What Does it Mean to Abolish the Child Welfare System as We Know It?

Beginning Thoughts on Anti-Racist Steps towards #upENDing Child Welfare

Families who enter the child welfare system are often facing hardships caused by a myriad of social and economic factors—many created and promoted through systemic racism—that complicate and challenge parents’ ability to care for their children. Black, Latinx, and Native families come to the attention of child welfare agencies in large part due to prolonged unmet needs as a result of racism, poverty, and other inequities. Child welfare provides a state intervention in response to unmet needs that can often further existing harm and trauma. Because the child welfare system itself has few tools to reduce the poverty and racial inequities that bring children into care, the results of the systems’ interventions can cause further harm to children, families, and communities.

Along with the dismantling of child welfare and ending the system as we know it, we will also need to address the root causes that lead families into the child welfare system in the first place, and work to redress those root causes.  This will require the implementation of anti-racist actions and systemic changes that ensure families and communities have meaningful supports to thrive without intrusive state intervention. This is why we, in partnership with the University of Houston’s Graduate School of Social work, have launched the upEND movement. Through our experience and in partnership with so many others already doing this work, we are committed to working with and learning from others already engaged in this work, and why we will seek to ask others to join us in this movement.

upEND is a movement that asks us to radically shift how we view the safety and protection of children by imagining a society in which the forcible separation of children from their families is no longer an acceptable solution for families in need. Ultimately, the upEND movement calls for the abolition of foster care and the child welfare system as we know it, because we view the safety and protection of children as resting with families and communities first and understand that the separation of children from their families is rooted in racism that can cause more trauma and harm. Abolition as a goal requires that we actively dismantle racist policies and, in their place, create and implement anti-racist policies and practices that promote healing and reduce harm to families already involved with the child welfare system. At the same time, we must actively and urgently support communities in having the resources and supports they need to ensure that all children can remain at home safely with their families.

In moving toward the abolition of foster care and the child welfare system, the upEND movement will actively work to:

  • Advocate for the creation and expansion of critical safety net programs. The upEND movement seeks to amplify, support, and expand programs like paid leave for all and a universal child allowance which provide concrete supports to families so that they can attend to the well-being of their children without facing economic hardship. To meaningfully support families through the safety-net we support the elimination of rules and policies, rooted in racism, that make it harder for families to access concrete supports.
  • Increase the availability of safe, affordable housing. Many families experiencing homelessness come to the attention of child welfare agencies, and for many other families a lack of stable housing delays reunification, even when housing was not the reason for child welfare involvement. In both cases, inadequate and unstable housing can lead to removal of children from their families. Developing housing policies that meet the needs of families and ensure no children are removed from their parents because of a lack of access to secure, safe, and affordable housing is critical if we are to support children and families in their communities.
  • Support the expansion of informal kinship care outside of the child welfare system and increase concrete supports to families to care for their children without child welfare intervention. Out of a recognition that communities, especially Black and Native communities, have long engaged in community care to raise their children in safe, supportive environments, the upEND movement supports the use of informal kinship care as an important family arrangement—one that should be promoted and supported through financial assistance whenever needed.
  • Support the end of congregate care placements for children and youth. We know that institutionalized settings—group homes, detention centers, and residential treatment centers—do not support the well-being of children and youth. It is for these reasons that we must end congregate care except in isolated instances where there is a needed treatment that can only be provided in a therapeutic group setting. While congregate care is meant only in isolated and extreme circumstances, in actual practice that is not the case. Instead, we must create and use alternate solutions and community supports that allow children the opportunity to live in settings where they can be loved and nurtured by their families and communities rendering congregate care obsolete.
  • Support the strengthening and greater application of reasonable and active efforts standards. We recognize that doing away with foster care will not occur overnight but for children and families already involved with child welfare systems, we can do better. Greater application and enforcement of reasonable and active efforts standards, which mandate that child welfare agencies provide “accessible, available, and culturally appropriate services that are designed to improve the capacity of families to provide safe and stable homes for their children” is critical to preventing removals and improving the safety and permanency of all children. Active efforts, which are required under the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) require proactive, comprehensive and enforceable standards due to the painful history of forced removal of Native children from their tribes. The active efforts standards should be applied to all children in foster care.
  • Support the elimination of policies that use arbitrary timelines to terminate parental rights. We know the central importance of a child’s relationship with their family and as such, we think that termination of parental rights should be a very last resort and a very rare occurrence and almost never because of child neglect. Once parental rights are terminated, parents (in most cases) lose their rights to care for their children forever. The upEND movement recognizes the significant trauma and harm this practice causes to children and their families. We support robust efforts to support children remaining with their parents and prioritizing active efforts and supports for reunification for all families in the child welfare system. On a longer-term basis, we question the concept of “termination of parental rights” and would like to work with others exploring this legal concept, it’s utility, and how we might reimagine other means to protect children and transfer child care rights and responsibilities.

We recognize that there are extreme cases of abuse and severe child neglect where intervention is necessary to ensure that children and youth are not harmed and can be safe. We also recognize that child welfare agencies have often not been able to prevent harm to children, even with their authority to remove children from their homes and communities. Through our extensive work to support child welfare reform, we have seen how deeply racism is rooted in child welfare systems’ history, policies, and practices that, despite all efforts, cannot simply be modified or revised. Rather, they must be recreated with the specific goal of producing and vigilantly maintaining racial equity. And, in this recognition and through this learning, we are actively working to further understand why we live in a society where such harm occurs and how we can support the creation of a society and communities where such harm does not occur—this is the work of abolition. We do not seek to end child welfare in an overnight process. Instead, we are working to dismantle and end harmful policies and practices, recognize and remedy family poverty, and implement anti-racist policies and practices that safely maintain children in their families and communities. The ultimate goal of upEND is to make the needed structural changes so that forcible family separation is no longer necessary because we have created the conditions in communities where all children, youth, and families can truly thrive.