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The Need to Prioritize Relational Health | #childsafety | #kids | #chldern | #parents | #schoolsafey


Child welfare in the United States is both a symptom and a cause of relational poverty. As a symptom, it reflects what can happen when families are socially isolated and without the necessary social capital or resources to help them through adversity. As a cause, it erodes family integrity. With intention, laws have been crafted to punish vulnerability, expedite the severance of family relationships and incentivize the redistribution of other people’s children. 

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Jerry Milner

Less than half of children separated from their parents to foster care ever return home. Discriminatory rules and policies disqualify families from doing what families do best — care for their loved ones. The “better safe than sorry” mentality toward child safety continues to preempt a child’s sense of connection and belonging to their family, community and culture. This is a direct threat to the well-being of children and youth and jeopardizes their relational, physical, mental, and spiritual health. 

Relational health — the sense of connection, belonging and relationships that people have — is  essential to our individual and collective well-being as human beings in the world. Somehow, however, this most essential and defining aspect of being human has been overshadowed or cast aside in the industry known as child welfare. 

Services reign supreme in the industry, and providers of them have an undue impact on policymaking nationwide. Their main interest is to remain in business. This has resulted in a fixation on clinical services and proprietary models rather than proactive family support. It sustains a narrative that pathologizes the conditions families are forced to live in or with, especially poverty and the trauma of racism. 

In the realm of legislating and policymaking, we do not see children and parents within the context of their family, culture or community. The Indian Child Welfare Act is perhaps the lone exception of a law that does, and of course it is subject to constant attack, in part because its purpose and efficacy are threats to the status quo. More often  we focus on adversity and individual deficits, maladies and extreme examples — again, most often caused by societal conditions. We then punish children and their parents for those conditions.

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David Kelly

This is an inhumane approach that reflects a fragmented and myopic view of children and their parents. It fails to see complete human beings or acknowledge the context of their lives. It fuels the creation of one-size-fits-all menus of research-based interventions and manuals designed to fix isolated parts of people. It ignores what we know about the importance of connection and belonging and prioritizes processes and transactions over well-being. This benefits systems and purveyors far more than families. 

For example, the Family First Prevention Services Act and the clearinghouse it established are designed to focus primarily on rating and approving clinical interventions to fix problems after they have occurred. It does not fund critical support for well-known needs before problems become crises, such as housing stability or access to child care. Nor does it fund community-derived and provided solutions. 

The child welfare industry needs the problems to persist. It profits from negative views and perceptions of low-income families and families of color. It is built upon prejudice.

 As a field, we have convinced ourselves that we are doing right by children while outcomes and evidence — especially the accountings of people impacted by the system —  say otherwise. We continue to invest our time, energy and resources in getting better at maintaining the existing framework of investigating and separating families, including incessant efforts to increase child abuse hotline reporting and non-stop foster parent recruitment that favors the number of beds over the strength of connection. These approaches guarantee more trauma and disconnection and reinforce the inequities that were woven into child welfare from the beginning. 

There are examples from other cultures and nations that recognize that supporting families is the best way to keep children safe and healthy and that communities are best situated to provide that support. For example, tribes in the United States and Indigenous communities in other parts of the world have sacred and historical traditions of keeping family members connected to one another, their clans or tribes, culture, land and world in which they live. Indigenous worldviews recognize deep value in the interconnectedness of people, place and ways of being together. 

Many tribes and tribal nations have resisted efforts and policies that support unnecessary separation of families, removal of children from their cultures and communities and severing child-parent ties. They rightfully reject the notion of termination of parental rights as a legal fiction and an act of great harm. Our child welfare system has much to learn from the wisdom of Indigenous communities.

There is overwhelming evidence that meeting concrete needs — food, clothing, housing, economic security, childcare and social connection — are central to keeping children safe and supported. With this knowledge, the federal government can lay the foundation for a just and humane direction that promotes true child welfare and family well-being. 

The Surgeon General’s recent advisory on the healing effects of social connection and community unequivocally identities loneliness and isolation as a national epidemic. This is an important start and opportunity to change our orientation. It needs to be followed by a national investment in relational health, including a realignment of Medicaid that recognizes efforts to promote connection and belonging as essential preventative medical care that directly impacts physical and behavioral health. We must also prosecute the infrastructure that causes and exacerbates isolation and loneliness. 

There are longstanding federal structures, programs and funding streams that are deeply destructive to families and cause disconnection and egregious inequity. We should cease to defend and maintain them. The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act includes mandatory reporting requirements that lead to over-surveillance of poor families and families of color. The Adoption and Safe Families Act includes draconian termination of parental rights provisions that are misaligned with what we know about substance misuse treatment and emerging from deep poverty. 

Moreover, programs and funding that could and should be helpful are commonly misused. Most notably, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families is utilized by many states to investigate families rather than provide them with economic support and mobility.

These structures and approaches reflect a judgment that poverty, trauma and disease are parental shortcomings. They formalize the weaponization of grief to justify removal, termination of parental rights and other practices that cause harm in the name of good. It’s time to mobilize around relational health and advance restoration and healing to keep families and communities strong and connected. Such a direction will benefit all.

This column will appear in the Summer issue of the Family Justice Journal, a free online publication.  Click here to learn more and subscribe. 

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