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From Judgment to Empathy: Unveiling Truths in Child Welfare

Sixto: I never thought that a confession would cause me so much anger. I couldn’t believe that I heard a father confess that he had harmed his baby.

As a young advocate who grew up in foster care, I found myself in an orientation for a project at the Children’s Bureau, the federal agency over foster care, in 2013. It was my first time meeting birth parents who identified as advocates and the first time I heard a father share his sorrow over how his young child was harmed because of his parenting failures.

I couldn’t believe that I heard a father talk about how he harmed his baby. This admission sent me into a whirlwind of anger and confusion. I remember thinking, “Who is this parent? What is he doing in this room?” At that time, I believed that most birth parents of children in foster care harmed their children intentionally; they chose drugs over loving their children, and they just didn’t care enough to get their lives together. His confession reinforced my belief. He doesn’t deserve a place among us.

Dee: Hearing the shocking story of my peer, at the same orientation meeting, underscored how my own journey diverged. After a family member reported me, I spent nine years navigating a maze in search of mental health support for my child to no avail. I was not treated as a concerned parent but as someone who willfully harmed my children. This unjust perception left me feeling criminalized and misunderstood, fueling my skepticism about the system’s capacity to truly help.

In my peers’ stories and my own I saw opportunities for prevention. What if I had gotten the help I needed in my community for my son? What if my fellow parent leaders got the support they needed early on to prevent a child welfare experience that felt cruel and inhumane? Listening to other experiences from parents and youth, I realized that the narrative around “bad parenting” was an unhelpful label and would not create the conversation needed; it was also necessary to highlight the inadequacies of response by multisystems to support families when they need help.

Sixto: Dee’s story, revealing the injustices and challenges she faced in the child welfare system, directly contradicted my belief that most birth parents are neglectful. Her story was a game-changer for me.

Storytelling is a catalyst for change

Our stories weren’t mere storytelling; they were catalysts for change. Our participation in a meeting 10 years ago reflects a movement to lift up the experiences of those most impacted to improve our nation’s child welfare policies. These insights transformed our beliefs and drove our actions.

That’s why we are part of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Child Welfare Initiative. Our goal is to collaborate with individuals from different backgrounds and perspectives, harnessing our collective experiences to forge innovative, practical solutions.

One strategy to do just that was to collect and analyze data on the public’s perceptions of the child welfare system. Here, the Harris Poll, commissioned by BPC, provides invaluable insights into the public’s perception of child abuse, neglect, and foster care.

The data revealed was both enlightening and, in some respects, startling. It was shocking to see how many people (35%) had experience with the child welfare system. Many (18%) had personal experience with the system – 10% had a family member that is or was a child in the system, 7% had been reported to the child welfare system and 5% were in the system as a child. In addition, more than 1 in 4 adults had non-personal experience, which included making a report, working within, or caring for a child in the welfare system. These data highlight the widespread reach of the child welfare system and its impact on a diverse array of individuals.

Like my (Sixto) initial view of that parent, Americans of all walks of life generally agree that child neglect and abuse by parents is typically intentional. Even amongst the respondents who reported having personal experience with child welfare, ill intent or a desire to harm a child was more often seen as the primary cause of abuse. But, those involved in the system are more likely to believe that parents who have been abusive can provide safe care when they receive needed supports (they have similar views as other respondents when it comes to the ability of neglectful parents to provide safe care). Respondents with any involvement, particularly those with personal experience, support government intervention in child welfare, including advocating for investigation of most reports. Yet, system-involved individuals lean more towards family preservation, holding a stronger belief in the potential for parental redemption.

In terms of fairness and accountability, our experiences mirror public perceptions that suggest the system’s decisions are often influenced by biases, both racial and socioeconomic. This negative perception is rooted in real, painful experiences, and they point out the system’s failures to serve all communities equitably.

In light of our journeys, it becomes increasingly clear that the path to meaningful reform is not just paved with policies and programs, but also with the transformation of individual beliefs and attitudes. My (Sixto’s) own transformation, from harboring negative stereotypes about parents in the system to actively collaborating on national initiatives aimed at altering outcomes for these very individuals, stands testament to the power of changed perspectives. My (Dee’s) evolution, from a person let down by the system to a fervent advocate reshaping it, further underscores this truth.

I implore you to challenge your own beliefs about the child welfare system. Ask yourself: How do my beliefs shape my actions and attitudes towards this critical issue? Understanding that beliefs influence behaviors, it is essential that we collectively reassess and realign our views to foster a system driven not by misconceptions and biases, but by empathy, understanding, and a steadfast commitment to real, positive change.

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