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A Real Paradigm Shift in Child Welfare

“When the Welfare People Come” Race and Class in the US Child Protection System offers a sweeping look at the history and politics of the US child welfare system, exposing the racist system—from the “orphan trains” and Indian boarding schools to current practices in child protective investigations, foster care, and mandated services—arguing that it constitutes a mechanism of control exerted over poor and working-class parents and children. Don Lash reveals the system’s role in the regulation of family life under capitalism and details the deep and continuing consequences of what happens “when the welfare people come.” Including first-person vignettes of parents, children, and workers in the US child protection system, Lash also offers practical and cogent ideas for its improvement and transformation.

Here, we present an excerpt from the book:

A Real Paradigm Shift

One of the most overused phrases in child welfare reform—second only to “breaking the cycle”—is “paradigm shift,” which is often used to describe incremental reforms. In the context of social welfare institutions, Canadian “structural social worker” Bob Mulally’s analysis of paradigms is useful. Mulally defines a paradigm as consisting of an ideology, which informs an analysis of social problems, which in turn is reflected in the design of institutions, which then implement practices.

The dominant neoliberal paradigm is one that attributes child neglect to personal failures, even when they are caused by poverty. There is a difference of degree, in that conservatives like William Bennett and John DiLullio say that economic poverty is caused by “moral poverty,” while liberals might be inclined to acknowledge inequity and discrimination, but as contributing to the parent’s failures rather than the primary problem. Both would endorse measures to regulate the poor, with the main difference being that conservatives might lean toward more straight-up punitive measures while liberals lean toward the treatment model. Both take a color-blind approach—the punitive because it purports to emphasize personal responsibility, and the treatment because it emphasizes individual pathology. Both evade the role of oppression, discrimination, and racialized poverty.

Reform efforts are typically led by professional associations, foundations, and consultants, and typically tweak or add to existing models for decision-making. Goals focus on making the system more effective at guaranteeing safety and more efficient in moving children through the pipeline, and on ensuring that services meet high standards of professional practice. At the Children’s Justice Conference in 2006, the keynote address was delivered by Christine Gregoire, then governor of Washington and former child welfare worker. She stated, “Our shared goal for Washington is to improve our services by ensuring [children’s] safety, promoting permanent placement for kids and supporting the well being of the entire family.” She went on to discuss improving educational outcomes and using data to monitor and improve services. At the 2004 National Children’s Law Conference, Shay Bilchik, CEO of the Child Welfare League of America, talked about the importance of engaging communities in planning appropriately to address the needs of children in the child welfare system. She said, “We can make sure that the programs we advocate for are rooted in accurate assessment and proven practice. We can make sure that individual services are not only networked across systems, but embedded in a solid plan that has support across the community.” These approaches emphasize efficient service validated by research and practice, with a nod toward the confidence of the community.

The sources of private philanthropy supporting reform in child welfare suggest that conventional reform will never challenge capitalism as the cause of institutionalized childhood poverty and consequent family breakdown. The largest single funder of child welfare reform projects is the Ann E. Casey Foundation, created by the late Robert Casey, the founder of United Parcel Service (UPS). The current chair of the board of trustees is a former UPS CEO, and eight of thirteen trustees are current or former UPS corporate officers. Of the remaining trustees, one is the president of the National Board of Manufacturers, and two have backgrounds in finance. While the Casey Foundation funds high-quality research and innovative pilot activities, its perspective on the relationship of capitalism to poverty is summarized in the following introduction to an initiative to develop a “two-generation poverty-alleviation strategy”: “The Casey Foundation believes that the children in greatest trouble in America today are those whose parents lack the earnings, assets, services, or social support systems required to consistently meet their families’ needs. Most of these children are growing up in impoverished communities that are disconnected from the economic mainstream.” Thus, poverty and oppression are not essential characteristics of the capitalist system, rather “disconnection” from the “economic mainstream” is an anomaly that results in poverty and can be addressed by “fixing” families.

The language of the leading professionals and funders does not suggest any willingness to challenge the fundamental issue that relegating poor and working-class children to poverty is what makes the system in its current form necessary in the first place. It is a safety valve intended to minimize the most extreme visible harm to children of neoliberal economic policies, racism, and oppression.

A real paradigm shift would begin with the recognition that poverty is a necessary feature of capitalism, and that capitalism can’t be separated from oppression based on race, class, ability, gender, and sexuality. In our analysis of child maltreatment, we would recognize that poverty causes most cases of child maltreatment, either because of lack of income and resources, or because of the stress of poverty and reduced availability of options in dealing with family issues like substance abuse, family violence, and psychiatric diagnoses. We would recognize further that the poor are at risk of state intervention because they are already subject to monitoring and intrusion by multiple systems that operate exclusively or more intensively in poor, nonwhite neighborhoods. We would recognize that bias operates at all times in how we perceive poor families, particularly those headed by single Black parents, and in how they are dealt with when they come into contact with the state.

Absent such a paradigm shift, talk of empowering the families caught up in the system and the communities in which they live will remain lip service. Thus, conferencing with community participants may become a formal prerequisite to initiating action in court, but the likelihood is that the process will be used to ratify a course of action already decided on by professionals. Real reform would change the power relationships and allow poor and working-class communities to help families solve whatever problems are threatening the welfare of their children. This needs to go beyond checking off a box labeled “community participation,” and begins with supporting independent advocacy by parents who have encountered the system.

Proponents of radical change shouldn’t be backed into a defensive posture, where reform is equated with a foster care agency busing a group of parents to the state capital to lobby legislators against cuts to foster care agency budgets; nor can we retreat into policy wonkdom and define change as whatever comes out of professional conferences and foundation think tanks.

Reform from Below

In New York City, the Child Welfare Organizing Project (CWOP) has a remarkable story that points out both the opportunities and challenges for real reform. CWOP began in 1994, mounting an aggressive challenge against the system, holding a candlelight vigil outside the home of Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta on Thanksgiving in 1996 to protest newly rebranded Administration for Children’s Services’s reorientation toward removal. Scoppetta was the former prosecutor appointed by Mayor Giuliani, as noted in chapter 9, to fix a system plunged into crisis and scandal in large part because of Giuliani’s cuts to its budget.

CWOP has had success organizing parents and training and supporting advocates, and in creating a cadre of knowledgeable, confident parent advocates who have been through CWOP’s support groups and classes. It also succeeded in changing the dynamics of family conferencing in a pilot area in East Harlem. This is a small first step in the right direction. 

The Fostering Positive Action (FPA) Foundation has a similar mission to organize foster parents independently of the public and private child welfare agencies to engage in self-advocacy and collective action. Importantly, FPA has a twin focus on organizing foster youth. Both CWOP and FPA show a vital recognition that change in the system will have to come from the mobilization of those living within the system rather than from the public and nonprofit bureaucracy.

CWOP and more than a dozen similar organizations nationwide have collaborated through Rise, a magazine published by parent activists and advocates, on a statement of rights and a plan for fundamental change in child welfare. The plan consists of fifteen components, each beginning with a statement to complete the sentence, “As a parent investigated by the Child Welfare System, I have the right to . . . ” (see Appendix). The first point begins with the right “not to lose my child because I’m poor,” and the fifteenth with the right to “meaningful participation in developing the child welfare policies and practices that affect my family and community.” Each point includes “next steps” that lay out practical demands around which parents and communities can organize. Central to the Rise plan is the role of parent advocates and organizers. People employed within the system should study and organize around the plan, and should demand that the professional groups and unions to which they belong do the same, because the radical change needed within the system can only come through a bottom-up approach that mobilizes parents and communities.

Global Women’s Strike, which describes itself as “an international network for the recognition and payment of all caring work,” has supported coordinated organizing by parents affected by foster care in two cities at opposite ends of the United States. The multiracial group DHS/DCFS Give Us Back Our Children comprises parents in Philadelphia and Los Angeles working for radical reform of their respective child welfare agencies. Global Women’s Strike sponsored a panel at the Left Forum in New York City in June 2014, which included representatives from these cities, as well as other parent organizers from elsewhere in the United States and in London. The panel discussed grassroots struggles in different cities, as well as commonalities and efforts to promote national and global solidarity.

ColorLines has promoted mobilizations around individual cases of undocumented parents who face deportation, with their children remaining in foster care in the United States. Just as there are important mobilizations around cases of victims of police violence and oppression, there should be further mobilizations around cases of injustice in the child welfare system. Such struggles, if they are successful, will suggest the need for further and broader struggle, and identify the economic injustice and racism that has shaped the system.

The foster care population is too small and too embattled to wage the fight alone. One encouraging note has been the participation of parents seeking radical change in the child welfare system in struggles against mass incarceration. In New York, activists who are part of an Undoing Racism in Child Welfare working group have also mobilized against stop-and-frisk and the criminalization of youth. CWOP organized a reading group for The New Jim Crow, in which parents explored the parallels between the criminal justice and child welfare systems.

In the current climate, conversations about changing the child welfare system can turn into radical challenges to the dominant paradigm, and perhaps the objective should be to link the struggle against child welfare as a system of social control and oppression with the struggles against mass incarceration, the war on labor, and other assaults on the working class.

For further reading, check out Racial Capitalism: A Reading List.

  • "When the Welfare People Come"

    Analyzes the history of the U.S. child welfare system and its implications today, offering ideas for reform and building solidarity.
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