By Amy Templeman, director of the Alliance’s Within Our Reach Office 

On July 14, Jerry Milner, associate commissioner of the Children’s Bureau and David Kelly, special assistant to the commissioner, joined members of the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities for a special webinar discussion on the future of child welfare. The wide-ranging conversation focused on the shift toward a more front-end, preventive child welfare system and the challenges that have emerged in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and growing evidence of racial inequities in the child welfare system. 

The recording of this webinar is available to members and nonmembers. Just log in with your Alliance account and register to access the recording. Anyone can create a login. 

Milner spoke about the need to reach families sooner and build their protective capacities, instead of waiting for children to become at risk of coming into the foster care system. He noted, “The need for family support has never been greater. … We have a moment now. We have an incredible opportunity to build on what we have known and what we know more clearly from all the issues we are facing right now. Our priorities in the Children’s Bureau have been and continue to be primary prevention of child abuse and neglect and we know that primary prevention work has to occur in the community.” 

He highlighted the importance of community-based organizations as, “core and essential components of the child welfare system,” but noted that the current child welfare system hasn’t adequately funded community-based programs. He spoke of the importance of shifting from an investment in foster care to an investment in family services geared toward helping families meet their basic needs, and the need for greater flexibility in funding streams to allow for state and county-wide innovation. 

On the issue of racial disparities, he commented, “I believe the COVID-19 crisis and the current calls for social justice issues have highlighted and not necessarily created the weaknesses in our system that have long existed. We have known for decades that families, children, and young people of color are tremendously over-represented in the foster care system. … The current crisis makes that evident with families not having access to food, housing, employment, and other basic needs, putting them and their children at great risk of needing intervention. It tells us something about the confusion between poverty and neglect. … In many places, the child abuse hotline may be the only resource out there where a well-intended reporter can try to get some help to a family. We need to do better than that to create the kind of systems out there where there are places to go where a child or family might get the help that would prevent them from becoming part of the child welfare system.” 

He added, “We want to make the very most of the moment we are in and what the root causes of these issues are so many of our families are experiencing. We need to be able at the federal level to give states, counties, and communities the opportunity to be creative and to serve families in ways that will benefit them not just for the short term but for the longer term.” 

Special Assistant to the Commissioner David Kelly joined the conversation on racial equity and bias by noting, “For three years, we’ve been really explicit about saying that child welfare exists in the space where poverty, public health, and civil rights collide. … There are a number of things we need to take a really hard honest look at on a systems level including how we define neglect and the lack of consistency in neglect statutes across the states. We must ensure that there are clear ways to distinguish financial hardship and poverty from neglect and align around that. We also have a long and dark history in equating surveillance with services and we need to be clear that those types of practices are often the result of implicit if not explicit biases. We’ve seen this play out in countless media reports that are leaping to conclusions that when children are not seen by white and middle-class professionals, they are somehow more likely to be maltreated. We certainly know that risk factors are higher in families that are struggling but that is a dangerous proposition. … I think we are going to learn some lessons from this experience, especially in light of the fact that the vast majority of calls to hotlines are screened out under normal circumstances. And on the hopeful side, anecdotally, we are  hearing from multiple sources that calls to community providers including family resource centers and support centers are on the rise in many places around the country.” 

The Alliance and its Within Our Reach Office extend our gratitude to Milner and Kelly for their stewardship of the Children’s Bureau and their efforts to prioritize primary prevention and address racial justice and equity in the nation’s child welfare system. Investments in these issues help to ensure all children and families have the same opportunities to thrive. 

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