Child welfare is a grueling field. Catastrophic forces ignored by society – poverty, mental illness, addiction, homelessness, domestic violence – work together to transform problems into crises.
When those crises hit, children are caught in the crossfire. Suddenly, society looks to the child welfare community to fix problems it has allowed to fester for years. The magnitude of this responsibility, along with the futility of trying to solve structural problems with few resources, understandably creates feelings of hopelessness among many who do this work.
Yet what keeps me going are the stories of hope that can be found everywhere – when I choose to search for them. I spent last week at Camp Michigania, one of the most beautiful hamlets on earth, nestled in Northern Michigan. My week there was my respite from the real world, a chance to reflect, relax and disconnect. It was an opportunity for me to remember how to pay attention to the small moments that happen each day which bring me so much joy.
But my week at camp unexpectedly reminded me why I do child welfare work, because I was surrounded by truly remarkable individuals and families. I met a school social worker who felt like she needed to do more to help families, so she adopted a child out of foster care. Yet in our conversations, she passionately argued that poor families needed more assistance to keep kids out of foster care.
I met older grandparents who traveled thousands of miles across the country to give their young grandchildren – who were adopted out of foster care – a chance to experience camp for the first time, while also giving the children’s parents a much needed break.
I met a woman who described how her neighborhood responded when a mother stopped taking her medications, thus rendering her unable to care for her children. Rather than call child protective services, the neighborhood rallied together to support the family. While some neighbors helped the mother get treatment, others took in the children, signed up to provide meals, and transported the children to school.
A few weeks later, with proper care, the mother came home and was able to care for the children. In many places, the children would have been in foster care. But that didn’t happen in this neighborhood, where families showed how a tight-knit social fabric can support anyone.
I met a staffer at camp who, at the age of 6, was abandoned in a hotel room by his mother suffering from a mental illness. He spent the next seven years in foster care, where he endured repeated abuse.
When he couldn’t take it any longer, he fought back, ended up in the juvenile delinquency system and was raised by institutions until he turned 18. He then became homeless before entering the criminal justice system. He was destined to become yet another tragic example of what happens when children are raised by the state.
Yet he turned his life around. He got a job. He is raising his son. And now, he is a semester away from getting a college degree. When he does that, he wants to work with children in the delinquency system to show them the path to escape the morass.
If I had more time or had I paid better attention, I have no doubt that I would have discovered more stories.
What gives me hope is discovering exceptional stories in unexpected situations. Each of us is surrounded by ordinary people taking extraordinary steps to make the world a better place. Yet, like the individuals I met at Camp Michigania, these people are not looking for attention. Their names won’t appear in newspapers, and they probably won’t win any awards.
So it is up to us to search for these stories in our everyday lives. Pay attention. Talk to strangers. Ask questions. Listen.
When you find them, you will receive a tremendous gift. You will be left with a powerful sense of hope reminding you that a cadre of people – social justice warriors – surround you and are fighting every day to make the world a kinder and more just place. This is what gives me hope.
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.