To reimagine the child welfare system, we first must acknowledge its harms on Black & Brown families

Publisher: Andi Durbin

In their recent Chicago Sun Times op-ed article “Yes, Gov. Pritzker, close juvenile detention centers — and then reimagine foster care,” Patrice James and Tanya Gassenheimer from the Shriver Center on Poverty Law encourage us to reimagine a transformed child welfare system in Illinois. We at ICOY welcome this challenge and want to comment further.

There is much about the child welfare system that is of concern. Family separation – or rather, forcible family separation – has its roots in slavery. People have not forgotten this and that injustice has left a legacy of trauma and suffering that continues to this day. Over the course of Illinois’ child welfare history, there have been significant concerns about the loss of cultural identity, a continuing struggle to hire and keep a bilingual workforce, and many, many other challenges.

The vast majority of children in foster care are there due to neglect and related issues, like parental substance abuse. Let’s be clear: neglect and poverty go hand in hand. Poverty constrains parents in a myriad of ways, including limiting access to safe and affordable housing, childcare, jobs, health care, transportation, and other resources that all of us rely upon to raise our children safely. 

We know that Black and Brown children are disproportionately represented in the child welfare system, and that their outcomes are disproportionately worse – including longer lengths of stay, lower rates of reunification, and many others. And the youth who age out of the system are still far too unlikely to have the tools, skills, resources, and relationships to be successful as adults. 

For Families to Thrive, We Must Undo Past Harms

We do the children and families in our care a great disservice if we fail to acknowledge this history and its impact, and especially if we fail to seize this nation-wide racial reckoning as an opportunity to create a human service system in Illinois that supports and strengthens families so that they can thrive together. We have the ability to begin undoing past harms and it starts with creating a more cohesive system that coordinates services, including mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment, parenting programs, childcare, and early childhood education programs, and community programs that support youth and deflect them from the child welfare system. The goal of the child welfare system should be to support fragile families and protect children from abuse and neglect, not punish families for the realities of poverty and racial inequality.

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