You Can’t Have Child Protection Without Family Preservation

I appreciate the opportunity to debate child welfare finance with Sean Hughes in the Chronicle. But I am disappointed that in his introduction to the latest installment, Daniel Heimpel chose to repeat what I view as The Big Lie of American child welfare – the idea that child protection and family preservation are at odds.

In his discussion of our columns on the foster care “entitlement” under Title IV-E of the Social Security Act, Heimpel tells us:

If you believe that the mandate of child welfare agencies should go beyond child protection, and focus on keeping families together, then these dwindling dollars tied predominantly to caring for children only after they have been separated from their families is a real problem.

 If you believe that the child welfare system is really about child protection, and that keeping families together is the provenance of other agencies, then the entitlement is acting how it should.

 This is the philosophical debate within the field …

No, Daniel, it’s not.

I believe the child welfare system is about child protection. So does every family preservation advocate I know. But we don’t equate child protection with child removal. Focusing on keeping families together is not “go[ing] beyond child protection,” it’s how you achieve child protection in the overwhelming majority of cases.

The real philosophical debate is: Which works better to keep children safe: Foster care or family preservation?

Obviously, I believe the answer, backed up by a mountain of research, is that for the overwhelming majority of children, in the overwhelming majority of the instances, family preservation isn’t just more humane than foster care and less expensive than foster care, it’s also safer than foster care. I’ve cited the evidence for this, such as this study, and these studies, and the ones mentioned here repeatedly, and I’m sure these links will turn up in many future columns.

It is equally obvious that Heimpel disagrees. We can and should debate that.

But neither I, nor anyone else I know in the family preservation movement, take second place to anyone in our concern about keeping children safe. It’s why we became advocates for family preservation in the first place.

In my case, it didn’t happen all at once. It’s been almost exactly 40 years since I did my first major story about foster care, a radio documentary while I was a journalism student. I interviewed a woman who was, at the time, 21.

By the time she was nine years old, she had been in nine different foster homes. She told me she survived by keeping the rage inside, “unlike my five brothers who have been in every jail in New York State.”

This is some of what she said:

My bitterness is not that I went through what I did. My bitterness is that I don’t think it should have had to happen. There was no reason why my family’s life should have been destroyed.

 The people that I’ve seen, the kids that have emerged [from foster care] are dead.  Their hearts are functioning. The ‘ol heart’s pumping the blood around. But they’re basically dead inside. It’s been killed. Either they had to kill it to survive physically, or somebody else killed it in them – whatever it is that makes people human.

After speaking to this woman for two-and-a-half hours, I reached three conclusions:

First, I was very glad I’d chosen journalism as a career.

Second, I knew I would keep coming back to the story.

And third, we could fix this if we just got all those rotten birth parents out of the way and got all these children adopted.

Hey, two out of three isn’t bad!

But as I did keep coming back to the story, I kept finding that the facts on the ground were not matching what the most widely-quoted, so-called “experts” were saying. I kept hearing “child abuse crosses class lines,” but all I kept seeing in the system were families who were poor, and the “neglect” for which they lost their children often looked just like poverty itself.

When the dichotomy became too much to bear, I wrote a book about it called Wounded Innocents. Working on the book led me to lots of experts who usually were ignored. And that led me to the research showing family preservation to be the safer option, a body of research that just keeps growing.

So after 40 years of following this issue, 26 of them as an advocate, I’ve about had it with seeing people who invent outstanding alternatives such as the Homebuilders Intensive Family Preservation Services program, and people who put their careers on the line every day fighting to transform child welfare systems being stigmatized and stereotyped as being less concerned about child protection than all those people who built the terrible system we have now. The kind of people who gave us this hellscape, and this one, and this one; people who almost always mean well but nevertheless keep right on destroying in children “whatever it is that makes people human.”

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Richard Wexler
About Richard Wexler 51 Articles
Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, His interest in child welfare grew out of 19 years of work as a reporter for newspapers, public radio and public television. During that time, he won more than two dozen awards, many of them for stories about child abuse and foster care. He is the author of Wounded Innocents: The Real Victims of the War Against Child Abuse (Prometheus Books: 1990, 1995).


  1. Well written article. I would add “naïve” as a descriptor used to describe those of us who attempt to transform the system, who work in prevention, and who believe in the innovative programs mentioned in your articles. In the last 20 years we have learned so much about bonding, trauma and brain development, and then in our child welfare programs we are only citing and publicizing the information that supports our preconceived notions and current CPS removal emphasis. Need to change. For all of our sakes.

  2. If they took the money they pay foster parents ( which is a lot ) and instead use it to help parents pay their rent or for food or whatever else they need to get on their feet and not be so strapped for cash ! Their home life would improve and there would be less anxiety and worry ! Which in turn makes a happier family all the way around ! Removing children from their parents should be the last resort !

  3. Why don’t we cut to the chase here. The issue is not whether foster care or family preservation is the best way to keep kids safe, the issue is as long as the federal funding is being allocated the way it is, the foster care system and everything that goes along with it will prevail. No one REALLY cares about the kids, because if they did, we wouldn’t be here now…..the issues would have already been addressed and the warped federal funding programs would have been reformed years ago. The truth is, the federal funding programs have created a monster of corruption that allows special interest groups to prosper off the backs of innocent children and poor parents.

  4. Thank you Wexler <3 Seizing children is traumatic for the entire family–a sucker punch. Parents want their day in court before (emphasis) the removal because a sucker punch out of nowhere is deliberate, malicious, destabilizing, disrespectful and disruptive. 85% of children removed are returned but not until the state has capitalized at the child (and family's) emotional expense. The same 'services' that could have been provided with a whole lot more collaboration and cooperation with the parents. In Kentucky kinship care funding was shutdown in 2013. Absolutely the state makes money at the expense of families. sickening that child removal puts people to work! Scholarships are handed out like candy for them. These students are then employed with the promise of reimbursement of loans. Definitely paid more than the few jobs left in this country. Working for the government guarantees health and retirement benefits ….when businesses are closing shop. One child removal, for six months, pays 25 employees. It is the only way they get paid–removing a child (or disabled and elderly). Think about that. It's predatory and the epitomizes 'grooming'. But, this is a system that 'grooms' committees statewide, nationwide, and globally. This doesn't even address the number of children abused and neglected, some even die — in state care. Parents are told 'trust the process'.

  5. As an adoptive mother, I can say that adoption is at times needed but very much to be avoided. It is painful to children no matter how young they are at adoption. Many more parents can safely care for their children with effective supports. Prevention is the key to child safety, and it is possible to build much safer, warmer environments for the poor children and families affected by the child welfare system in this country.

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