The child welfare system in the United States is not living up to its name. Rather than nurturing the intellectual potential, capacity for joy, and emotional wellness of foster children, the system too often takes a narrow approach to maintaining only the children’s physical well-being.
I speak from my experience as a caseworker, administrator, and creator of a unique program in child welfare. Twenty-five years of butting up against the constraints of this system have made clear to me that the problem is structural. The occasional caseworker who would seek to nurture a child’s potential interests or passions would usually be thwarted by the limited paradigm around which the system is constructed. Year after year, most caseworkers go through the motions, while heeding the entrenched and narrow mandates set forth by their agencies as the lives of children under their care stagnate.
I believe another system is possible—one that starts from the foundational premise that all people are capable of building satisfying lives through the pursuit of their interests—and that is staffed by workers who treat children and their parents with deep care and respect. To create such a system, we will need to transform the entire structure and pedagogy of social work school, drawing on insights gained through a careful look at the problems with the current system.
Limiting Harm Is Not Enough
Let me start with a story from Chicago that gets at the heart of the problem. The story starts with a group of restless teenage boys, cloistered inside the dreary walls of a group home on the city’s South Side. The group home’s regimented routines served as a constant reminder of the system responsible for the teens’ confinement.
By the time I came to know the teenage residents of this group home, I had worked as a caseworker for twelve years in the Illinois child welfare system. I was painfully familiar with the lack of opportunities to build satisfying and productive lives for children once they were removed from their parents’ homes and placed in substitute care, and I wanted to do something about it. I had been promoted and was now part of a new division, targeted case management, whose primary goal was to work with the private sector to end the perpetual years of foster care in which huge numbers of youth found themselves. It was in the context of this new position that I became involved with this group home.
When one of the boys revealed an interest in studying art, I spoke with the group home’s administration about allowing him to attend classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. Since they would not allow the boy to travel to the Art Institute, a world-class art school and museum, the Art Institute agreed to come to the group home and provide weekly art classes for the boy and the other residents, all free of charge. What could have been a boon for this institution was greeted instead with steely opposition.
The group home’s response to my persistence in attempting to bring the Art Institute’s classes to their residents was a phone call from the director inviting me to a meeting. I arrived hoping to make a case for the importance of what I was trying to accomplish. But the director and a few other employees, including the staff psychiatrist, would have none of it. They lectured me on how I did not understand what these boys needed, which was surely not art classes, part-time jobs, nor any other such “trivial distractions.” And in any case, the director deemed the boys “not ready” for such things. Needless to say, the Art Institute was not allowed to offer classes at the group home.
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