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Why Write about Child Welfare in America?
Because Systems Have Needs
Terry Stigdon is such a professional that she cried in front of her entire workforce when the Indiana Department of Child Services got sued in 2019 by some kids they were failing. She’d whined that they hadn’t really given her time (she’d had 18 months in office already) and that they hadn’t even come to her. I couldn’t believe I was watching her act victimized by a bunch of foster kids advocating for themselves. It left me conflicted about the system I worked in, and my role and mission within it. That was the moment when I knew that whatever hope Ms. Stigdon was talking about bringing to the table as the new-ish Director of Indiana Department of Child Services was just another empty promise. But it was THE moment I realized that my people are the families, youth, and children being served, as those are the people I had come from. I was trying to fit myself into two different roles: One as an advocate survivor and one as a practitioner. No wonder I was constantly ill at ease. No wonder I had cried my way through the previous 7 years of service. The system was as hot a mess as the families we served, and twice as dishonest. It told itself it was doing good, while in reality it was tearing families part. It resisted defining itself as it was: A System in Need.
In that moment I went all in on being an advocate survivor. The practitioners were so clearly wrong. I resigned less than a month later and struck out to see what Child Welfare in America was also about. I’d just graduated law school and had a whole new frame for the transformative change I could bring. My first stop was South Carolina, which had the lowest child removal rate in the nation. Indiana was in the top 5 states for child removals. They both worked in the frames of the federal government, using Safety, Permanency, and Well-being as measures of success. What a stupid idea for a matrix of success. The measures should have been Safety, Attachment, and Parental Development. And Safety should have been applied as much to the system as it was to families. Our Child Welfare system is broken, and for some kids we tend to do far more damage than the families they came from ever would have.
I was genuinely curious and driven in my calling to help children and families impacted by child welfare systems. I wanted to see the whole truth, because surely it couldn’t all be like this. Trust me when I say be careful what you ask for, because God delivers. If you ask for the truth, you will receive it.
Part of what drove me was a national conversation that was happening between child welfare leadership and their workforce, service professionals, and advocating families about transforming child welfare systems. This is a recurring Systems conversations across the nation about the past, present, and future of Child Welfare as a field, and as a practice at the state level. It is supposed to be informed by humane measures, but it’s designed by mostly middle class, mostly white people who have always had a kind of Facebook vibe, even before Facebook existed. That vibe is polite, refined, oriented toward meaningful work, and speaks in low tones, but with shifty eyes. I wanted to be part of driving that effort. I wanted to transform shifting eyes into passionate vehicles for change. After 10 years, I now realize that conversation is basically a cover to dodge accountability and prevent other important conversations from happening.
Child Welfare professionals, mostly the leadership, will never allow transformation to happen within their Child Welfare system. They just talk about it a lot to make themselves feel better and to keep enormous streams of money flowing, which they use to harass poor parents. It turns out that contested transformation is very expensive. Revolution and dismantling that system is cheaper and more expedient, impacting the lives of children and families today, not some day, down the road, long after these particular Child Welfare careers are over. (Replacing it—because the protection of children from both unintentional and intentional harm should be non-negotiable—must be a unifying process that is thoughtful, brave, and willing to invoke novel solutions from all corners. Above all systems must show themselves to the communities they serves, and be vulnerable about their own needs.)
There is another advantage to talking about transformation that never appears: It keeps their workforce tied up in the misbegotten belief that change is possible, and all they have to do is follow the spoken and written culture. They should dismiss any culture detected by any other means. They should close their eyes to all wrongdoing except wrongdoing by natural caregivers. They should act to cover up the wrongdoing by a swell of foster parents who perpetrate abuse or neglect on those entrusted in their care. They should ignore the poignant feelings they may be having about their supervisor’s decision to put a kid obviously hooked on heroin in a foster home instead of a locked treatment facility. They should just stay in their lane as their caseload numbers are twisted into data used to lie to elected officials and those conducting oversight in government. We see them. Too few of us act on the truths we know, but we do see them.
Child welfare is a kind of financial pyramid scheme run by a bunch of drunk monkeys, most of whom are so far removed from any of the families their agencies serve that those families have ceased to be people to them. I’m not using a metaphor here. Drinking / over-imbibing is a HUUUGE problem in the professional ranks of Child Welfare, and it is colloquially referred to as “self-care” in the ranks of those who cope that way. Substance use by the workforce itself is rampant, but that can’t be spoken of. The vast majority of decision-makers are power-drunk liars who will tell you they have an open door policy and a plan for the culture, but then use that same door to target those who avail themselves of the offer. It’s exactly like removing a child from a parent who left a bruise only to place them with people who give them similar bruises and calling that intervention. It’s de facto bullshit. The rank and file in the child welfare workforce today may be able to continue to lie to themselves and others, but I’m not. This system is a tragedy and America can, and must, do better for reasons I will spell out in my future work.
I was a foster child for 5 years myself; I’ve suffered trauma, homelessness, chronic poverty, institutionalization, and many other consequences of my time in care. I’m also a poet, and I have a Master of Jurisprudence degree with a specialization in Child Welfare Law and its intersecting laws. I have a unique voice comprised of multiple linguistic competencies, and I will use it. You will see me curse and speak street talk and hold people accountable like poor people do—with the exacting knowledge that solutions other than a complete shake up are fruitless. I will also use $20 vocabulary words in line with my education, professionalism, and expertise. You will see me offer and analyze data, teasing out underlying causes. I will be unflinchingly honest and speak The Truth and My truth. So get over your prudish professional pose if you have one, and strap yourselves in, because we are on a journey to closely exam the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Motherfucking Truth in Child Welfare in America.