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In the nearly two months since the police killing of George Floyd launched a global protest movement against systemic racism, the American child welfare system has experienced its own reckoning.

Confront Racist Roots

In June, parents marched through Manhattan, waving signs charging child welfare authorities with “stealing Black babies.” More than 1,700 people tuned in to an online forum comparing the foster care system’s treatment of low-income families of color to the government’s war on drugs. The leader of one national child welfare agency, Bethany Christian Services, recently argued that foster care service providers “have a critical role to play in addressing systemic racism in child welfare.”

Christine James-Brown, president and CEO of the Child Welfare League of America – one of the oldest and bestknown advocacy groups in the country – says she too has been deeply disturbed by the videotaped killings of Black and Latino men and women at the hands of police, and the demands for change they’ve inspired. That has led her to call for fundamental changes in child welfare services as well – systems that draw in disproportionately high numbers of Black people in America.

In July, James-Brown wrote to the Child Welfare League’s members, who operate in all 50 states, that in response to Floyd’s death she’s determined to lead the organization to action. But calls to defund police or child welfare, she said, are tantamount to “playing whack-a-mole.”

“We must recognize that all of these systems are operating within, and often constrained by, an overall system that itself is built on a history of racism and lack of priority for children, poor people, and more recently, immigrants,” James-Brown said, in the letter.

Christine James-Brown, CWLA president. Photo courtesy of CWLA

Christine James-Brown, CWLA president. Photo courtesy of CWLA

James-Brown, spent 23 years with the United Way before joining the Washington, D.C.-based Child Welfare League, in 2007. The national membership organization founded in 1921 is comprised of public and private child welfare agencies, representing one of the field’s largest trade associations. The group recommends best practices, conducts advocacy and training, and holds conferences, shaping how its members interact with the nation’s most vulnerable families.

James-Brown, who is Black, has a profound connection with the historic events of late. She grew up in West Philadelphia when the city was run by Mayor Frank Rizzo, the former police commissioner known for his brutal racist practices who in the 1970s encouraged residents “to vote white.” In June, while announcing the removal of a Rizzo statue, the city’s current Mayor Jim Kenney described Rizzo’s legacy as one of “bigotry, hatred and oppression.”

But she now realizes “we’ve been standing for a different version of sitting on the balcony, for years,” even if it’s less obvious. And her grandkids now ask James-Brown “‘Grandma, how did you stand it?’”During her early years in Philly, James-Brown recalls, her community had to hide in their homes when police appeared. The once renowned Nixon Theater was located in her Black and Italian community at the time, but it was segregated, and James-Brown’s mother had to sit in the rear balconies. She remembers asking her mother how she could stand for that, and why she did.

James-Brown spoke to The Imprint about turning her grief into action, the steps she and her organization will now take, and how she wants to see the child welfare field change.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.

What steps is the Child Welfare League of America taking to respond to this moment?

We’ve put together a group of diverse leaders from the field of child welfare, and our board members, to talk about what every institution should be looking at. We asked, are we doing anything that is intentionally or unintentionally racist, or anything other than what we want, which is a just, equitable society?

The critical thing for us to do first is to review all of our standards with an equity lens. We’ll set up conversations in the field around racial justice and make sure people get more comfortable with that. Then we’ll look at who we can partner with to do more training around racial justice. We can make sure the academic journal we put out is addressing this on a regular basis. And we want to make sure our policy agenda would reflect the importance of racial justice.

We’re aspirational. We’re not an organization that can tell others what to do. We can tell people what we think is in the best interests of children and families. We are a standards-setting and advocacy organization, so we have an opportunity to promote new practice and policies. Nobody is required to follow them, but peer pressure can create change in any field of service.

And how do you make that case?

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For someone like me who has been in the corporate world as long as I have, as an African American woman, I tend to mute my language a little bit. So saying “you’re racist” is not as easy for me as saying “you’re not allowing for equity and inclusion.” But that hasn’t gotten us far enough.

The funding and policies of the CPS system in particular were developed by White men and reflect their values and views about families. But it is what it is.

I say go back to our founding – was the system founded by white men and funded by white men for racist reasons? Yes. The funding and policies of the CPS system in particular were developed by White men and reflect their values and views about families. But it is what it is. So now how do we go and root out the things that allowed the system to operate that way?

I’m not radical. No person of color has gone through their life without experiencing racism. This convergence of the pandemic, which has highlighted all of the inequities we already knew about, and the recession, and the in-your-face, horrible killing of Black people – I’ll be honest, I don’t care if you let people know. I’m asking: What happened to me? Why am I not out there on the street?”

What are the top issues you see when it comes to racism or racial inequity in child welfare?

Our front door is very problematic, the way children get into the child welfare system and why. Who are the reporters to our hotlines? What does the hotline do with the information? How good is the training for reporters? How good are the alternatives and to what extent do we use them? Our group has had a lot of discussion about moving the system to understanding its role as strengthening families instead of being looked at as the ones who want to remove children.

We need to focus like a laser on keeping kids with their families and acting as advocates for them getting the dollars they need to do what they want to do. The guidelines and practices around the whole CPS area is important.

You also need to look at issues of how foster parents are recruited and supported, the extent to which we use kinship care. We need to always ask about aunts and siblings, right after parents, before we talk about putting a kid in foster care.

On the kinship issue, we see some parts of the country really embracing kin placements, others not. Is there a lingering stigma? Do some communities need to update their thinking?

The country needs to come to a greater understanding of implicit bias. There’s been a quiet bias against the family – “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” view. In some places, that’s stronger than others. But it’s much less expensive to give resources to kin-care providers than foster parents.

We also need to do this in a more holistic way. We need a broader agenda. Most of our funding comes for removing children, almost nothing for anything else.

Think of the health care system. Suppose they would say to hospitals, “You have to reduce the amount of money you are using to treat patients, in order to do the kind of preventive work that will keep people well.” No one asks them to make that difficult choice. We shouldn’t allow that choice to be put on us.

This isn’t really about money moving into child welfare. The field has always been underfunded, but this is not really about that right now. It’s about doing the things that reduce the job child welfare has to do. There are countless places we haven’t invested in low-income families.

What would you spend more on? Should funding increases go toward the same agencies that remove children, or other kinds of social service agencies?

We can do what we’ve always done, too often, which is fussing about not having enough funding, and trying on our own to move funding within child welfare to go toward prevention – or we can become much stronger advocates.

If you think about the child welfare system and the fact that the people in the system are Black and brown, our system is heavily driven by neglect, not abuse. And you can track neglect back to poverty. We have to become louder advocates for things that move families out of poverty. We’re not saying the child welfare system can take over poverty reduction, but we should become stronger advocates for things like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the earned income tax credits, and all kinds of programs that get money into the hands of families so money will no longer hold them back from keeping their children safe and healthy.

The advocacy agenda will be much fuller than making sure child welfare has funding. As witnesses often to what’s happening to families because of lack of resources, we should be the number oneadvocates for them to get more money.

There’s different kinds of prevention. Organizations addressing housing issues, domestic violence and substance abuse need to be much more heavily invested. That money needs to go directly to them, nothing to do with child welfare.

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Michael Fitzgerald
The Imprint