Why I Quit Child Welfare
And You Should Too
This will be my last post on DBE.
I went to work in Child Welfare in 2013. I chose that profession because I was a former foster child, and I had some gratitude for what I’d received, and also thought the system could do better. I wanted to pay my debt and do my part. The people I encountered in the job were quite different from me. They were mostly middle-class professionals with intact families who’d had good to excellent support as they navigated life’s pathways. I, on the other hand, had become homeless at age 18 after aging out of care and had to pursue my life and education from this starting point, with very little support.
I quickly realized there was a disconnect between the workforce of Child Welfare and the people they served. At first, I found myself subsumed by their gallows humor and deficit-based culture. I was making fun of families, cracking jokes just so I wouldn’t cry at the desperation of so many families, which I knew well. I thought in terms of what people lacked or couldn’t do. That’s the kind of system I grew up in. It hadn’t changed much in 30+ years.
I allowed myself to be led for about 4 months and then I had a major realization—this is not what I signed up for. I didn’t want to act like the privileged people I worked with. I didn’t want to be heartless and mocking. I wanted to SERVE. I wanted to know what people COULD do. What was possible? What was permissible? These were MY PEOPLE on the other side, after all.
I changed the way I talked and the way I communicated to everyone that day. I also began to call out colleagues based on their behaviors. I would do so gently. I would remind them of our training, which taught us to have a trauma-informed lens and to approach with engagement. I began to politely correct people as they moved into negativity. I would ask them why they wanted to work in this field. Sometimes I helped people acknowledge that they hated it and needed to leave this field. Sometimes I got people buying-in and adjusting their own behavior.
Occasionally I got someone hostile, and I would just read the room and decide what to do in the moment. If they were very aggressive, more engagement wouldn’t help, and I would discontinue. Other times, when it was just minor hostility, I would keep up the slow pressure—maybe not in that moment, but over time. And I would see a change. Eventually I worked on a small team and was able to get everyone into strengths-based thinking. It was transformative. There was real service happening—people actually being helped. I wanted to move up and have this impact on the larger field.
However, after over 6 years of trying to get into positions where I could have that impact and failing because I refused to divorce myself from my own story, I realized that leadership was entrenched. They talked about transforming Child Welfare all day because that’s what the federal funders wanted them talking about—but their heart wasn’t in it. They didn’t have real courage. And they certainly didn’t respect the expertise of those who have been in their system and won in life, despite all the challenges brought on by that system. When Covid-19 hit, things became even worse, and I realized the system itself was rotten and needed to be abolished and replaced with something else.
I still dream of a Child Welfare system where the first question asked is: “Parent, What do you know about attachment?” instead of “Parent, What can you tell me about this report I received?” I want a system where poverty is understood as a traumatic event, not a marker of neglect, and I want to see a system where people are genuinely treated with respect, not just lip-service respect.
I believe all people have value and deserve respect. I recognize the dignity in every individual I meet. There’s been an internal transformation that I drove—not training, not a good mentor, not any kind of professional development—no one can do this but the individual. This internal transformation is the reason I could not stay in Child Welfare. I could believe the rhetoric of leadership, or I could believe my own lying eyes. I chose my eyes. But I sincerely thank the system for the bird’s eye view I got inside it a second time. I feel I’ve paid my debt and learned so much. Now I know my own truth and the truths of so many impacted by these systems.
The most important thing I learned is that one person is not enough to change a system. I also learned my life has value and I don’t have to keep throwing it away on an unworthy, ungrateful system. I recommend every good person working in this field who agrees with my assessments made here at Dead Babies Everywhere walks away too. You won’t regret it personally, and your act of integrity may actually do more to transform this system than all the overpaid, excessive directors running it.