One of the problems with the whole child welfare debate is that everyone says pretty much the same thing – but we all mean different things by it. For example, everyone says "foster care should be a last resort." Have you ever heard anyone say "foster care should be a first resort"?
Yet clearly, last resort must mean something different in Illinois, which takes away children at one of the lowest rates in the nation, - even as independent court monitors say that system has improved child safety – than it means in Nebraska, which year after year, takes children at one of the highest rates, a rate nearly five times the rate in Illinois. Either Nebraska is a cesspool of depravity, with vastly more child abuse than most of the rest of the nation, or their rhetoric about "last resort" is empty.
Similarly, there's the matter of "prevention." Have you ever heard anyone say: "Boy, am I against prevention – if there's one thing I hate, it's prevention." Yet efforts at prevention, and the very definition of the term vary enormously.
So when the giant trade association for child welfare agencies, the Child Welfare League of America, puts out a press release announcing its "Top 5 Child Welfare Challenges and Opportunities" you really have to read between the lines to understand it.
Allow me to translate:
WHEN CWLA SAYS: 1. Passing health care reform— This landmark legislation will strengthen the safety net for vulnerable children and youth and their families. Both House and Senate versions of the legislation will ensure that more children have access to quality health care. Both versions will support innovative home visiting programs. However, the House version has stronger, more concise language that protects the use of therapeutic foster care—which serves children with more severe special needs—under Medicaid. Either version will be a win for America's most vulnerable children.
IT REALLY MEANS: Never mind the most important part of the bill, actually providing health insurance so families are less likely to lose their children because of poverty in general or "medical neglect" in particular; we're salivating at the prospect of a giant expansion of home visiting and more reimbursement for some kinds of foster care.
THE CONTEXT: Though important questions have been raised about some of the home visiting language in some versions of the health care reform bill, the kind of home visiting proposed in this bill really is a good idea – particularly since the program is purely voluntary. But let's not kid ourselves about CWLA's primary interest.
WHEN CWLA SAYS: 2. Holding a White House Conference on Children and Youth— President Theodore Roosevelt held the first such conference in 1909. For decades, the conference brought together experts and stakeholders, resulting in significant actions that improved child welfare. No such conference has been held since 1970. Today's vulnerable economic times makes reestablishing the White House Conference a priority. Bipartisan bills are moving through Congress right now to authorize the conference.
IT REALLY MEANS: We've got to show our members we're getting something for their dues money – and think of the great photo ops with the President!
THE CONTEXT: If there is one field that is overconferenced it's child welfare. I don't know why, maybe it's because foundations seem so fond of funding conferences, or maybe it just beats actually doing something. The last thing the field needs is still another conference at which all the same people say what they say at all the other conferences. However, I actually hope CWLA gets this one. All the time and effort that goes into planning and holding and then bragging about the conference is time that otherwise might have gone into doing actual harm.
WHEN CWLA SAYS: 3. Shrinking the system— If the Fostering Connections Act continues to be implemented and funded and if the health care bill becomes law, fundamental changes are possible in how vulnerable children are treated, creating a real opportunity to sizably shrink the foster care system.
IT REALLY MEANS: By shrinking we really mean expanding, since a key feature of the Fostering Connections law is extending foster care from age 18 to 21 – a bonanza for foster care agencies. The other key feature, subsidized guardianships, will indeed allow more children to leave the system, into the custody of grandparents and other relatives. But these usually are children already living with relatives in kinship care, and our big private agencies, paid for each day they oversee a placement, generally do little or no kinship care. Since there is absolutely nothing in this law to promote reducing entries into care in the first place, there's nothing threatening to our member agencies' interests.
THE CONTEXT: The guardianship provision in this law is, in fact, a good one. Even extending foster care to 21 is the lesser evil when the alternative is kicking children to the streets at age 18. But what does it tell us that the most extensive change in federal child welfare law in more than a decade did nothing, absolutely nothing, to truly shrink the system?
WHEN CWLA SAYS: 4. Aging out gracefully— Historically, youth leaving the foster care system due to adulthood were instantly left with few connections and resources, placing them at higher risk for unemployment, health issues, welfare dependency, incarceration, and homelessness. Spurred by greater awareness and the Fostering Connections Act, foster youth are receiving more attention and resources, ensuring better long-term outcomes.
IT REALLY MEANS: We're fine with helping foster children age out – it means more money to the agencies that were paid to hold them in foster care in the first place, since they'll probably get the contracts for the various services that will be provided.
THE CONTEXT: The best way to solve the problem of children aging out is to stop so many from ever aging in. But notice there is barely a word about that on CWLA's agenda.
WHEN CWLA SAYS: 5. Focusing on disproportionality— Children of color are significantly overrepresented in both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Research indicates poverty as a contributing factor compounded by the fact that those in poverty have greater difficulty accessing important services. The Fostering Connections Act provided funding for more kinship placements and more focus on child welfare training and recruiting, both of which will have a discernable impact on the issue. However, further success will come from putting more focus on preventing children from entering care.
IT REALLY MEANS: Let's take something simple - children of color are far more likely to be in foster care because the racism that permeates society doesn't stop at the child welfare agency door - and make it as complicated as possible so we can avoid facing up to the racism part. We can hold lots and lots of conferences about it, too! And there it is at the very end, half a sentence about reducing entries into care. What more do you want?
THE CONTEXT: That doesn't mean the bias is conscious; by and large it's not, and by and large, CPS workers really want to help children. But give those workers otherwise identical hypothetical cases and they are more likely to describe the child as "at risk" if the family is described as Black. Citations for this and other studies are in our Issue Paper on child welfare and race. And see also the Michigan Race Equity Review for a superb analysis of these issues.
My favorite part of this one, though, is when CWLA says, in effect: It's not race, it's poverty! For decades, the child welfare establishment has told us, over and over again, that they never, ever take away children because of poverty. If the long-overdue debate about racism in child welfare accomplishes nothing else, at least it's gotten CWLA and the rest of the foster care-industrial complex to acknowledge the class bias that permeates child welfare.