getREAL: Good But is it Enough?

The getREAL initiative works to transform child welfare policy and practice in order to promote the healthy development of LGTBQ+ and gender expansive children and youth. We have been at this work and influencing the child welfare system for nearly a decade, and while we can say that—along with others—we have made inroads to the field, the outcomes for LGBTQ+ youth remain a concern. While I and my colleagues at CSSP remain positive that improvements in how the child welfare system serves children and youth can continue, we know that the solutions to end stigma and oppression require a much bigger change than any single or even multiple reform efforts can achieve.

The Biden/Harris Administration has already begun to undo the harmful actions of the previous administration that adversely impacted LGBTQ+ people.  But this work cannot happen in a vacuum. At the publication of this blog, there are 100 anti-LGBTQ+ bills in 33 states that have been introduced as of this date, many of which are designed to prevent trans female youth from participating in athletics at the high school and collegiate levels. This targeting of trans athletes is a strategy designed to embed discrimination into policy, and incrementally create space for bolder and deeper inroads that will further legislate anti-LGBTQ+ policy. In addition, conversion therapy—a bunk scientific effort designed to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity—remains a cornerstone of anti-LGBTQ+ policy. Work continues across the country to end conversion therapy with some success but a great deal more to do.  

Part of the work we do at CSSP includes reflecting on the successes and failures that the child welfare system has while serving young people. To that end, today we are proud to share some guidance for the field that we have gleaned from our work in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, with the State of California, and through the webinars and convenings we have done with members of our getREAL network.* This report demonstrates concerted efforts on the parts of several local child welfare systems to improve their work, to develop inclusive and affirming policies, and to reach their clients where they are—not where the system wants or expects them to be. Many local child welfare systems work tirelessly to create affirming and inclusive spaces; but just as many do not.  And as we continue to evaluate and monitor child welfare systems across the country, many of us are now joining the movement to abolish those systems, focusing instead on re-imagining a country that no longer needs systems to care for people. Today I work with my colleagues at CSSP and the Graduate College of Social Work at the University of Houston on the upEND Movement, which calls for the abolition of the child welfare system.

Many people express concerns at the notion of abolition the child welfare system and, in fact, I have received many questions from people I have worked with over my 40 plus years in child welfare work and reform. Some questions I have received are “so what’s the back up?”, “the system is run by states so doing this is just not possible”, “you are going to now let children be abused and die,” ”Black children are better off thanks to the system” and so on. I cannot do justice to addressing all these concerns and questions in this blog. Let me just say this from my personal perspective, I do believe we can do better. I do believe we can address the core reasons why children are neglected and abused and sometimes die as a result. I know all too well that the system can only do so much and cannot address those core reasons, so neglect, abuse, and children dying will continue in spite of the best efforts to make these systems better. 

Abolition work is grounded in radical change; it is grounded in the wholesale transformation of how we, as a country, operate moving from an economy driven to hoard wealth by the few, to one that equitably distributes wealth. A country built to prevent people from living in poverty; to prevent children from going hungry; to prevent suffering; and so on. Reimagine then, a new way where we no longer need to have others be viewed and treated as less than, rather, one where we all recognize and love our diversity as children of a loving Spirit.

As you can see in our report, the current child welfare system continues to try to improve, and the workers in those systems do incredible work under the circumstances. And while we are committed to and grateful for this work, more is needed to ultimately end the stigma and oppression that harms young people, their families, and their communities. The getREAL products we release today (here and here) and the work we continue to do is in that context. We believe that we can do both, and we hope you all can join us in calling for the abolition of carceral systems and the re-imagining of a better way, a better country, and a better world that works to address the core reasons for why we all continue to struggle and to end oppression, trauma, suffering, and pain.

* We thank the wonderful people in the getREAL network; the State of California Department of Social Services, in particular, Children and Family Services leader Greg Rose; and especially the Allegheny County Human Services Agency and their now retired leader Marc Cherna, and SOGIE Project Manager, Shauna Lucadamo, and their staff, for the partnerships we have had. Our Allegheny County partners devoted an incredible amount of time, resources, and true engagement in the county over a period of six years and we sincerely hope that other systems will benefit from what we have learned together.