Child welfare is undergoing a long-overdue overhaul. The Family First Prevention Services Act was passed by Congress and signed into law in February 2018 and is welcomed by most in child welfare.
Family First is set to be implemented in Colorado some time in 2020 and is premised on the long-held belief that children have the best shot at a positive and productive life if they grow up at home, as well as the belief that efforts need to be focused on ensuring the safety of these homes so children can thrive.
And children and teens who can’t grow up safely at home should grow up in the least restrictive setting, with only one option being residential care.
We understand that there are times when a child needs to be removed from home for reasons of neglect, maltreatment and abuse, but removals of this nature should be rare, temporary and linked to a strategy to sustainably return children back to a safe, nurturing home.
Home, however, can be defined within child welfare in many ways – back to one or both biological parents, kinship homes (like an aunt, uncle or grandparent), foster homes or adoptive homes.
Most children removed from their biological parents, in my experience, actually only want to go back to one home, though.
Back home with their biological parents.
A considerable amount of research bears this out, suggesting that removal from home is already disruptive and traumatic in itself, and that when it is required it needs to be done with care and the child must be placed in “the least restrictive, most family-like environment available.”
I witness this every day as I interact with children whose healing journeys have necessitated removal from their biological homes, and who long to return despite the abuse that many have experienced. The desire for home to be safe, stable and nurturing is real, deep and visceral, and completely consistent with the core tenants of Family First.
Who are these children?
For context, there are 441,670 children across the United States who have been removed from the care of their biological parents; 5,187 Colorado children are in out-of-home placements, according to the Colorado Department of Human Services.
But who are these 5,187 children?
In my experience, they are young – mostly 5-12 years old, although a few are older. Many are physically small for their age, and almost all are behind in school. Their low grade levels do not match their immense intelligence, cleverness, capability and wisdom.
Many, but not all, of their parents were in child welfare themselves.
They are of all racial backgrounds but disproportionately of color, span the economic continuum but are disproportionately from poor families, and come from all parts of Colorado.
Their case histories are littered with multiple foster placements, time in residential treatment facilities, failed adoptions, hospital stays and, for some, time in juvenile detention and on the streets.
I recently shared a Starbucks hot chocolate with a kind-hearted 9-year-old girl. Tennyson Center for Children was her 17th placement.
I also meet the kids whose biological parental rights have been terminated and whose journeys through numerous placements have enhanced their profound sense of abandonment.
They are deeply unsettled as they move further and further away from their biological homes, and they are grieving a profound loss.
We should be unsettled.
These children have been negatively defined, by many others, by behaviors that can be dramatic as they wrestle to process and understand their trauma. “Bad kids,” “problem children,” “parents who can’t control their children” are just a few of the harmful phrases that label and isolate. These children are not their behaviors or their trauma, despite labels hurled at them.
All of us should pause before we add to their burden with simplistic and uninformed labels.
Because the truth is that they are resilient, and they should be held with an energy that is closer to awe for what they carry rather than judgment for what they display when triggered.
They are also invisible in so many ways. There are no pictures of them, and child welfare workers express real caution in even sharing their names, given the understandable HIPAA regulations that protect them.
They are hidden in plain sight. And they are cared for by a vast and compassionate community of case workers, social workers, therapists, teachers and paraprofessionals.
These children temporarily live in tiny buildings that dot Tennyson’s campus in the heart of Denver. Many know each other from other placements – child travelers bumping into each other along the path, over and over again.
They are cared for by amazing staff who celebrate when they see children transition from sleeping under their beds when they first arrive, with tiny LEGO “walls” circling their beds in the hopes that danger will stay away, to eventually sleeping under their sheets and on top of their beds with fewer nightmares as they start to feel safe.
They are not home by any stretch of the imagination, but they are settling — and that matters.
Most speak of home in ways that unknowingly yet wisely connect to Family First. I cook dinner with these children quite often – a poor but necessary attempt at recreating home.
Cooking is fun even when the meal itself is less than perfect. Laughter rings through the kitchen and the conversation is lively. We tell stories as bread breaks, and the stories often lead back to their biological parents.
Children smile as they retell stories that recall happy times with mom or dad. These stories are unprompted, but so close to the surface that they burst out. One child told me recently of a fairy who accomplished amazing feats of bravery, and miraculously carried the storyteller’s name. She finished by saying “that was my mom’s favorite story” as she slowly gazes off.
A boy asked me recently to turn my car heat up high as we drove together to celebrate his impending departure from Tennyson.
I started sweating and said as much, but the boy asked if we could keep it on high “because my dad always turned the heat up as we drove, and it made me feel safe.” Many ask me if I know anything about their parents (which I rarely do) and comment that they hope they are all right.
Much of the therapeutic work with these kids is focused on helping them process and heal from traumas. Often these traumas stem back to their families and to their parents. How confusing that is for young children: to love and yearn for parents when those same parents are the ones that caused some of the harm.
The answer is not to keep all children from their biological parents. Instead, efforts should focus on helping parents overcome their own traumas, learning safe parenting skills and helping families heal together.
The exceptions to this should be rarer than they are today!
Next Steps in Colorado
Colorado legislators are reviewing bills related to Family First implementation as our state positions to respond to the expectations of Family First nationally.
These are consequential discussions and can be contentious as funding allocations blend into the discourse.
I get that at one level and hope we can keep the focus on the children’s voices I hear every day. Because no child should be forced to move between 17 homes to heal, and this pathway will be rewired if we truly invest earlier to keep families safely together.
Edward D. Breslin (Ned) is the president and CEO of the Tennyson Center for Children.