Let’s Blow Up American Child Welfare and Start Over


You know the look. You’ve finally managed to get out of the office like your family and friends said you should. You’ve dressed up a bit and made it to a social event where you’ll meet some engaging and smart people who do things other than represent stigmatized, deeply challenged children and parents. You’re swapping stories and chuckles, and actually starting to believe that there’s life out there beyond the confines of your caseload. And then someone asks what you do, and you tell them, and you get that look. Not rolling their eyes exactly, as these are sensitive folks who know they should consider what you do important. Instead, it’s a slump of the shoulders, a tilt of the head, and a weak, wan smile in the eyes and on the lips that says, “Oh, you poor thing.” An esteemed public policy professor once gave me that look after I told her what I wanted to do with my life, as she said, “Oh, God. Talk about your intractable social problems…”

The public consensus is that child welfare’s problems are permanent, and that we can never agree on solutions. Baloney. One of the blessings of representing a nationally-focused organization in child welfare (I’m a lucky guy) is the chance to be a part of conversations all across the country, and the report back is this: we have a consensus on what to do; we just need the guts to do it. Whether I’m talking with judges, caseworkers, politicians or attorneys, folks agree that our current scheme is fatally flawed, and have a strikingly similar vision of what a better child welfare system looks like:

  • Differentiating between problematic caregiving and actual risk of serious harm to kids, through evidence-based, consistently applied safety assessments – so that we remove (and traumatize) only the children who truly must be removed.
  • Serving the kids we take in as well as if they were our own children, while including them as quickly as possible in a permanent, loving family – so that, when we remove a child, implicitly promising them a better life, we can deliver on that promise.
  • Respecting the child or youth by listening to their needs and dreams, and providing them with expert, well-resourced attorneys to satisfy those needs and give wings to those dreams.
  • Respecting the parents who love and know their children, again with vigorous defense of their legal rights – so that kids can grow up with stability in their lives, and come to know, love and contribute to their own families.

We have the money (assuming we re-purpose the billions we spend on the current debacle), and we have the knowledge. The federal government has assembled a wealth of technical expertise for child welfare systems, and we also benefit from the massive, ongoing investment in child welfare reform made by Casey Family Programs, an operating foundation dedicated to a substantial but safe reduction in the national foster care population. Casey is largely staffed by former government child welfare officials, yet one of their primary goals is to dramatically reduce the size of the American child welfare system they used to run.  What does that tell us? Can you imagine former executives in the plumbing industry ever getting together to advocate for less plumbing?

Change is hard, and there will be push back from those whose salaries and budgets are embedded in the status quo. Yet when we know what to do, and children and families are suffering, shouldn’t we act?

When we get that “look,” shouldn’t we tell them, no, we can make this right? What are we waiting for?

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NACC.

About Kendall Marlowe

Kendall is the Executive Director of the National Association of Counsel for Children, the national advocacy organization of attorneys and other professionals representing children and families in child welfare, juvenile justice and custody cases. Kendall served as Chief of the Bureau of Operations and as Deputy Director for the Department of Children and Family Services in Illinois, where he was also spokesperson for the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Governor’s Long Term Care Reform Task Force. Kendall grew up in a family that welcomed six adolescent foster youth, has been a foster and adoptive parent himself, and worked as a social worker with at-risk, homeless and foster youth on Chicago’s south side. He holds a Master’s in Social Work from the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, where he received the Wilma Walker Honor Award; and a J.D. and Certificate in Child and Family Law from the Loyola University Chicago School of Law, where he was an Honorary Child Law Fellow.

  1. I absolutely agree with Mr Marlowe’s post. It is much easier to declare that something is pointless, intractable, hopeless than to actually work for change. A standard trope heard throughout family courts is “we’ve lost the war on drugs” or that “this situation is totally #*&’d up!” Indeed the quickest way to lose a war is to declare it lost.
    The harder road is to take an honest, sober assessment of these problems and to declare that the challenge is complicated but that failure is not an option.
    Mr. Marlowe’s post speaks of the need to respect the children (by listening) and to respect parental rights within this system. Herein lies the crux of the dilema and the source of the attitude that calls the situation “intractable.” When we disrespect impoverished families then we don’t have to seriously (respectfully) consider their needs or constructive outcomes; they aren’t worth our time. When we respect them on the other hand as “persons” who are entitled to the full measure of the promises embodied in our Constitution’s 14th amendment, then we give them our time, our energy, our talents, and ears. Constructive outcomes are then possible.

  2. But there lies the rub–allocation of funds. The key to the fixing the child welfare system is more money for social services to help people before their case gets in the system and more general societal awareness of the issues facing families in the system. But in the past 12 years that I have been practicing in child welfare, it seems to me less money is being put in services. Where is the money going to come from? Who even understands the problems or cares about them enough in our legislatures to do anything about it? I am not optimistic on this one.

  3. One more change:

    Create and implement policies that make extended family systems part of the solution to child maltreatment concerns. Indeed, Mr. Marlowe is right that we need to respect parents and the love they have for their children, but we cannot forget the extended family–the group that is the foundation for family life in this country. Child welfare policies continually marginalize and exclude them, until the system professionals are at a crossroads and they don’t know what to do next. Extended family as decision makers, coming together around their tables, with the support of service providers, would be a dramatic and transformative change that could reshape child welfare as we know it.

  4. As a longtime member of NACC, I am very troubled by this post for several reasons. First, the hyperbolic language it uses to condemn the child welfare system in a sweeping way and utterly lacking in nuance. While there are certainly problems in our child welfare system, there is much that it does well in terms of protecting children from horrific abuse and inexcusable neglect. Overall, it is staffed with dedicated professionals doing some of the most important and difficult work imaginable with too few resources. To condemn “the system” (which is, of course, simply those of us who work in the system) in such sweeping language is simply irresponsible on Mr. Marlowe’s part.
    Secondly, I have repeatedly represented youth charged with delinquent acts of threatening to “blow up” a variety of things—schools, public facilities, and the like. Pretty poor role modeling there, Mr. Marlowe and NACC.
    Perhaps most troubling is Mr. Marlowe’s embrace of “Differential Response.” Here are just a few of the problem with “DR”:
    • There is an inadequate research base to suggest DR is in fact helpful in any way (this is despite the Casey Foundation’s flood of PR and marketing material in support of its pet project).
    • What research has been done is biased and of poor quality.
    • The best research that has been on DR found that DR does not 1) save money or 2) keep children safe or 3) reduce re-referral rates, all of which are alleged to be the benefits of DR.
    • There is some evidence that in jurisdictions in which DR has been utilized, child death rates due to child maltreatment have gone up.
    • The program is rarely actually implemented with fidelity—that is, the program as implemented on the ground isn’t as the program’s designers actually designed the program.
    • In 14 of 16 jurisdictions, children had to be removed after participation in the DR program—that is, children were maintained in dangerous or unhealthy environments longer and still had to be removed from parents.
    • Only 2 of 16 states saved any money while utilizing DR.
    • Some of the pro-DR “research” has found that more money was spent on less serious cases and that the results were the same for cases handled though DR and through the traditional child protection process.
    This is hardly the stuff of a model program such that it should be touted by the National Association of Counsel for Children, which I understand is an organization that advocates for children.

    • Thanks, Professor Vandevort, for your vigorous defense of the status quo. NACC welcomes debate among our members, and we do not assume that child welfare should always be practiced as it has been in the past. As child advocates, we are responsible not just for the individual cases we handle; we are also responsible for the legal systems in which we operate. We’re all a part of the system, and we all must work to make it better.

  5. I feel these last two posts had components which were a bit chilling of a productive exchange of information. Mr. Marlowe’s headline certainly caught my attention enough to read his blog. Professor Vandevort’s post points out some important information regarding making change for change’s sake without sound evidence base practice. So you both have good points but have decided to take some shots at each other as well. The care we have for children should force us to have hard conversations with dignity and compassion. As a 20 year practitioner in child protection law and now a judicial officer, when DR was first introduced I was excited because there are studies which show improved outcome for children when parents become more engaged in the process. I was concerned regarding the implementation of the process because its potential lack of due process for parents and manipulation by child service workers who are biased, overworked, under-resourced or under-trained. However, the DR process as originally explained to me had some built in protections that quelled my unease. Now, several years later I see that the DR process has been changed in its implementation (the lack of fidelity point made by Vandevort). Gentlemen, this is an important discussion with naturally built in conflicts and no easy answers. Let’s encourage the difference of opinion and the flow of information in a way that moves us forward.

  6. I represent children and parents in the Child Protection Division of the Cook County Juvenile Court. I would like to see the courts give more weight to the extended family support systems of children taken into custody. The focus of reunification is on the nuclear family. For many families I work with there are a lot of resources available to the mother and father from the extended family. These supports are not called upon when designing services for return home. I understand that the extended family members are not parties to the proceedings nor are they entitled to reunification services, if needed. However, many families have a more complex arrangement than simply mother, father, and children.

  7. Kendall, I didn’t read Frank’s comment as defending the status quo, but as suggesting that there be a research based discussion of proposed reforms. I’ve seen a number different approaches and trends come and go over my 20+ years of legal advocacy for children. Even if it’s not one of the scheduled sessions, perhaps there could be a break-out session at this August’s NACC conference to discuss the vision you articulated, including identifying where there is research supporting some of the reforms and where there might be additional areas to probe and research in advancing your ideas for change.

  8. Thank you to everyone for the lively conversation. Yes, the title is deliberately provocative, even hyperbolic, and so I’m glad that the blog post has generated these responses.

    None of the three programs I highlighted are Differential Response programs per se, and so the research findings Professor Vandevort references are apples to these programs’ oranges, but it’s interesting that the mere implication of Differential Response motivates such a visceral response from advocates in the legal and medical communities, while the approach is often warmly applauded in the social work community. This may be because doctors and lawyers see a disproportionate number of severe abuse cases (where the traditional investigate-and-remove model is often absolutely necessary) while the majority of child welfare social work is cases of moderate neglect and poverty (where supportive, collaborative approaches are more likely to be effective.) My hope is that we can all move beyond our professional biases and preferences to see the bigger picture, which I believe means a wider, smarter range of services that can distinguish between different families’ needs and respond to each family with something more beneficial than our traditional, one-size-fits-all child welfare intervention.

    Thanks to Scott for mentioning the NACC conference (shameless plug alert: we’re in Denver this year, August 18-20 – join us by registering at http://www.NACCchildlaw.org). We have a session on “Changing Child Welfare: What Can One Person Do?” and I’d be happy to arrange an extra early-morning or late night confab on advocacy issues, including front-end reforms such as DR. Feel free to call me at the NACC office (at 303-864-5322) if you’ll be attending the conference and would like to get together on these issues!

    • Thanks, Kendall. I’m willing to participate. Look forward to meeting you and to having our first discussions in August on this and potentially other issues. One item I’d be interested in your take on is whether the NACC might consider again providing at future conferences some of the NACC Children’s Law Office Project (CLOP) sessions or tracks offered at prior conferences. There seemed to be strong interest and attendance at those and in sharing innovative practices in running offices. It’s one of the reasons I attend the NACC conference — to learn about innovative law office management and program practices to bring back to KidsVoice. That certainly will happen informally at this year’s conference but I’d be interested in seeing NACC again focus sessions or perhaps a track on this in the future. Thanks.

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