The Outdated Way We Think About Relationships in Child Welfare

At a recent meeting I attended, a foster parent described her role as being a “co-parent” with the birth parent to raise a child in foster care. That is, she envisioned that her job was to temporarily help care for the child – with the birth parent – while doing everything in her power to support efforts to reunify the family.

This philosophy accords with the work of the Quality Parenting Initiative – organized by the Youth Law Center – which has “caregivers, agency staff and birth parents work as a team to support children and youth.” Consistent with this, across the country, foster parents are leading a revolution to encourage birth parents – by supervising visits, bringing them to doctor’s appointments and school meetings, and helping them with their treatment plan.

Vivek Sankaran
Vivek Sankaran, University of Michigan Law School

The foster care system needs an overhaul. But to do this, we must rethink our unproductive ways of conceptualizing relationships, particularly those that we have construed as necessarily adversarial. Foster parents and birth parents must fight over possession of a child. Parents’ lawyers and Child Protective Services (CPS) workers always argue over whether a child should be removed. Children’s lawyers and Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) must war with parents about reunifying the family.

In a system where the goal in the overwhelming majority of cases is to reunify, this outdated way of thinking about relationships only undermines the system’s goals.

Examples of another approach – one that values relationship building – exist all over the country. Consider the work of the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy, in which family defense attorneys partnered with CPS workers to prevent the unnecessary separation of families. The center gave families the assistance of an attorney, a social worker and a parent advocate to support families – before any child court involvement – to keep kids out of foster care.

During a three-year pilot period, zero of the 110 children served by the center entered care. When the program ended in 2016 – after 7 years of operation – it was staff at the child welfare agency that expressed the most regret.

Or consider parent partner programs, which now exist all over the country. This program partners child welfare agencies with birth parents – who regained custody of their children from foster care – to help other parents currently involved in the system. The success of such programs has persuaded many child welfare agencies that engaging with birth parents – instead of fighting against them – is an essential tool in helping other families reunify.

This type of creative relationship building can also exist on a case-specific level. A few years back, my law students were appointed to represent a baby in a case in which the child welfare agency was seeking to immediately terminate the rights of the birth parents because they had already lost rights for another child.

But rather than assuming an adversarial posture, my students got to know the parents. They (with the permission of parents’ counsel) visited the home. They spoke to treatment providers working with the family. They witnessed the dramatic transformation that had taken place with the parents, how they overcame decades of substance abuse addiction and were now poised to safely care for their baby.

So my students – as children’s attorneys – became the parents’ biggest champions. They filed the motion requesting the return of the baby to her parents. They opposed any efforts to terminate parental rights. They spoke loudly in court when the judge asked them to justify their position. And in doing so, they expedited the reunification of the family. Today, the baby is flourishing in the home of her family, where she belongs.

Here is my challenge to people working to protect children and preserve families. Think about your work and identify what new – and better yet unorthodox – relationships you can help create. Get foster parents to support birth parents. Support pre-removal programs that allow family defense attorneys and CPS investigators to work together to keep kids at home. Champion the importance of children’s attorneys getting to know birth parents and encourage them to speak loudly in support of parents.

Together, this is how we will start to revamp our foster care system.

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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