee, 2020)
    • Using technology to facilitate flexible work arrangements to help staff manage their work-life balance during the crisis or disaster (NCWWI, 2020c)
    • Implementing clear safety measures when workers return to the office (NCWWI, 2020c)

    By building on existing relationships and resources, child welfare agencies can help their staff remain healthy and productive, even during a crisis or disaster. Visit the Capacity Building Center for States webpage Building Capacity for Disaster Preparedness at a Child Welfare Agency to learn how child welfare agencies can build the capacity to pivot in response to any disaster.


    Barbee, A. (2020, June 30). What we know about pandemics and the stress they cause. Quality Improvement Center for Workforce Development.

    National Child Welfare Workforce Institute. (2020a). Facing the pandemic with emotional agility.

    National Child Welfare Workforce Institute. (2020b). Virtually supervising child welfare professionals during a pandemic.

    National Child Welfare Workforce Institute. (2020c). What child welfare workers need in a pandemic.

    Quality Improvement Center for Workforce Development. (n.d.). Washington State Department of Children, Youth, and Families.

    Quality Improvement Center for Workforce Development. (2020a, April 2). Washington progress update: Telework in action.

    Quality Improvement Center for Workforce Development. (2020b, September 28). Working from home and the office during a pandemic: The experience of Louisiana child welfare workers.


  • CB Website Updates

    CB Website Updates

    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.