By Dr. Linda Bass, KVC Kansas President
We All Benefit by Prioritizing Prevention Services Over Removing Youth from the Home
When we know better, we do better. At one point in history, medical professionals used lobotomies and bloodletting in an attempt to cure mental illness. Even after concerns were raised that these practices were more harmful than helpful, well-intentioned people forged ahead. Decades later we find it hard to imagine how those practices were viewed as ethical.
Currently, we are living in a time and culture that believes that if children and families are unsafe together, then separation is necessary. Unfortunately, that view is shortsighted; while we may remove a concern and restore safety temporarily, we unintentionally add additional traumas by separating children from family. Nationally, this has led to an ever-growing child welfare foster care system that can no longer respond effectively. What if I told you that we could safely reduce the number of children in foster care by at least 50%?
Consider a time when your family or someone close to you was struggling with something traumatic and maybe even dangerous or unsafe. You may be hard-pressed to say that the best intervention at that time was to separate everyone from one another and, in fact, that might have even made the situation worse. Family members struggle to cope with being away from the individuals who they love desperately and count on for their daily connections, even in the darkest times. The risk and safety concerns involved in child welfare are real and we must always place safety first; however, if we start from a core belief that the best thing for families, even during difficult situations, is to remain together, then it forces us as a community to identify and fund the appropriate resources to keep children safely at home.
For example, parents who are addicted to substances are often still highly bonded to their children. They don’t set out create unsafe situations for their children and are at a loss for how to address their addiction or the underlying issues that are fueling it. By providing the family intensive services in their home, safe housing options and drug treatment that involves the entire family system, we don’t need to remove children from homes and put them into artificial, unfamiliar situations. There’s a popular belief that if we remove children from parents, it will cause them to “hit rock bottom” and want to make changes in their lives. While this may work for some parents, for most it drives them further into a pit of loneliness, self-doubt, and shame and fuels their addiction. Often, the hole is so deep that the parent can never climb out and ultimately every single person in that family including the children suffer the consequences.
Solutions to Safely Reducing Foster Care
The good news? There are clear solutions to solving this problem so that we don’t have to wait 10 or 20 more years only to look back and realize that we were going about child welfare in the wrong way and causing additional trauma to families.
- Fund robust, timely, high-quality prevention services and set up the funding structures to be consistent and reliable for families, including increasing access to mental health care for parents and children; family-based substance abuse treatment; safe, appropriate housing; and job skills and training.
- Rebrand child welfare services and market them to families as a support so that families can come out of the shadows and ask for help without fear that their children will be removed if they say something to a teacher, doctor or child welfare professional. Make families who have experienced child welfare central in these conversations. As we have learned from the parents we serve, it will be their voices that help us to redefine the services that we so desperately wish to engage them in.
- Get to know your neighbors. Social isolation and lack of support systems are huge drivers in determining who comes into child welfare and who does not. All families face hardships and all families have serious issues such as mental illness, substance use and financial concerns. But not all families need the child welfare system. Often, the critical element that’s missing is a safe support system that serves as a safety net during difficult times. Children are no longer growing up in communities where everyone knows everyone and families look out for one another. We are becoming more and more isolated from one another. We can change this by hosting events in our neighborhoods and using these opportunities to reach out to families who need someone in their corner. Find out who are the children at school who are in a tough place and befriend those families and ask how you can help.
- Become a safe family option for parents who need respite. Most licensed foster homes are needed for children living separately from their parents because the demand outweighs the supply. If more families would consider becoming foster parents, it would create opportunities for families who are still intact to form a connection with a foster family who could provide safe temporary caregiving in the event that the parent was hospitalized or needed a day or two of respite. And better yet, that foster family can become part of the biological families’ support systems by inviting them to activities, like coming over for dinner.
- Advocacy. When we start demanding that services exist in our communities to support families staying together and we use our voices to shape the actions of decision-makers and let them know we will no longer stand for separation of parents and children, we help create a path for expanded prevention services. We need to demand expanded prevention funding and use research to highlight that it is always cost-effective (monetarily and emotionally) to treat families at home rather than through separation.
Like Physical Health, Preventative Care Is Key to Long-Term Population Health
The field of physical health has already started to make this shift. There is increased focus and funding for healthy lifestyle coaching, primary care prevention and access to medication. Patients are encouraged and supported to access prevention services, and it is widely accepted that early, timely intervention in the least restrictive environment is best. We would be outraged if our doctor recommended open-heart surgery as a cure for our high blood pressure before first trying diet and lifestyle changes or blood pressure medication. We would expect access to preventative services to provide us with education, counseling, therapy and medication so that we could mitigate the risks and avoid open-heart surgery.
This is not what we do with child welfare; we cut funding to the critical supports and services that help to prevent the most extreme and damaging outcome of separation from occurring. With no other options available we end up separating children from their families. Only about 50% of children who are removed from home and placed into foster care return home, yet nearly 90% of those who receive high-quality and timely prevention services remain safely together.
The data is clear: Prevention services focused on keeping families safe together have better outcomes for everyone. Together we can support more Kansas families to remain safely together.
Have you heard of the Family First Act? It provides extensive federal reform of the child welfare system and will take effect in October 2019. Children and families can benefit greatly from the Family First Prevention Services Act, but it will take state child welfare agencies and other partners first understanding the law and implementing it. Download this free Family First Act checklist to learn how your agency can better help children and families. If you have any questions, please reach out to us. We’re happy to help.