May 31, 2021
By Chih McDermott, Field Center Lerner Fellow in Child Welfare Policy
I applied to the Lerner fellowship because no one deserves the guarantee of their well-being more than young people, and because we need to ensure that well-being to overcome the deep inequities in our country. Similarly, I applied because I knew shockingly little about the child welfare system despite spending five years as a teacher who worked regularly with students involved in it. As a teacher, I was trained on my legal responsibilities to report suspected abuse, but I never received training about how the child welfare system works. I was never trained on how it’s funded, what a family or child’s experience looks like once child protective services (CPS) got involved, on the long-term effects of foster care placement, or even training on best practices to work with students undergoing the trauma of family separation. I applied to this fellowship because I, like so many others, perpetuated harm and inequity by contributing to a system that I did not know nearly enough about.
The more I’ve learned as an intern at the Field Center, the more I’ve realized how destructive ignorance of CPS can be, even when people are acting with the best of intentions. Despite that every year nearly 5% of children will have contact with the child welfare system,  many Americans’ primary knowledge of the system comes from media coverage of horrendous abuse. Often, the push to change the child welfare system comes in the wake of such highly publicized tragedies. And, although it is politically expedient to push for change at such times, doing so misses the mark. There is no acceptable rate of death or abuse. But for a system that in 2018 affected the lives of approximately 3.5 million children,  does it make sense to regularly make decisions in response to the tragedies unique to only a few children? Consider, for example, that after the Sandusky child-sex abuse scandal, the Pennsylvania legislature enacted hundreds of amendments to the Child Protective Service Law, of which two might have stopped the abuse earlier.  Even worse, some of the amendments put in place may exacerbate the difficulties faced by families while doing little to protect children. 
One such amendment was made to Pennsylvania’s child abuse registry. Every state has a registry system to help prevent recurring abuse by collecting information on those who are accused or have established cases of child abuse against them.  States, including Pennsylvania, also allow or require child abuse background checks for certain types of employment. In the wake of the Sandusky scandal, the Pennsylvania legislature expanded which job applicants required checks, widening the requirement from applicants expected to have children under their “care, supervision, guidance, or control” to applicants who have “routine interaction” with children.  The expanded definition has impacted a range of fields that are disproportionally made of low-income workers, putting the children of families most likely to lack the resources they need at increased risk for financial instability.  This seems like a poor way to protect children, especially considering that placement on the registry only requires “evidence that outweighs inconsistent evidence and which a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion,”  evidence that is often accepted without a hearing and on the observations of a single individual.  Unfortunately, ‘solutions’ in the child welfare system that are meant to protect children often exacerbate situations for vulnerable families. To me, this may point to underlying flaws in how many decision makers and the public think of the child welfare system and its purpose.
Practitioners sometimes use the image of a pendulum to describe the development of the U.S. Child Welfare system. On one end is the safety of children and on the other the rights of parents. As legislatures enact different policies, the pendulum swings between these two ends, either working to protect the interests of the parents or the child. This image seems fundamentally flawed. Assuming a dichotomy between these two ends necessarily puts the interests of parents and children at odds. The more you see the interest of the child as opposed to those of the parents or family unit, the easier it becomes to ‘protect’ the interests of a child at the expense of family preservation, and the easier it becomes to see parents and families as barriers rather than the most essential and expert potential partner in supporting children. 
As a teacher, I saw similarly harmful mindsets in my fellow educators. All too often, we blamed families and “bad parenting” for the issues we saw in the classroom, even decrying that parents didn’t care about their child’s education. These mindsets not only blinded us to our own shortcomings but made it difficult or impossible to properly partner with parents and communities to address the systemic barriers at play in our schools. Conversely, outcomes for children most consistently improved when both educators and parents trusted each other’s intentions and worked together to support a child. I’m not an expert in child welfare policy. But it doesn’t stretch the imagination to see how harmful a mindset that assumes blame in parents can be. The more closely we can tie the interests of children, parents, and families, the more we will see that decisions made at the expense of the family are also made at the expense of the child. And the easier it will become to work with parents and communities to find solutions that protect the well-being of our children.