By: Katie Albright and Jody Levison-Johnson
January 28, 2022
Children thrive on positive and nurturing relationships with caregivers and other adults in their lives.
This means supporting a child starts with supporting their parents and caregivers, and too many are overloaded right now. COVID-19 has created immense burdens for people who are caring for children, and they are trying their best to stay afloat — from financial strains caused by job loss, to child care shortages, to the mental stress of keeping their families healthy. Too often, parents do not know where to turn for assistance when they need it. Even before the pandemic, a national survey of parents with young children found 48% did not receive the help they needed, with 8% saying they get no support at all.
We can relieve some of this stress and improve the well-being of children by providing support to families who may be struggling. Sixty percent of children who come to the attention of child protection systems do so because of concerns related to neglect, which can often result from living in poverty. If we want to prevent neglect, we need to address the root causes and ensure families are financially stable. By investing in preventive resources, public health approaches, and financial support for children and their families, we can implement effective long-term solutions that keep families together and ultimately keep young people safe.
We cannot afford to be solely reactive and only pay attention after a crisis occurs. Research shows that by working proactively to address immediate needs with concrete financial support, we can prevent families from needing child welfare involvement. Entities like Family Resource Centers and nurse home visiting programs are two best-in-class examples of how providing concrete supports — housing, income, and food — can alleviate the need to place children in the foster care system and separate them from their home, communities, and culture.
Fortunately, child protection in our country is changing for the better — from a system that responds only after a child has been harmed — to one that is more focused on the needs of children and families from the start. As representatives of organizations that work across the child protection spectrum from prevention to placement to reunification, we welcome this change. We have seen what works, and what does not.
Some may argue that removing children from their families, rather than finding ways to proactively support the family, is the right approach. Science, however, shows that further harm may occur when children and youth are taken from their support systems. Our focus should be on minimizing this trauma, especially for the majority of families who do not require removing a child from their home.
When parents are unable to care for their children, placing children with other family members can be the next best option. Studies have shown that child welfare policies that prioritize placing a child with their relatives or other guardians have significant benefits for the child. By investing in kinship care, we can help minimize a child’s trauma, increase stability and permanency, improve mental and behavioral health outcomes, and create an easier transition for these youth as they age into adulthood.
Further, our solutions must reckon with racism that is deeply embedded within the very system intended to protect children. Our children pay the price when we ignore this ugly reality. The structural flaws of the child protection system have a disproportionately negative impact on Black and Indigenous children compared to their white peers. Because of systemic and structural inequities, the child protection system is more likely to separate children of color from their parents and place them in foster care; place them with multiple families or in group homes; and reunite them less frequently with their birth families or establish a permanent home. All of this creates conditions under which children of color are less likely to attain equal social, behavioral, and educational outcomes.
Taken together, this paints a clear picture: We need to reimagine the child protection system. By funding programs that support housing infrastructure, child care assistance, and medical care, we can relieve significant stress for families — stress that we know has negative downstream effects on children. When we support parents and caregivers with the resources they need, everyone benefits. We all want what’s best for kids. Let’s start with their parents.
Katie Albright is an attorney and president & CEO of Safe & Sound, a San Francisco-based children’s advocacy organization dedicated to strengthening families and ending child abuse through evidenced-informed services, education, partnerships, and policy. Safe & Sound is part of a national network of family resource centers that partner with families each day to promote positive outcomes for children, caregivers, and communities.
Jody Levison-Johnson is a licensed clinical social worker with nearly 30 years of human service experience and the president and CEO of Social Current, a Washington, D.C.-based organization formed from the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities and the Council on Accreditation joining forces. Social Current creates and nurtures relationships among social sector organizations and drives the future of the sector through policy, advocacy, knowledge exchange, certification, and accreditation.