Child Welfare Must Move from A Reaction to A Response

Last updated: 04-11-2021

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Child Welfare Must Move from A Reaction to A Response

One benefit of an extended career in child welfare settings is that you begin to understand the concept of capacity. I’m not offering this as sage advice or cynical wisdom, nor as a pup social worker who is naïve and imagines that every family and every system can be set on the right track. 

I do know that your tenure as a professional helper will be cut short if you overestimate and overpromise the ability of a family or your system to achieve their goals. In the case of a family, your misjudgment can be perilous for children. Similarly, inflating the capacity of a system reinforces the perception that we are the “beleaguered child welfare agency” the public loves to hate and mistrust. 

The formula for sustaining our reach, enhancing our credibility and actually moving the needle on safety and well-being is to name and describe the space between the aspirational and the possible, the virtuous and practical, the panorama and narrowly focused. 

This is where we find ourselves currently with the conversation regarding the future of child welfare. Spoiler alert – I’m not of the mind that we are in need of a “go big or go home” stance  But we do need a well conceived and just consensus on what this system should and should not do, and how to include the voice of communities. 

Child welfare legislation and policy is historically pockmarked with overwrought ideas. Those ideas were big, but not in a way that allowed us to get out of our own way. For example, how long have we discussed the idea of primary prevention and family support without having a firm policy agenda or funding stream? 

For the most part, we have maintained a system that attended to families who were already desperate and in crisis, or who were disproportionately impacted because of race and class. And this could very well happen again if we are too vague on the details. 

On the perilous, depressing journey frequently traveled by chronically challenged families, the road usually runs out at the door of the child welfare agency. Once they arrive, they are met with a reaction, not a response. We patch them up and close the case until a healthy percentage of them return, still unsafe and unstable. 

The truth is that we haven’t significantly reinvented the design and underlying principles of child welfare for decades – maybe since we first discussed the concept of family preservation. This has contributed to our chronically mediocre results. In any other arena, it would be a failing business model, the equivalent of using a single use typewriter in the multi-purpose computer age. 

There is promising news. With a renewed interest and energy around family support and prevention, courtesy of the Family First Prevention Services Act, many jurisdictions are immersing themselves in conversations about a needed redesign. Some have already developed and implemented holistic approaches to working with families – practices that are more relational, respectful and relevant. There is an added emphasis on engaging and including families. We are paying attention to the historical issues around race and culture. 

So we have to ask ourselves, what do we realistically expect family support programs to do? First, we want them to contribute to the protective factors that will keep kids safe and at home. Second, we want programs to engage parents as partners and keep families stable. Third, these programs should provide practical opportunities for family success and achievement within the context of hope. Finally, we want models that are accountable to the public and to the families they serve. 

Beyond that description, we need more clarity and parameters. If we stray too far from the reality that there is a sizeable population of kids who need protection, right now, we will miss the public policy moment and mandate we have been afforded. But if we remain rooted in the traditional role of child welfare, we will continue to be viewed as heavy handed toward the most disenfranchised families. 

I sometimes wonder if we are so humbled and overwhelmed with the challenge of assuring child safety, that we delude ourselves into thinking that we can right every wrong facing their families. Many parents and their kids are under generational assault, frequently living in terrible socio-economic circumstances.

But we misstep when we overestimate our capacity, leading to grandiose language and unrealistic, unspecified outcomes. We aim so deep and wide that we overshoot our essential tasks. Once communication is not consistent or coherent, and we fail to define terms, it becomes harder to build capacity. We lose focus. 

Reframing the future while managing the current operations is a test of our courage and wisdom. I was reminded of this in a recent conversation with a pediatric medicine colleague of mine. When I told them about what themes are emerging in the child welfare arena, the response was, “Must be nice, but I’m up to my ears in blood and drama in the ICU… what are you doing to make things safer for these kids?”  

There is a dissonance in the way we assess our current capacity in child welfare. We are spending so much time on the planning and development of evidence-based programming (EBPs) under Family First, but many in child welfare are encouraging a focus on delivery models driven and informed by families. Shouldn’t we figure out how we integrate the voices of lived experience with EBP’s that are based on primarily academic models? 

There is also a great deal of discussion about system transformation, but are we incorporating into those conversations a plan to actually measure outcomes? What is the connection between transformation and improved safety outcomes? 

We are finally inserting more references to race and poverty into our conversations but not articulating exactly what we expect of frontline team members once they have this information. Can we find a way to translate our advocacy into a practice model?  

Time to face it. We need a North Star for this work. I’d like to think we are capable of finding it. 


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