The Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) published a manifesto this month calling for excellence in child welfare and accountability in communities this month, a document that balances best practices with a loftier vision for the field.
The “National Blueprint for Excellence in Child Welfare” is meant to help people “set aspirational goals but give people a roadmap on how to do it,“ said CWLA Executive Director Christine James-Brown. “What’s most challenging to the field is the concept of all children as the focus for our work. There’s no way you can really raise the bar…unless you’re in a country that has priority for children and families as a whole.”
To that end, the document proposes that communities “should establish networks to facilitate communication when a particular family has unmet basic needs.”
The goal, James-Brown, is to improve the odds that communities can help address problems before the need arises for child protection and law enforcement.
“The majority of children in child welfare are there because of challenges with substance abuse, domestic violence, poverty and lack of education,” James-Brown said. “The kids in those families are canaries in the mine shaft for what we’re not doing in communities to help support families.”
The National Blueprint is split into eight aspects of child welfare practice: children’s rights, leadership, engagement, services, quality improvement, workforce, race and funding.
Among the ideas expressed in the document:
On page 64, the document lists a number of assistance efforts that should be attempted before “consideration of removal.” On the list:
- Skill building and stress-coping
- Job skills
- Parenting classes
- Parent aides
- Home visiting
- Mental health
- Substance abuse services
- Domestic violence services
- Including Alumni
A number of chapters encourage the inclusion of “alumni” – adults who had experience with the child welfare system as minors – on boards, in management, in direct services and as advocates.
The section on Workforce says “each entity should be committed to including people with experience as service recipients among its employees, volunteers, board members, and advisory groups. “
Alumni should be “locked into positions with limited options for growth,” the section continues. “There should be opportunities for them to take courses, enter degree programs, and complete them successfully.”
Many child welfare agencies and programs are only now beginning to accept that premise for standard practice, said Julie Collins, CWLA director for standards of practice excellence.
“There is a level…where they’re beginning to recognize this, but not necessarily of how to do it,” Collins said. “I once heard from a parent that when it comes to including former foster youth and families, organizations and agencies sit at the table but don’t drink the Kool-Aid.”
The National Blueprint posits the following litmus test for sibling placements in foster care: “When siblings cannot live with their family, they should be placed together unless there is a clear rationale for why it is not in their best interests.”
Often in foster care removals, the sibling is “one and only source of support and unconditional love is the sibling, and they do not have access to that,” Collins said. “It is incumbent on folks to know what that really means.”
Asked what a “clear rationale” for separating siblings might be, Collins said, “the clear example is one sibling who is abusive to the other one.”
But that can be difficult to establish unless there is physical evidence. Children don’t always say what’s going on “because they don’t feel safe, so you have to make sure they can feel safe to disclose that,” Collins said.
Children in foster care “should have access to leisure, cultural, and recreational activities,” says the standards in the “Rights of Children” section.
A number of states, including California and Florida, have recently approved legislation aimed at enabling such experiences for foster youths by easing the liability burden on foster parents, child welfare workers and group home management.
Click here to read The Chronicle’s coverage of “normalcy” legislation in both of those states.
The national blueprint was written by CWLA staff, along with consultant Etta Lappen Davis, and its contents were developed by an advisory committee that included researchers, parents, former foster youths, and public and private agency leaders.
–John Kelly is the editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change