We Need a New Business Model in Child Welfare

by | Aug 19, 2020

As written and published on The Imprint News.

Every morning when you wake up as a child welfare director, you are scared for somebody else’s children, and not just because you worry about abuse and neglect. You worry because the government established standards and protocols for working with these kids would be unacceptable for anybody but somebody else’s children.

Everyone talks about changing child welfare, but few want to do the work to change it because it means working with adults who have complicated lives. The result is that we keep locking parents, and particularly Black, brown and poor parents, into no-win situations. 

There are some parents we should be afraid of for the sake of their children – and our child protection business model is designed to intervene when we are afraid for children. But this child protection model is missing the capacity to differentiate between the small fraction of parents who have neither the skill nor will to keep children safe, and those who have the capacity to learn, and overcome existing vulnerabilities and limitations. 

child welfare
B.J. Walker, former child welfare director for Georgia and Illinois.

This capacity needs to be built at the child welfare front door, but current practices and policies have a difficult time separating skill from will. So, we do one of two things: we either wait until abuse or neglect happens before we intervene, or we decide that we cannot understand what is happening and default to removing children “in the interest of safety.” 

We have built a system that many parents and families endure and fear – a system which, at its best, watches and waits until the state’s standard for abuse and neglect is breached or a system which, at its worst, removes children because it sees adult vulnerabilities but cannot change the conditions which put these families at risk. 

We have built a faulty system – one that defaults to “policing” families, when what is needed is a system that restores families. 

Rebuilding how the system works with adults is possible. There are child welfare leaders who have a plan for shifting how this work is done but they battle against “principalities and powers” that resist changing the narrative. This narrative is not driven by the children who the system was designed to protect, nor by those who lead and work in these systems. It is shaped by those who believe they have a unique and entitled line of sight on folks who do not look like them or live their same experience. And those working in the system are often trapped by thousands of pages of laws, policies and mandates that are mostly not intended to promote well-being for families. 

We need a “ground game” where vulnerable families could have a different child welfare experience, one not solely dependent on investigating and deciding whether or not to remove children, and instead offers opportunities for discernment, family strengthening, and preventing abuse and neglect. 

This ground game requires that we do the following:

  • Build a more discerning front door – one that has the tools to operate as a public health intervention, delivering preventive approaches that can be tailored to the needs of families. Consider infant mortality – we know the adult behaviors that put babies at risk but punishing the guilty should not be our first response.
  • Stop responding to individual system failures with knee-jerk policies and leadership changes that are not aimed at systemic issues, but instead serve as political backstops to identify who is at fault for what just happened. 
  • Be accountable for family finding. Children who come into the child welfare system often have families, but we do not aggressively search for them and sometimes, when they do come forward, we decide they are not worthy. Not doing everything we can to locate family members is an abuse of our authority. 
  • We must want to redeem vulnerable families. Child welfare has become the emergency room for families in crisis. We need to sift through these crises, searching for a kernel of hope. Being a vulnerable adult should not be why your children are removed. 

The time has come to dismantle our failing business model. If it were applied to any one of us and our children, it would be unacceptable and not tolerated. Family strengthening offers a lifeline – not just for those of us working in these systems but for those we serve.

We need to do this because, when children see us coming, they think we have come to save their family. Let’s not disappoint them.

BJ Walker

In The Public Way Featured Author

BJ Walker offers passion, leadership and management experience from over 30 years of work in human services and education. She has successfully led reform efforts in state and local government and played key roles in promoting and supporting change and innovation in both the private and not for profit sectors.

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