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Heroes must fix the broken system. But first we must acknowledge its many challenges.

In economic free fall, can child welfare protect the most vulnerable families?

“HEROES VS HYDRAS” SERIES

This fifteen-part series introduces you to the heroic partners you and your community will require to survive and thrive during pandemics and economic disruptions. The articles also provide tips on avoiding the three-headed hydras of apathy, envy and fear, those people in positions of power who are fighting to keep a broken status quo.

Designed 100 years ago, if ever a system screamed out for radical rethinking and redesign (and support), this is it.

On the other side of town, there are some heroic families who have, in this economic free fall, found themselves struggling. They will either be helped or hindered by your child welfare department.

As I am sure I have written many times in my life, “Impossible” does not even begin to describe the overwhelming challenge facing child welfare leadership. All the most vulnerable children and parents in your state, due to the pandemic and economic free fall, just became more vulnerable. And they are one phone call away from being sent into the arms of child protective services.

You want a visionary hero who understands the power of data, technology and collaboration running child welfare. Some state and county child welfare systems have heroes in management and I’ve worked with some amazing folks in New Mexico, Connecticut and NYC. That’s the good news to be followed by deeply troubling news. Allow me to explain.

There are over 1000 books currently for sale on Amazon focused on child welfare. To save you thousands of days of reading, here’s what you need to know: nobody outside of child welfare staff can truly understand how totally impossible the job is, and how completely ill-equipped (i.e. underfunded and understaffed) child welfare is across the nation. With one in eight children substantiated as maltreated by age 18 in the US, the stream of kids and struggling parents in this bureaucracy is overwhelming.

There is a chapter in the book Anna, Age Eight about the challenges facing a child welfare system. In “Chapter 7: An Infant, A Motel Room, And a Pile of Needles: The impossible job of Child Welfare Pros,” we describe how child welfare’s heroic workforce, essentially, has been set up to fail our most vulnerable children and families. We also described how best to fix systemic problems on the state and local levels.

The public must learn exactly what today’s child welfare can and cannot do

In a nutshell, the child welfare system was created about a century ago in the US to remove children from unsafe parents, when it had been substantiated through the assessment of an investigator that abuse and neglect of the child was evident. Once removed from the home, a child would be placed in a safe environment in the form of a relative with a stable home, a foster family or a group home. Children would not be returned to a parent until it was determined that the mother, father or guardian had demonstrated to child protective services staff that the problems that led to maltreatment had been resolved. If it was deemed that a parent could not address challenges, then a process called “termination of parental rights” occurred.

Termination of parental rights is something we truly wish to avoid if at all possible. The child is then adopted or in custody until aging out of the system at eighteen, at which time he or she enters a harsh reality, navigating the world without parental or family support. As you can imagine, research indicates that most teens aging out don’t fare well. Odds are good that they will become parents themselves at a young age, and the cycle of maltreatment repeats itself.

Heartfelt mission. Not enough resources in the agency or the community

Although the goal of child welfare is to heal parents so that reunification is possible, the department does not have the resources to truly help a struggling parent. We know from assessments made by Child Protective Services (CPS) that parents come with three main challenges: substance misuse, domestic violence and untreated mental health challenges (often the result of untreated trauma from adverse childhood experiences — ACEs — endured decades earlier).

Imagine a mom and dad for a moment, working with CPS workers to get their children back from a foster family. The couple may have been struggling with substance use and untreated mental health challenges for a long time, along with holding down two jobs each to pay bills and support their kids.

First, how realistic is it that they can get time off work to get help? But even if they find a way to accommodate counseling focused on recovery and ending domestic violence, to heal from their own childhoods of intense ACEs, the reality is that these services may not exist; or if they do, they are unaffordable, have six month waiting lists or have burned-out staff.

What child welfare does not know

Most local child welfare departments have not done a survey to ask parents and the youth in their system the following:

  1. To what degree do you have access to the services for surviving that include behavioral health care, medical care, food security and housing security programs and transportation to vital services?

Without answers to the above questions, a county child protective services office won’t know if “connecting parents to vital services” is even possible.

What child welfare could know

I am a glass-half-full kind of guy who believes, with the right type of state cabinet secretary and upper management team, a child welfare system can be transformative. It could heal and empower. The problems facing child welfare and its clients are man-made and we can use human ingenuity to solve it. And I must repeat, I have been honored to collaborate with visionary child welfare leaders but to be candid, they are running a system set up to derail them.

What follows is a list of what I call the “Must Happen ASAP” I have been sharing for half a decade to any child welfare leader (or lawmaker who funds child welfare) who will listen, informed by my work with the Data Leaders for Child Welfare program.

WARNING: Grab a cup of Joe before reading this rather dense list. The details are important and we’re talking about children’s lives here.

Acknowledging limitations and capacity: To the funders, designers and implementers of child welfare, it must be acknowledged that child welfare was invented a century ago and funded to be the “child maltreatment response department,” not the “child maltreatment prevention department.” These are two very different departments with different visions, goals, staffing, activities and evaluation processes to assess yearly results. It’s vital that people not confuse response (which is a reaction to abuse and neglect) with prevention (which is a cross-sector local process of ensuring vital services for our most vulnerable families — going upstream to address the root causes of maltreatment). Today’s child welfare systems, with a few exceptions, are mandated by the federal government to respond. The feds have not funded state and county programs to ensure access to vital local services shown to prevent maltreatment. This means each state must decide how to invest in data-driven prevention strategies.

State Partnerships: The cabinet secretary requires strong partnerships between counterparts, with the secretaries running public health, public education, higher education, economic development and early childhood. If these leaders formulate a plan that focuses on each of the state’s counties, with the goal of ensuring ten vital services (including behavioral health care, stable housing, secure food, transports, etc.) in each community, we go way upstream to keep families from entering the child welfare system in the first place.

Local Partnerships: With firm partnerships in place on the state levels at the highest level of government, the cabinet secretary can support the building of true partnerships on the county level by empowering his or her county managers. This means that the cabinet secretary has a director over the county office managers who is widely respected by staff and can provide to each county office manager the time and training to partner with local stakeholders. Stakeholders include elected leaders and those directors running nonprofit local family services like behavioral health care, medical care, housing and the services for surviving and thriving. From this point, true collaboration can take place as all players commit to creating a seamless system of care, safety and education for all families. The measure of success is found by surveying our most vulnerable parents and teens and asking, “to what degree do you have access to ten vital services shown to strengthen families?”

Workforce training and empowerment: Most child welfare leadership does not have on-going training in a data-driven process that allows them to use data to identify and solve challenges in their office or their community. As was written about extensively in Anna, Age Eight, what’s needed is a total agency commitment by the cabinet secretary and upper management to training in continuous quality improvement (CQI), so that all leaders can assess, plan, act and evaluate. This process, supported by a state-of-the-art data system and the latest in technology, is also designed to empower a child welfare workforce, bringing inclusion to decision-making processes and a commitment to a transparent and respectful management process. Make no mistake, most child welfare systems have a workforce made up of deeply caring and committed folks, but they are also working with caseloads that overwhelm.

A Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI) Deputy Secretary: The cabinet secretary will need a second in command versed in continuous quality improvement, focused on measurable results, and with the people skills that inspire one of the most overworked workforces in the nation. This makes CQI the top priority of the agency. What’s not to love about having an internal agency engine (and highly trained and motivated staff) devoted to constant improvement in an arena that cries out for solutions?

Who in child welfare should you engage with?

Child welfare needs to be on board as a full partner in our mission to end all forms of maltreatment. And, it won’t be easy because these big-hearted workers are totally overwhelmed. That said, through your contacts in city government, county government and the school board, you will discover folks who know someone in management within your local child welfare office, perhaps even the state’s central office.

As stated earlier, part of local child welfare staff’s job is linking struggling parents within their “system” to local services (like behavioral health care to address substance misuse, domestic violence or untreated mental health challenges). And, in many rural and urban areas, these vital services may not exist locally — or exist in ways that make accessibility for parents yet another challenge. There’s clearly a reason for local child welfare staff to work in sync with any efforts in creating a seamless countywide system of care.

Who do I need to meet with — and what can they do for my county?

Identifying the right people within child welfare requires patience, networking and a lot of web-surfing that may result in less-than-relevant information. Finding the name and email of your local child welfare office managers can be difficult and frustrating. Perhaps your county is all about user-friendliness with a website that describes all staff and emails and what they can do for the public (or not).

You may need to use your contacts to find a staff person, anywhere on the food chain, who is your entry ticket. We have a lot of experience with child welfare, on the state and local levels, and you won’t meet a more dedicated and heartfelt group of staff, but they will most likely be vastly overworked. Be persistent with making connections but understand, most staff are balancing dozens of plates in the air, with kids’ lives at stake daily.

The future is what we make it. Join the evolution.

Please excuse any typos as I construct an article at 3am on only one cup of Joe. These stories are mine and mine alone. I do not represent any organization here. If one of my illustrations looks like a real human or three-headed hydra, that’s total coincidence. Words and images ©Dominic Cappello but share with everyone you know. Any questions? The future awaits: www.tenvitalservices.org

Written by

A NY Times bestselling author, social justice activist, Oprah guest, co-author of Attack of the Three-Headed Hydras, 100% Community and Anna, Age Eight.

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