Why Do Government Lawyers Run the Child Welfare System?

The foster care alumni movement asserts that child welfare professionals must meet increasingly higher standards of knowledge the more they influence the lives of at-risk youth. This is especially true for non-alumni whose decisions affect the most foster children.

One poor decision made by one incompetent professional about one foster child can harm her or him forever. That is bad enough. But when unqualified decision-makers support flawed programs, policies and practices, they put the lives of many kids in jeopardy.

We seek to eliminate this lack of expertise by ensuring that only the most qualified professionals have the most influence over the most decisions for the most kids.

The poorly conceived child welfare model we seek to replace has far too long been run by lawyers who have not lived in out-of-home care, worked with at-risk kids or even earned a degree in social work, child psychology, juvenile justice or other relevant academic discipline.

They’re trained in legal philosophy and practice, not children’s issues.

Yet politicians, who are often lawyers, develop the policies, determine the practices and fund the programs for foster kids. All 50 states require juvenile and family court judges to have earned a law degree and passed the state Bar Exam. Attorneys are also the administrators of many state child welfare agencies.

Government lawyers have literally seized control of the child welfare system and thereby assumed the crucial role of determining the destiny of America’s most vulnerable citizens.

Our common sense approach emphasizes that foster care decision-makers must be those child welfare professionals most qualified to determine how best to serve each individual child’s unique needs and protect his or her specific best interests.

“Gut feelings,” “guesswork” and “good intentions” do not meet this standard.

The ideal candidate would be a former foster kid.  But even she or he should have at least a master’s degree in social work, child psychology, juvenile justice or other relevant academic discipline and ten years of experience working with at-risk youth, preferably some of that experience in the system where he or she will be a decision-maker.

A law degree alone does not qualify anyone to make decisions that affect a child’s life – perhaps forever. Determining the future for foster kids requires the guidance of seasoned child welfare specialists.

This is not to impugn lawyers as “bad” or “incompetent,” but rather to point out that studying the law does not provide the education, training or experience required to be the “best qualified” professionals to determine the fate of young people who are already “at-risk.”

Put another way: If you had cancer, what level of expertise would you choose to make sure that you receive the most accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment: a lawyer, a new MD, a seasoned MD, a seasoned MD that specializes in cancer or a seasoned MD that specializes in cancer and is also a cancer survivor?

Foster kids don’t get to choose.

There are degrees of “know-how” and a “learning curve” for which there are no shortcuts or exceptions. Inexperienced lawyers judging the fate of dependent children while they go through years of on-the-job training jeopardizes the very “best interests” they’re sworn to protect.

Appropriate education, training and experience working with dependent youth must be the gold standard for child welfare decision-makers, especially judges, if they are to reach the level of wisdom required to ensure that every young person in out-of-home care enjoys a safe, stable and nurturing placement as well as a successful transition to independent living.

Anything less perpetuates a self-validating child welfare system that for a century has harmed dependent youth and resisted change for lack of a suitable alternative.

Dr. Waln Brown is CEO of the William Gladden Foundation, and Dr. John Seita is Assistant Professor of Social Work at Michigan State University. Their latest e-book, A Foster Care Manifesto, is a call to action for the 12 million foster care alumni in America.

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About Waln Brown, Ph.D. 22 Articles
Dr. Waln Brown spent his adolescence in an orphanage, detention center, state hospital and juvenile reformatory and is CEO of the William Gladden Foundation. Dr. John Seita experienced 15 foster care placements and is Assistant Professor of Social Work at Michigan State University.