2020 Children's Bureau Message
Moving Foster Care in the Direction Of Supporting Children, Youth, and Families
Children’s Bureau Associate Commissioner Jerry Milner shares his goals and priorities for National Foster Care Month 2020 in excerpts below from an interview with Child Welfare Information Gateway. The full recording of the interview with Dr. Milner will be available at https://www.childwelfare.gov/more-tools-resources/podcast/episode-48/.
Q: Why is the Children’s Bureau highlighting the theme "Foster Care as a Support to Families, Not a Substitute for Parents" for the second year in a row?
National Foster Care Month gives us the opportunity to highlight once again how critically important it is to move our foster care system in the direction of being more of a support to families and less of a substitute for them. Moving the foster care system to a place where it really is a true support to families requires very significant systemic change. It goes to the very values and beliefs that we have about families whose children may need foster care. It requires time, commitment, and a significant investment of effort to make that change. We believe it’s important to do that because we’ve seen so much success when parents and resource families work together to give children what they need. This increases the chances that families can be reunited and allows children to thrive—even when it’s not possible for them to live under the same roof as their parents for some temporary period. We must work hard to eliminate some of the misconceptions, such as parents whose children need foster care are inherently bad or that resource families should not have relationships with parents of the children they are caring for. We know that when those relationships exist, parents have the opportunity to strengthen their ability to care for children in safe ways, reduce the trauma of separation, and increase chances for reunification.
Q: What are the Children’s Bureau's most important priorities or goals related to National Foster Care Month?
Preventing the need for foster care is our most important goal. We will be taking giant steps in this direction if we strengthen families so they can care safely for their children and avoid the need for out-of-home care and the trauma of removal. Foster care should be the absolute last resort for maintaining the safety of children. The second priority is to make sure that the children and young people who do come into the foster care system have as normal an experience as possible in what is inherently an abnormal situation. Another huge priority is addressing the needs of older youth in foster care and helping them fully explore adoption and other permanency options. We’d like to get to a place where aging out of foster care without permanency is simply not an option. We spend so much time now on helping our youth prepare for aging out. We’d like to shift that focus and investment to one that ensures all children and young adults leave the foster care system with permanency and go out into the world with the critical supports they need.
Q: What concrete actions is the Children's Bureau taking to meet its goals?
We have been studying programs across the country that most closely resemble the proactive system that we believe will serve children and families better. The more we learn about those strategies, the more we shine light on those communities, those leaders, those experiences, and those outcomes, the better chance we have of making this something real for the child welfare system. To that end we have issued—or will be issuing—guidance on actions that can help families stay together, including:
- An Information Memorandum (IM) that reflects the lessons we’ve learned over the last 2 or 3 years by highlighting successful communities and the strategies they’ve adopted to support children and families.
- An IM that advises the field on how to incorporate and reflect the voices of young adults who have been part of the child welfare system—and their parents—in child welfare policies, funding decisions, and initiatives.
- An IM that speaks to the National Foster Care Month theme by detailing how foster care can be practiced as a service to families.
Q: What is being done to engage the legal and judicial community as an active partner in child welfare planning?
A tremendous amount is happening. For the last 3 years we have probably invested as much in the legal/judicial community as we have in the traditional part of the system to improve outcomes for children and families. As many weeks as not, we are out there meeting with the national organizations that represent the courts, judges, and attorneys to advance the agenda around primary prevention and reimagining the child welfare system. There are several specific steps we have taken to do this:
- We have changed a longstanding policy to allow States to use their child welfare funds from our largest pot of child welfare money—Title IV-E— to cover legal representation fees for children and parents in the child welfare system. We think that’s one of the key ways that the voices of parents and children can be elevated in the court room and in legal proceedings and that their goals and desires can be part of the decision-making process as the courts and agencies make decisions that affect their very lives.
- We are striving to link many of our existing statutory tools, such as the “reasonable efforts” requirements under Federal child welfare law, to the need for high quality legal representation. We believe that when children and parents are adequately represented in the court system, courts are better equipped to make informed decisions that will more likely reflect the long-term interests of children and families.
- We are using one of our strongest tools, the Program Improvement Plan, to motivate States and local agencies to ensure that parents and children have access to high quality legal representation.
Q: The purpose of the National Foster Care Month website is to raise awareness about how we can support children and families who may need help. How important is it to spread the word about this initiative?
I think for us to really change our child welfare system in a radical way, we must change a fundamental misperception about the families involved with child welfare and their circumstances. Often, it’s the strong preconceived notions or value judgments that we make about people in particularly vulnerable situations that creates barriers to developing a system that’s responsive to their needs and that protects them from further distress. The more that we’re able to put information out there, the greater opportunity the general public will have to think much more humanely about families who need help or who find themselves in difficult situations. Raising awareness is fundamental. It doesn’t need to be an event. It can be an ongoing process because we need to be reminded that any of us could find ourselves in that kind of vulnerable position given the right set of circumstances. It's essential to raise awareness and keep that forefront in all of our efforts.
The other thing I’d like to emphasize is that parents tell us all the time that they’re afraid to ask for help for fear of revealing their vulnerability. They worry this may put them at risk of losing custody of their children, or, if they have already lost them, they worry that seeking help may somehow delay their ability to get them back. We need to change that and make asking for help a sign of strength and awareness by parents themselves and make it a nonthreatening situation so they have access to critical resources that any family would need to care for their children safely. Having a website or other ways to get that information out there to help families understand what resources are available—and to normalize the experience of asking for help—can go a long way toward reimagining what child welfare is all about.