Meet the Young Professionals Council: Q&A on Equity in Child Welfare

November 23, 2020

By Jessica Barmash (Events Chair)
I was introduced to the Young Professional Counsel (YPC) a little over three years ago by a colleague. At the time, I supervised a behavioral health emergency program at a foster care agency. Often, I felt like I was not doing enough, but through the YPC I was able to connect with like-minded young professionals and an organization outside of my full-time job. Currently I am the Events Chair; ironically, I was nominated to this position just a short time before COVID-19 altered the trajectory of the year.

The pandemic hit us all very hard; however young adults aging out of the foster care system have been hit among the hardest. The Field Center completed a national study on the impact of COVID-19 on older youth in foster care and those who recently aged out. The study unearthed many inequities present in the system. In recent months during the pandemic, racial injustices and systematic racism has risen to the top of our conscious as well. The YPC works together to promote the research and work that the Field Center is doing to actively change old systems and ways of thinking. For this month’s blog, I am proud to introduce the Board of the YPC and allow them to share their experiences and perspectives.

How long have you been part of the YPC and what motivated you to join?

Pragya Verma (Chair) – I have been a member of the YPC for almost 5 years. I was first connected to the Field Center as an intern while I was pursuing my Master’s in Social Work at the University of Pennsylvania. During that time, I learned about the child welfare system from an interdisciplinary policy, practice, and research perspective, which was extremely interesting. After graduating I went on to work for a Community Umbrella Agency (CUA) in Philadelphia as a Quality and Compliance Data Analyst. Upon hearing that the YPC was taking on new members, I was eager to get involved with the Field Center again to stay connected to and help elevate the Center’s work.

Sharayna Taylor (Vice Chair) – I have been a participant for 4 years. Initially I wanted to join a foster care alumni group, but I was referred to the YPC instead as the Field Center does a lot of work surrounding the child welfare system. I was looking to lend time and experience to supporting an organization that works to benefit the foster care system, outside of regular, full-time employment. I am really proud of the work that the Field Center has done as well as enjoying relationships formed while I have been a participant.

Jeannette Geter- (Social Media Chair) – I joined the YPC in 2017 because I was looking for a group to connect with that was doing the type of advocacy work that interested me.

November is National Adoption Month and the YPC focused on this theme and watched the documentary “Unadopted.” Are there any reflections you would like to share on older youth adoption?

Pragya – Unadopted was extremely moving and brought to light some gaps that still exist in the child welfare system – specifically older children achieving permanency, like adoption, before aging out. The documentary highlighted difficult situations that youth are expected to deal with, choosing if they should live with siblings or kin or facing the rejection of potential adoptive families. These experiences often go unseen by leaders within the system, preventing meaningful improvement and stability for older youth. A major thread throughout the documentary was that folks within the system thought older youth were unwanted, difficult, and therefore unadoptable. The seemingly blind acceptance of “unadopatibility” reinforced young people’s feelings that they were unworthy of adoption. This seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy, which the existing child welfare system fails to address, and could be why adoption is unlikely for a majority of older youth.

Sharayna – My experience in foster care is a little outdated as I aged out nearly 15 years ago. However, so many children including myself are not adopted. After age 14, I was changing placements each year. It was very difficult. I lost my drive to be adopted as well. I would’ve rather been alone and that is so unfortunate because a support system is vital to a person’s overall wellbeing. It is inevitable that older youth do not get adopted. This still hasn’t shifted. More support systems need to be put in place for older youth. The older I got, the less I heard from my social worker and this pattern leaves youth feeling alone. Additional support measures and support groups would help older youth. Instead of solely focusing on making older youth adoptable, we should also wrap them with more support systems.

How should professionals in the child welfare system address issues of structural inequities?

Pragya – The child welfare system, and the many systems it interacts with, all have some level of structural inequity. As a professional working within child welfare, it is critical to be aware of this and find ways to serve children and families equitably. This becomes increasingly difficult if child welfare professionals are over-worked and do not have the resources to combat structural issues. However, as a child welfare professional, perhaps the only recourse to combat structural inequity and systemic inequality, short of starting from scratch, is to advocate relentlessly for children and families.

Sharayna – The first action is to be realistic. Oftentimes people make pretty big demands like, “The system isn’t working so end the system.” An analogy of this is people concluding that the police system isn’t working so “Defund the police”. It’s not realistic if you have personal experience with the system. As a resident of West Philly, I feel like defunding the police means no protection for people who live there; much like ending the foster care system or making drastic changes would leave children unprotected. Being realistic is to make reforms instead of to remove.

Jeannette – Child welfare professionals need to address these issues with action. The structural racism that is so embedded in the child welfare system was built through slavery, however it is the constant inaction or lack of protest that has allowed these systems of inequity to prosper. It may seem daunting or overwhelming to try to tackle this, but if you start with examining the way you service the clients on your caseload, or the way your staff is managing their clients, you can begin to make progress. After you have explored and corrected the ways you interact with your clients and addressed your own biases, then you must also examine and adjust how you are sharing information with other professionals. Are you speaking of your clients with dignity? Are you advocating for them in every conversation? Are you encouraging stereotypes and misnomers? While doing this, seek to better educate yourself. Many of us in the field are familiar with the “Orphan Train” and the separation of poor white children and families, but are you aware of the long history of separating Black children and families for sale in the US slave history, and the modern day parallels between the foster system and chattel slavery? There are experts who have not only made those parallels, but are actively writing, talking and educating others about this very topic.

What does creating an equitable child welfare system look like to you?

Pragya – To me, an equitable child welfare system would and must exist among other equitable systems like housing, criminal justice, education and employment, behavioral health, and healthcare. These systems should work within communities to serve families and ensure child and family wellbeing in an interdisciplinary holistic manner. Within the child welfare system equity would begin with how cases are reported, having more comprehensive definitions of neglect and abuse, equitable allegation investigation, and equitable support and resources to ensure timely case closure. The child welfare system is a form of systemic policing that puts black and brown families as well as lower-income families at a disadvantage, trapping them in a system of punitive challenges that often result in intergenerational involvement in the child welfare system.

Sharayna – An equitable child welfare system includes the whole family system in making decisions. Oftentimes the biological families are made to be the bad guy but there are deeper reasons as to why the child entered foster care in the first place.

Jeannette – In order to create a truly equitable system, professionals must take action to diversify the system; systems are made up of people, and we cannot continue to have a system (disproportionately) full of Black and Brown children run primarily by white professionals, and expect that the current imbalance of power will magically disappear.

How can our systems change to create social and racial justice for youth in foster care in a post-pandemic world?

Pragya – Systems change is challenging and can take a long time; however, change is possible and can be most effective if led by those who are most negatively impacted by the system. Children, youth and families could participate in widespread needs assessments that address gaps as well as social and racial justice issues that they face within the system. With data from folks with lived experience, community and systems leaders will be better prepared to take steps to create a more equitable system. The pandemic has only heightened our awareness of injustices that have always existed and are inherently embedded in systems that continue to oppress black and brown families. It will take intentional steps to reimagine the child welfare system and to end the cycle of oppression that foster youth and families face.

Sharayna – I think it goes back to equitability and whether this is realistic or not; there needs to be equality and people need to be treated equally. There needs to be the same access to educational, social and financial means.

Jeannette – There have been intellectual and political discussions, research papers and think tanks for the last decade or so about how Black and Brown children are over-represented in the foster care system; thus far, not enough people have taken action to change the system. Once individuals start making changes, then the system can begin to shift.

Reading through these responses it is apparent that there are shared perspectives held by the board members of the YPC. One theme that ties the members of the board together is the hope that change and reform are possible. As the documentary “Unadopted” reminds us, we must improve older youths’ experience pursuing adoption and aging out of the system. We can help them tell a new story that is anchored in safety, hope, and connections.

The need for more diverse representation of social workers and professionals along with increased access to academic and financial wellness is much needed. This month’s Q&A suggests that we must create a more equitable system. Professionals must examine their own biases. Children on caseloads are not just numbers on a list; they are people and their biological families are people – people who have been through tragedy, trauma, and hardship. The result is disconnection. When we as professionals look through that lens, we can begin to make changes and reforms to the system. While the COVID-19 pandemic has been dreadful, I am hopeful that when it winds down, we can continue these difficult conversations and pursue a progression to a more equitable child welfare system.

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