Last June, a mother stood up in Manhattan Family Court to tell a story that is familiar to child welfare professionals but likely not to the public. “Hi, I’m Sara,” she said. “Last year I reunified with my son, Aaron, who spent his first two years in foster care.”
Parents like Sara Werner are not part of the public image of the foster care system. Neither are children like Aaron, even though more than half of children in foster care return home to their parents. Media coverage focuses almost entirely on horrific cases and adoptions. Yet within child welfare, a different narrative is increasingly understood: Protecting children requires partnering with their parents. Material support and services can safely stabilize many families in crisis while children remain at home, and the risk of leaving children at home must be balanced by the potential trauma of removal.
Americans understand at a gut level that separating children from their parents must be a last resort. That’s why there’s so much rage at the family separations at the border, which have not been remedied. Science has documented that children rarely thrive when they are removed from their families, and as the nation reacted with horror to the crisis at the border, organizations including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Harvard Center on the Developing Child stepped forward to state in the strongest possible terms that children can suffer lifelong emotional and developmental consequences from the terror of forced family separation.
But children are separated from their parents within our borders, too. Increasingly, we’re recognizing how infrequently this is the right solution. The Family First Prevention Services Act passed this winter recognizes this, and for the first time, federal funds can now be used to prevent or minimize use of foster care. As Jerry Milner, associate commissioner at the federal Children’s Bureau, put it in a recent public letter, “I invite all child welfare professionals, the media, and the general public to take some time to think about foster care differently.” Child welfare may be at the beginning of a historic shift from the reactive system that borrows from criminal justice to a proactive system that uses the tools of public health to partner with families to prevent crises from escalating.
The first step in shifting our thinking about parents is seeing them at all. When I tell people that I work with parents to advocate for child welfare reform, they are often confused, asking, “Foster parents?” Parents are invisible even in child welfare’s basic architecture, from the names of many agencies (like NYC’s Administration for Children’s Services) to the data that increasingly drives how agencies set goals and measure success. Many child welfare agencies capture data about parents but do not make that data public, only reporting outcomes in terms of individual children.
Two recent efforts show how transparent data about parents can drive innovation and improve accountability. In New York City, 65 percent of parents who already have a child in foster care also have their next child removed at birth. But that number is only 9 percent in the Bronx, according to the Bronx Defenders, an organization that represents parents in family court. The organization attributes this to its peer support group and the fact that it offers material support to address poverty. Now that this data are public, that success can be replicated.
In 2012, NYC’s child welfare agency reviewed case records and found that, among youth in foster care who were themselves mothers, 31 percent had already had their own children removed from their custody. That extraordinarily high number prompted practice changes, such as routing these investigations through a special unit and bringing teen specialists into decision-making; by 2017, it had dropped to 20 percent.
Child welfare’s paradigm has been to catch “bad” parents. Our growing understanding is that fragile families are often destabilized by the factors that stress all parents: grief, job loss, loss of a supportive family member. Effective casework today is about listening to parents to trace what had kept a family stable and what changed, then using services to temporarily rebuild a family’s scaffolding. That’s taking innovative forms. Evicted documented that growing toll of housing instability on poor families, and new legal models have proved that a housing attorney can be more important to child safety than a clinical intervention.
As child welfare systems invest in solutions to address the root causes of family crises, not just the symptoms, we need a clearer picture of what families need. Anecdotally we know that parents with disabilities are poorly served by child welfare; a class-action lawsuit filed in New York City in October accuses the child welfare system of violating these parents’ rights. Yet no public data track how many parents who are investigated have disabilities or what happens to their families. Likewise, some legal and family therapy providers in New York City have found that 25–40 percent of young parents they serve grew up in foster care. For too many families, foster care placement is a largely self-perpetuating cycle, with the trauma of family separation itself driving the next generation of removals. It may be possible to end that cycle by investing in proven models to support fragile first-time parents, like Nurse-Family Partnership, and in trauma-focused parenting programs.
For the public, steeped in sensational coverage of horrific tragedies, this new narrative can seem counterintuitive, even disorienting. Images of children torn from their parents at the border can remind us all that breaking up families has often been a political solution in our country, not a rational response to what children need. Our heightened focus on this issue should not be limited only to families at the border—this is an opportunity to apply a fresh lens to the work we need to do locally, too. The public, politicians, and our media can hold the child welfare system accountable to a different standard: keeping families safe. To do so, we must see and hear parents.
Speaking at Manhattan Family Court last June, Sara Werner focused on the joys of taking her son to the library, doing puzzles, volunteering in his classroom. But Werner and Aaron’s reunification was shadowed by loss. Before Aaron, Werner had a daughter who entered foster care at 3 months old. Werner had left her at a social worker’s office, fearful that her abusive boyfriend would harm her. Her daughter’s adoptive parents also fostered Aaron until he was 3 but elected not to allow visits after Aaron went home for good. Aaron’s first day home with his mother was his last day with his sister.
Aaron was among the 5,700 New York City children removed in 2012 and the 2,500 who returned home in 2015. His sister is one of about 1,000 children adopted each year. But Werner is invisible. When professionals are reviewing outcomes, they shouldn’t just be asking how they did with Aaron and his sister but how they did by this family. Everyone in this family lost someone to the child welfare system. They live with the story of their family, and so should we.