I was talking with someone recently about what we’d change in the system if we had a magic wand. I decided against the normal lines of “more money” or “better services,” and said make it trustworthy, safe, and welcomed by the families it’s supposed to serve. Build relationships with people and communities before the children are even born, not after things have already fallen apart. Build quality community childcare centers, support churches that support families, improve school programs, parks, and streets. Create community mental health centers within a 20-minute distance from anywhere in your city or town. Work with the people to commit to eliminate homelessness, to reduce crime, to secure food stability, to expand access to transportation and work programs. And inject into every one of those projects the goal to protect and raise up the children you find there.
Many of those projects are already being done, but they’re not enough. To be welcomed by the people you serve, you also have to stop the threats and the coercion, the violent shows of force, the piling on of expectations and guilt until people crack and give up. No more courtrooms, bailiffs or liaison officers with guns. No more case plans or arbitrary permanency goals. You could still terminate rights for egregious abuse, abandonment, and surrenders; but declare an amnesty for anyone else who seeks help for as long as they seek it. Make a place where people who need support willingly go for it, instead of a system that repeatedly slams the door in people’s faces until they are broken and defeated. Building a kinder system may keep people around longer. The drive to help is why many people work in child welfare. The bureaucratic, police-state nature of it is what runs many people out in tears.
Your mind just went to “but people will take advantage of that system and never actually change and kids will linger, will suffer, will…” You can let go of that too. Taking advantage of help is what help is for. The kids will be fine at grandma’s, dad’s, or the nice lady down the street’s. We would have to change how and where kids are placed. Being out of home is only “lingering” when out of home is bad. Otherwise, it’s just called “living” and would be measured by how each individual child is doing at it. (Like family court already does, so I really haven’t made anything up here.)
Any system that you cannot navigate safely without a lawyer always by your side is not a good system. Lawyers are a road sign of danger and imminent injustice. And any program lead by lawyers whose “vision” is to robotically apply the law will just hurt those it serves. The law is a rough sketch that guides us; it’s a necessity to organize our collective actions, a basic framework to prevent injustice. We should not ignore it, and should continuously move it forward. But, the law is a floor not the heavens; the beginning not the end of our opportunity and capacity to help. The law is not creative, compassionate, empathetic, caring, or wise. The people who implement the law bring those things to it, and give it life. Lawyers who know how to build should stay. Lawyers who only tear things down can go.
This is not just feel-good talk. We consistently make the mistake of “improving” the system to suit the needs of power instead of people. In the recent Peer Consultation Team Report on the Southern Region, nobody on the committee talked to a parent, child, or caregiver about what they experience as the supposed beneficiaries of the system. The word “parent” doesn’t even exist in the report not preceded by the word “foster.” If your instinct was that their opinion is biased or doesn’t matter, that momentary dehumanization is part of the problem. Take a look at this paragraph from a recent appellate opinion:
DCF determined that the father and E.B. were with the mother and A.R. at a hotel in Sebring. The father explained they went there to “start a family of our own, without the conflict” that the mother previously experienced with the grandparents. He testified that he sees a psychiatrist regularly for his prescription medication and was taking it during the incident. Officers were sent to perform a wellness check. One of the officers testified that the motel room was “clean and orderly,” with food, formula, diapers, two beds, and a crib. He felt there was “no immediate danger to the children and [the parents] had money.” DCF informed the officer that the mother had outstanding warrants, and he arrested her and DCF took the children into custody.
E.R. v. Dep’t of Children & Families, 143 So. 3d 1131, 1133 (Fla. 4th DCA 2014)
Everything was fine, so DCF made it not-fine and took the kids. Why would a DCF worker ever intentionally rip up a family like that? There are ways to handle a warrant that don’t involve arrest. If you wonder why families lie to DCF workers, hide children and injuries from them, and make it generally impossible, it’s because they have every reason in the world to doubt that anything good will come from cooperation, even though I know that there are good people in the system who really do want to help. We talk a lot about the general public’s impression of DCF’s incompetence, lack of funding, and mismanagement, but we should also give some thought to the reputation it has in the communities it is supposed to serve, and how that reputation puts children at risk. I have heard long-time case managers tell stories about people grabbing their children and running inside when “Charlie” gets out of her car. Given its goals and the compromised populations it works with, DCF should be the most user-friendly system in the world, to prevent any parent who wants help from ever being turned away. Instead, it’s unpredictable and unkind, and at times abusive itself.
We need more money, and more time, and more workers in the system who stay around longer. But we also need patience and empathy built right into its bones so that people come to us for help and not terrified at the chaos and uncertainty of what may happen to them. Magic wands don’t exist. We got here through our choices, and only different choices will get us someplace better.