A Call to New State Child Welfare Directors

The Minnesota State Capitol building. Minnesota is one of 36 states with a gubernatorial election in 2018.

Tomorrow, citizens across the country will head to the polls. In 36 states, people will elect governors. Presumably, in a significant number, voters will choose a new leader for their state. And in turn, a new governor will likely select a new director to lead the state child welfare agency.

I previously wrote a post about transforming our child protection system into a child welfare system. Changes in leadership will give us an opportunity to inch closer to such a transformation. But how can a new child welfare director make that happen? How can a director change the culture of child welfare?

Here is my call to new agency directors.

Be transparent about the complicated history that child welfare agencies have had with the families they seek to serve, and acknowledge the valid reasons why so many people distrust these agencies. Historically speaking, agencies have wrongfully taken children from certain communities, at times for the specific reason of divorcing children from their community. Unsurprisingly, even today, many families regard child welfare agencies with contempt, doing everything they can to avoid Child Protective Services (“CPS”) workers. An important step to changing this perception is for agency directors to own the historical injustices perpetuated by child welfare agencies.

Understand that the most effective child welfare interventions are those that address a family’s underlying poverty. In other words, you cannot have a conversation about how to improve a child welfare system without advocating for broader efforts to support poor families. More expansive cash assistance programs, access to affordable housing, universal preschool, day care subsidies, expansive medical treatment, after school programs, and job training programs all play a critical role in keeping children safe with their families and out of foster care. You must be a vocal champion of a broad anti-poverty agenda.

Additionally, you must commit to funding services that prevent child abuse and neglect. We know of high-quality, evidenced-based family support services that make meaningful differences for vulnerable children and families. Services such as home visitation, respite care and parent support, when delivered with fidelity by family advocates who are well trained and supported, have been shown to improve parenting skills and child development and reduce child abuse and neglect. These services need to be supported by sustainable revenue streams and need to be available well before vulnerable families come to the attention of child protective services.

Recognize that the child welfare system will never reach its potential if agencies don’t view parents as partners in their efforts to keep children safe. The government has a poor track record in raising children. As such, whenever possible, the child welfare system needs parents to care for their children. Thus, agencies must look for ways to engage parents throughout a CPS investigation, and the subsequent court process, if one ensues.

The good news is that we know how to do this. Strong legal representation for families, both before and after a petition is filed with juvenile court can play a critical role in keeping kids with their families. Similarly, giving parents a peer mentor, also commonly referred to as a Parent Partner, can help them understand a complicated process and allay their fears. All too often, it is this fear that impedes engagement with the system. And structuring meetings and processes that allow the family – and not government officials – to determine the best plan for their children must guide all child welfare thinking.

See the critical role that courts play in child welfare and welcome the independent obligation of the court to oversee agency decision-making. Even though your agency’s purpose is benevolent, it will still make mistakes. As Justice Louis Brandeis noted, “The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in the insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well meaning but without understanding.” The history of child welfare is replete with examples of this, from Charles Loring Brace’s orphan trains to the summary removal of American Indian children from their families.

Our system needs a robust court process, one that will prevent agencies from unnecessarily intervening into a parent’s fundamental right to care for his or her children. This system will improve agency’s decision-making.

Protect important relationships in the lives of children when setting your agency’s policies and priorities. Keep kids with their families, whenever it is safe. If they can’t live at home, place them with their kin – defined not by blood but by familiarity – without allowing state lines or tedious licensing requirements to delay such a placement.

Work expeditiously to get a child back home, and during that time, build relationships between birth parents and foster parents. If reunification isn’t possible, think about whether the child can still benefit from a relationship with that parent either now or in the future, and if so, look for alternatives to terminating parental rights. And when a child goes back home but has lived with a foster parent for some time, design creative ways to keep the foster parent involved in that child’s life. In other words, seek to build community and kinship around that family.

Own the mistakes that happen on your watch. A CPS worker might unnecessarily remove a child. A child might die in a birth parent’s home or in foster care. A caseworker might deny a child the right to live with his grandmother.

When this occurs, admit the error, conduct a transparent inquiry into why it happened, document what was learned and identify how to prevent it from happening in the future. While many jurisdictions have multidisciplinary teams to review child fatalities, most lack systems to look at other errors made by child welfare agencies.

As Albert Einstein wisely said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Child welfare systems must learn from their mistakes to get better.

This list is certainly incomplete. But it is a starting point for conversations that I’m hoping will be triggered by imminent changes in state leadership. Perhaps, though, the incomplete list signifies the most important call for leaders, which is to recognize that they don’t have all the answers, and recognizing that, and surround themselves with people who will push them to think differently and creatively about how to better serve families.

Vivek Sankaran

Vivek Sankaran is the director of the Child Advocacy Law Clinic and the Child Welfare Appellate Clinic at the University Michigan Law School. Follow him on Twitter at @vivekssankaran.

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