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Structures of Oppression in the U.S. Child Welfare System: Reflections on Administrative Barriers to Equity



In the United States, child welfare reform efforts have dominated three decades of landscape. With glimmers of systemic promise and innumerable individual success stories, data suggest insufficient improvements, resulting in calls for transformation and even abolition. In this article, the authors illustrate structures of oppression that bolster the system’s tentacles, in regulating family life, contributing to racial disparities, reinforcing economic hardships, and supporting policies of family separation. Some of the structures take the form of practices, policies, laws or regulations. Individually and collectively, these structures may serve to oppress and harm those that the child welfare system intends to help. In this article, we include mandated reporting, substantiation decisions, central registries, decision-making processes, background checks, ongoing service delivery frameworks, conservative interpretations of confidentiality statutes, and how immigration status interplays with child welfare. Each of these structures could warrant an individual article, delving into the inner workings of how each oppresses families and the professionals who work with them. We also recognize that there are other structures of oppression that this article will not address. We encourage other scholars to not only continue the identification of oppressive structures, but to also work collaboratively, to generate solutions that dismantle these mechanisms that continue to perpetuate harm and unnecessary family separation.
Citation: Merkel-Holguin, L.; Drury,
I.; Gibley-Reed, C.; Lara, A.; Jihad,
M.; Grint, K.; Marlowe, K. Structures
of Oppression in the U.S. Child
Welfare System: Reflections on
Administrative Barriers to Equity.
Societies 2022,12, 26. https://
Academic Editor: Ian Kelvin Hyslop
Received: 21 November 2021
Accepted: 4 February 2022
Published: 14 February 2022
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Structures of Oppression in the U.S. Child Welfare System:
Reflections on Administrative Barriers to Equity
Lisa Merkel-Holguin 1, * , Ida Drury 1, Colleen Gibley-Reed 1, Adrian Lara 1, Maleeka Jihad 2, Krystal Grint 1
and Kendall Marlowe 1
1Kempe Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect, Department of Pediatrics,
University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, Aurora, CO 80045, USA; (I.D.); (C.G.-R.); (A.L.); (K.G.); (K.M.)
2MJCF-Coalition, Denver, CO 80208, USA;
In the United States, child welfare reform efforts have dominated three decades of land-
scape. With glimmers of systemic promise and innumerable individual success stories, data suggest
insufficient improvements, resulting in calls for transformation and even abolition. In this article, the
authors illustrate structures of oppression that bolster the system’s tentacles, in regulating family
life, contributing to racial disparities, reinforcing economic hardships, and supporting policies of
family separation. Some of the structures take the form of practices, policies, laws or regulations.
Individually and collectively, these structures may serve to oppress and harm those that the child
welfare system intends to help. In this article, we include mandated reporting, substantiation deci-
sions, central registries, decision-making processes, background checks, ongoing service delivery
frameworks, conservative interpretations of confidentiality statutes, and how immigration status
interplays with child welfare. Each of these structures could warrant an individual article, delving
into the inner workings of how each oppresses families and the professionals who work with them.
We also recognize that there are other structures of oppression that this article will not address. We
encourage other scholars to not only continue the identification of oppressive structures, but to
also work collaboratively, to generate solutions that dismantle these mechanisms that continue to
perpetuate harm and unnecessary family separation.
child welfare; oppression; equity; child protection; family support; system transforma-
tion; abolition
1. Introduction
Since the early 1970s, the United States has seen child welfare firmly embedded in
national politics, federal policy, and state and local responses to, at times, high profile
concerns for families and children. The populace socially constructs children, especially, as
vulnerable to the deviance of their parents and deserving of government intervention [
This construct then drives policy creation and administrative action. Further, cases of
horrific child abuse and neglect, the promotion of health terrorism, where the nature of the
child maltreatment problem is distorted and generalized by focusing on extreme abuse
cases [
], as well as allusions to scandal, within state and local government, drive public
outcry. As a result, reactive policies are designed to reduce the risk of reoccurrence of
these emotionally charged situations, despite their outlier nature [
]. Over time, many
child welfare agency leaders, advocates and practitioners have attempted, at the street
level, to modify or reform the resulting harms of this reality. While there have been
individual victories and stories of accomplishment and hope, the aggregate data tell a story
of ingrained oppression in the overall system [3].
Societies 2022,12, 26.
Societies 2022,12, 26 2 of 15
In this article, we argue for the addressing of ingrained oppression, through examina-
tion and reform of the foundational structures that frame the child welfare system, rather
than focusing on the adaptation of existing practices based on reaction to external events.
The structures within the system reinforce the resulting undesirable outcomes and render
surface level reforms ineffective. We include mandated reporting, substantiation decisions,
central registries, decision-making processes, background checks, ongoing service delivery
frameworks, conservative interpretations of confidentiality statutes, and how immigration
status interplays with child welfare. Many of these structures of oppression have remained
unchanged since the inception of the federal child welfare system in the United States and
continue to harm rather than help families.
A framework of oppression, by Young, describes its institutional roots, as follows:
“oppression is the inhibition of a group through a vast network of everyday practices,
attitudes, assumptions, behaviors, and institutional rules; it is structural or systemic” [
(p. 180). Braithwaite argues that oppression has found a hospitable environment in child
welfare systems across the decades of voluntary sector leadership, legislative frameworks,
bureaucratic restructuring, and the professionalization movement, and simultaneously
cautions those working for change to uncouple the criticism for the oppression from the
individual system actors [
]. As Pennell wrote, “Many of us become social workers in order
to make our communities and societies better for everyone. Too often our aspirations are
stymied by work contexts that reinforce racism, sexism and other forms of oppression” [
(p. 78).
We argue that this gradual layering of oppressive structures and an accumulation
of administrative barriers not only clouds the original intent of meaningful assistance to
children and families, but also creates real adversity for modern families who must navigate
this now near impassable terrain. As current and former child welfare practitioners,
administrators and advocates, we examine these structures and tell the story through the
lens of a vignette, designed intentionally to echo the struggles we have seen in the field. Of
note, this family’s story is not overly complex. Families do not need high levels of complex
and intertwined problems to become involved with systems created to respond to the worst
situations, which in child welfare could be egregious harm, sexual abuse or child fatality.
Rather, one need only trace a path through these structures to see the inherent challenges
of the current system.
2. Meet the Garcia-Smith Family
In this article, through following the path of the hypothetical Garcia-Smith family,
who come to the attention of a public child welfare system, we attempt to illuminate the
oppressive structures that target communities of color, marginalize family systems, and
strengthen the domination of systems in regulating family life. This fictious case was
constructed from the authors’ decades worth of collective experience as child welfare
practitioners. Unlike in this scenario, when children experience egregious harm there is
likelihood that some of the structures we identify (e.g., a criminal registry) are important for
safeguarding children. Members of the Garcia-Smith family include Jacinda (29-year-old
African-American mother); Pedro (30-year-old undocumented Mexican immigrant); two
children (6-year-old Antonio and 3-year-old Ebony); and over 30 paternal and maternal
relatives. The family lives in an economically disadvantaged community with food and
service deserts. The Garcia-Smith family was reported to the child abuse and neglect
hotline. The mandated reporter—a teacher—expressed concerns about the parent’s ability
to care for Antonio and his younger sister. Per the report, Antonio often comes to school
hungry, dirty and tired. On the date the report to CPS was made, Antonio had a blister
on his hand and when pressed, he reported to his teacher that the night before he was
warming up macaroni and cheese for dinner and the steam burned his hand. When asked
why his parents were not making dinner, Antonio reported that his father was working
at his second job and his mother had fallen asleep on the couch, after “drinking wine and
smoking a pipe that smelled funny, like a skunk." Antonio reported that he did not want
Societies 2022,12, 26 3 of 15
to bother her as she works two jobs and needs her rest. He reported that he had fallen
asleep late in his parent’s room watching cartoons and almost did not make it to school
this morning. This is where their story begins, where we review mandated reporting as
one structure that requires critical analysis at this point in history.
3. Mandated Reporting
In the United States, laws specific to mandatory reporting of child abuse and neglect
have been in existence for over 50 years [
]. Mandatory reporting laws were enacted in
response to the seminal article, The Battered-child Syndrome, written by Dr. C. Henry Kempe
and colleagues in 1962 [
]. In the article, Kempe and colleagues posited that this clinical
condition was often not recognized or when it was recognized, it may have been handled
inadequately if a physician was hesitant to notify the proper authorities [
]. Within
three years of the publication of this article, all 50 states adopted a mandatory reporting
law [
]. This occurred after the Children’s Bureau of the United States Department of
Health, Education and Welfare provided model mandatory reporting statutes for individual
states to adopt as they worked to establish legal requirements for reporting child abuse
and neglect [
]. The aspirations of these laws were early identification and protection for
victims of abuse [
]. Mandatory reporting laws had a far-reaching appeal, based on the
belief that early detection could prevent harm to children [8].
Years later, in 1973, with the passage of the federal Child Abuse Prevention and
Treatment Act (CAPTA), states across the country further expanded their reporting require-
ments [
]. The Act set minimum federal definitions for child maltreatment and standards
for mandatory reporting as a condition for states to receive federal funds [
]. Despite
having the same purpose, current laws vary considerably state-to-state in terms of (a) how
child is defined, (b) what is reportable and (c) who is mandated to report [
]. This
broad discretion has resulted in laws that are often influenced by racialized narratives
surrounding poverty and parenting, with Lonne and colleagues decrying the authoritarian
expansion of the neglect statute [14].
In the United States, the Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA)
requires each State to have provisions or procedures for individuals to report known or
suspected instances of child abuse and neglect, in addition to individual laws for mandatory
reporting. Although there is overlap in each state’s code, variances exist as well. A summary
of state codes is accessible through the Child Welfare Information Gateway [
]. Mandatory
and permissive reporters are required by law to report information that led them to believe
a child was abused or neglected, although they do not have to meet a burden of proof
that abuse or neglect have indeed occurred. In exchange for making reports in good faith,
every state provides immunity to mandatory reporters from criminal and civil liability,
as an incentive to report concerns to child protection agencies. Conversely, a number of
states also include, in their reporting, status-specific penalties for mandatory reporters
who knowingly or willfully fail to report suspected child abuse and neglect [
]. For
example, in many states, mandated reporters failing to report suspected child abuse or
neglect can face jail terms, ranging from 30 days to 5 years, fines, ranging from USD 300
to USD 10,000, or both jail terms and fines. Although these penalties are clearly listed in
statute, data reporting how often these penalties occur is not readily accessible, so the level
of implementation is unknown nationally.
Research indicates that race and socioeconomic status impact major child welfare
decision points, beginning with child abuse/neglect hotline reports [
]. Children
who have been racialized as Black, Indigenous or other racial or ethnic minorities and
children living in low-income neighborhoods are overrepresented in reports of suspected
maltreatment, by all groups of reporters, as compared to their White, higher socioeconomic
status counterparts [
]. One factor that may explain the disproportionality and
disparity experienced by low-income families and families of color in the child welfare
system is bias [
]. Disproportionality is overrepresentation or underrepresentation of
a racial or ethnic group compared with total population percentages, whereas disparity
Societies 2022,12, 26 4 of 15
represents unequal outcomes for one racial or ethnic group as compared with outcomes for
another racial or ethnic group. Recent studies point out that an individual’s sense of risk to
children is both subjective and value-laden, which is especially harmful to families from
culturally diverse backgrounds [
]. Explicit bias includes acts of prejudice, discrimination,
and racism and is easier to identify, whereas implicit bias includes unconscious beliefs and
attitudes and is harder to identify [17].
In addition to the biases that show up for individuals, bias is also embedded in
the institutional structure of child welfare and its collaborating systems [
]. This
ongoing reality becomes further complicated when child welfare systems use algorithms
and machine learning, with big datasets that are inherently biased, to aid decision making
at different points in the child welfare system [
]. Mandatory reporting laws are one
component of oppression in the current U.S. child welfare system. Since most reports
of child maltreatment come from mandatory reporters, and families of color and low-
income families are more likely to be reported to CPS, this population disproportionally
experiences the negative effects of the child welfare system, due to mandatory reporting
policies [
]. Mandatory reporting laws may persuade individuals interacting with children
to report their suspicions rather than assist families in need, whether it is based on good
intentions or their own self-preservation [
]. Moreover, the punitive connotations associated
with the reporting system, coupled with disproportionate resources being allocated to
investigations, at the expense of services to meet families’ needs, are fundamental flaws [
This has led scholars and advocates alike to promote ways to redesign this policy, so that
mandatory reporting is replaced with mandatory supporting and service provision [
in recognition of how family surveillance perpetuates inequality and trauma [
]. It is
important to also note that in addition to individual biases that mandatory reporters hold,
they are part of larger institutions, such as education, health care, and law enforcement, that
have their own histories of systemic oppression, resulting in families of color experiencing
racism from compounding systems of oppression. Empirical evidence of this phenomenon
lies in state-level, punitive policy regimes that correspond with higher numbers of children
in foster care [27].
In our case example, the child welfare agency staff screen the Garcia-Smith child
maltreatment report, prompting a response from a child welfare worker who investigates
the incident. At the conclusion of the investigation, families have systematically and
historically described the process as coercive, penalizing, and all-powerful [28]. The child
welfare agency substantiates the child maltreatment report for neglect of supervision and
determines the Garcia-Smith family receives in-home services. This brings us to two
inter-related existing structures that we suggest may harm, rather than help, the majority
of families who come to the attention of child welfare—the substantiation decision and
placement on the central registry.
4. Substantiating Findings
The requirement to substantiate investigations is the foundation for the fault-finding
orientation of child protection systems, and it closely correlates to the central registry
system discussed next. As with the variability in mandated reporting laws, states have
varying definitions of child maltreatment and different classifications of evidence (from
preponderance of the evidence, to credible evidence, to probable cause) to substantiate a
report [
]. As Owhe noted, the credible evidence standard does not require the investigator
to weigh conflicting evidence, but merely requires the fact finder to present minimal
evidence to support the allegations against the alleged perpetrator. When a report is
submitted to the Central Register, as indicated, the Register accepts the findings of the local
agency without making an independent determination [29] (p. 1).
Hollenbeck noted the decision-making criteria are not applied systematically, leaving
CPS investigators and CPS teams with significant amounts of discretion [
]. Worker
characteristics, such as tenure at the agency, background, level of risk tolerance and other
factors, play a role in decisions across the child welfare spectrum, including in several
Societies 2022,12, 26 5 of 15
of the examples presented in this manuscript [
]. Many families under investigation
for maltreatment respond from a place of fear or coercion, oftentimes without the benefit
of legal counsel. In the U.S., Child Protective Services (CPS) abolitionists question how
substantiation decisions, with such long-term, large-scale impact, can be made without
judicial review, trampling on the due process rights of individuals [32].
Not all substantiated reports are found to need protective services, while other reports
that are not substantiated are determined to need protective services. In addition, reporting
rates, substantiation rates and service provision rates vary significantly by state, calling into
question a shared national understanding of child maltreatment and equity of response [
Various researchers have questioned the role of child welfare systems substantiating child
maltreatment reports, particularly since the system fails to ensure access to, or funding of,
needed services. Thus, it has been argued that the substantiation label may not be a useful
distinction for CPS [
]. Further research demonstrated that substantiated cases and
unsubstantiated cases can be strikingly similar [
]. Kohl, Jonson-Reid and Drake, thus,
suggested that the substantiation label could be replaced with other indicators, tracked by
family or by case, including court involvement and/or services needed [38].
CPS expends considerable time and resources on a fault-finding process that ulti-
mately may not address the issues of harm, danger, and risk. In fact, it may be an erroneous
structure, as the fault-finding process does not in and of itself make children safe from
harm. Numerous evaluations of a reform called differential response (which removes sub-
stantiation and placement on the central registry for all cases with low and moderate risk)
have demonstrated that eliminating this decision point may increase family engagement
and service uptake [
]. Eliminating the substantiation decision will not compromise
CPS’ ability to, when necessary, coordinate with law enforcement, seek Juvenile Court over-
sight, and place children in out-of-home care, if necessary, but will remove an oppressive
mechanism that uses these data to further surveil and regulate family life.
5. Central Registries
Child abuse registries have served a range of purposes, as follows: capturing child
maltreatment statistics that can be used for continuous quality improvement and research
endeavors; providing staff with information that is used in decision-making in subsequent
reports and serving as a database that potential employers can use to conduct background
checks. Great variability exists in the information that states capture in central registry
databases, including the name of the alleged child victim, the name of the alleged per-
petrator, and the substantiation decision. In addition, there is inconsistency in the way
in which reports are included, from all investigated reports to only substantiated reports
to, in some cases, unsubstantiated reports for a lesser period of time [
]. Similarly, the
appeal processes for removing one’s case/name from the central registry vary by state and
territory, as determined by administrative rule [
], which is complicated by the fact that
oftentimes, individuals are unaware their names appear on such registries.
Substantiation decisions have life-long effects on those whose names are in the registry,
limiting employment prospects, particularly in careers that involve children, and negatively
impacting financial earning power and economic well-being. This mechanism is described
by some CPS abolitionists in the US as “being sentenced to a life of poverty” without due
process [
]. For public safety purposes, it is critical that the most egregious maltreatment
cases, that have been criminally prosecuted and subjected to a higher standard of proof,
consistent with criminal prosecution, should be captured in a database. Without tradi-
tional child abuse registries, existing judicial structures could absorb and document these
severe crimes.
Returning to our case vignette, the Garcia-Smith family now has a substantiated report
that resides on their state’s child abuse registry and in the information system used for
future decision-making. They were not provided information on how to appeal the decision.
Their likelihood of further CPS surveillance increases if they are subsequently reported to
the child abuse hotline [
]. The family transitions from the investigation stage of service to
Societies 2022,12, 26 6 of 15
the ongoing in-home service stage, which creates the opportunity for increased interaction
with, and surveillance by, child welfare staff, resulting in being subsequently reported
to child welfare. The Garcia-Smith family receives two more substantiated allegations
of inadequate supervision, due to the mother being asleep at the weekly arrival of the
assigned in-home family therapist. The third time the family therapist arrived at the door,
the six-year-old was also asleep in front of the television, and the three-year-old was alone
in the living room. There was no answer at the door, so the therapist called law enforcement
who, in concert with child protective services, removed the children and placed them with
unrelated foster parents, while assessing the appropriateness of kin to serve as caregivers.
This now leads us to deconstruct the following three additional structures: the role of
family in decision making, background checks and ongoing child welfare services.
6. The Role of Family in Decision-Making
In our case example, after the emergency removal (and in other instances, at the point
of a subsequent investigation process where the child welfare agency professionals thought
child removal might be imminent and necessary), they held what has been generically
labeled in U.S. child welfare systems as a family meeting. The mother, Jacinda, attended,
but her husband Pedro was unable to attend because of his work commitments. No
other family members participated; this is quite possibly a direct result of the agency
professionals not searching for or contacting extended family, the meeting being scheduled
during traditional work hours (8 a.m.–5 p.m.), and/or the agency’s expectation that Jacinda
would invite her own supporters. At this family meeting, an independent facilitator led the
assembled group through a standard agenda that was draped in family-friendly language.
Unknown to Jacinda, the agency was using the “family” meeting as a mechanism to gather
more information to reinforce the narrative that the children were unsafe with her and
Pedro and even within their broader family system.
In the United States, child welfare agencies implement various models of family
meetings, such as family team meetings, family group conferences, family group decision-
making meetings, case planning conferences, and team decision-making. Many models
espouse that the processes build on family strengths and protective capacities and promote
family leadership in decision-making. However, it seems as if family meeting practices
have devolved over time, with child welfare agencies investing minimal time and effort
to widen the family circle through finding family, preparing the family to participate,
and structuring the processes to embrace the family group, rather than the agency, as the
primary decision-makers in safeguarding child and family well-being. As such, many
of these “family” meetings resemble traditional case staffing meetings where decision-
making power is rooted in the agency professionals, and ultimately the courts, continuing
the pattern of silencing and subjugating families in child welfare decision-making [
The pursuit of concepts of empowering family responsibility and leadership to restore
balance and relational healing appear to remain theoretical aspirations in many family
meeting practices [
]. Institutional decision-making, again foundational to the practices
and policies of the child welfare system, takes hold across a family’s experience and it is
rife with an ecology of factors that are outside of family control or influence [46].
A different paradigm for decision-making (one that vests authority in children, families
and communities, supported by the information provided by child welfare professionals)
could upend what has become another oppressive child welfare structure. One family
meeting type—the family group conference—which at its foundation was a response to
colonization and institutional racism [
], gives child welfare systems a prototype that
embodies family leadership principles. Pennell has suggested that fundamentally changing
decision-making is one means of reversing systemic racism [
]. Decisions about family life
should be nested within the family group, by those who are the expert on their family and
most affected by the decisions, rather than professionals. In our case example, it is likely
that had the family group been engaged in decision-making, the family’s plan on how to
safeguard its most vulnerable members would likely not have been family separation.
Societies 2022,12, 26 7 of 15
7. Background Checks
Before any child in the custody of a child welfare department can be formally placed
with a stranger, kin or kin-like individual, the agency performs home studies and back-
ground checks for any adult who resides in the home. In our case example, after the
children were placed with unrelated foster parents, Jacinda identified one maternal (Aunt
Ginger) and one paternal family member (Uncle Julio) who were interested in becoming
caregivers for the children.
Background checks include the screening of child abuse registries within any state
and/or county the potential kinship provider has resided, fingerprint checks through a
state’s Bureau of Investigation, and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) checks on each
individual residing in the home. With the state of Colorado as an example, anyone with
such crimes as a felony offense of sexual abuse or domestic violence, felony physical
abuse or drug offense, violation of a protection order, or homicide, result in kin or kin-like
individual(s) being automatically ruled out as a placement option [48].
Unless noted in a state’s specific requirements, it may not matter how long in the past
these crimes occurred. This is critical, because, over time, certain states have liberalized
their drug laws, legalizing marijuana, for instance [
]. This means that individuals residing
in those states could have a felony conviction from the past, for what is now considered a
legal activity. Yet, as a result, these individuals will not be approved as a caregiver, as the
agency will deem them as unsafe. This disproportionately impacts families of color, since
racial disproportionality also exists in the criminal justice system, with African-Americans,
Hispanics and Native Americans being disproportionately incarcerated. Many of these
inmates are incarcerated for drug-related offenses from the month prior, disproportionately
impacting African-Americans [50].
While state policies establish which offenses on a background check will automatically
discount possible caregivers, child welfare professionals have additional discretion to
exclude kin or kin-like caregivers, based on their views, interpretations and biases of
these caregivers’ previous social services history, or other crimes that are not felonies.
Bureaucratic discretion, then, becomes the gatekeeper for kin placement, again taking
control from the family itself and placing it in the hands of the child welfare system. While
necessary for the bureaucracy where the system is currently rooted, bureaucratic discretion
becomes yet another decision point heavily influenced by the ecology of the decision maker,
including institutional, supervisorial, and individual factors [
]. For the decision to
select a kin provider, specifically, factors include maltreatment type, family structure,
caseworker’s educational background, and caseworker ’s assessment of risk level [52].
This can result in child welfare decision-makers continuing to prioritize stranger
placements over the possibility of children living with their family and in a culturally
congruent and familiar environment. Interestingly, when felons leave prison, unless the
family is currently involved with the public child welfare agency, they are able to integrate
into their family and community systems and care for their children. This creates a double
standard for substitute caregivers in system-involved families. We purport that the rigidity
and restrictiveness of background check policies, coupled with concerns about potential
media exposure, risk aversion orientation, and staff beliefs about extended families all
factor into a reliance on non-familial placement resources and children being unnecessarily
separated from their families.
Returning to the Garcia-Smith family, Aunt Ginger’s home did not pass the back-
ground check because she was charged and convicted for possession of two ounces of
marijuana twenty years ago, a substance that is now legal in her state. Uncle Julio’s wife
is an undocumented immigrant, so to avoid any involvement with government systems
for fear of deportation, he requested that his family not be a placement option. Our case
example is not unique. Immigrant children are more likely to be placed into foster care
settings and institutions with little to no chance of ever being placed in a kinship home,
partially because of the risk associated with potential caregiver immigration status [
In our example, the children remain with their foster parents (also referred to as stranger
Societies 2022,12, 26 8 of 15
care) as the case traverses its way through the court processes and service receipt, where
we turn our attention next.
8. Ongoing Child Welfare Services
When involvement with the child welfare system extends beyond initial investigation
or assessment, a family becomes a ‘case’, wherein a plan is developed with the admin-
istrative intent of achieving child safety, permanency, and well-being for the child(ren)
involved. Typically, these plans require participation and completion by the child’s care-
givers, either to reunify with their children or to close their case with the Department if
children remain in their family of origin. Services can take a range of directions, including
parent education, concrete and poverty-related services, such as rent, food assistance, and
transportation vouchers, and childcare assistance, substance abuse treatment, advocacy
for situations involving intimate partner violence, or mental health care and services. The
literature recounts a multitude of difficulties related to the creation of plans, the availability
of services, and the engagement of families toward meaningful planning and delivery [
For the purposes of this article, we examine a commonly ordered, offered, tracked, and
examined service in child welfare—therapy. Psychiatric assessment, as well as family, indi-
vidual, and child therapy, are all common components of service plans [
]. While research
empirically validates many of these approaches, it is less common for these interventions
to be rigorously studied in child welfare populations or across cultures [
]. The use
of “mis-cultured” psychological tools and assessments may not only be counteractive in
providing genuine and effective family support and recommendations for (child welfare)
system involved families, but can also dispense significant and consequential decisions that
affect court-involved families [
]. Thus, these services can represent yet another structure
of oppression for families and children, particularly if they represent communities of color
and if they do not meet the underlying needs of children and families.
Therapy and therapeutic interventions were born out of psychology. Over time, the
lack of participant diversity in psychology studies and the domination of Whites as editors
for psychology publications illustrate narratives of power and oppression in the field [
In addition, there has been overwhelming overrepresentation of psychosocial research
focusing on individualist societies and less on collective culture representation [
]. In-
dividualistic cultures are often referred to as western societies, which focus on a narrow
population examination [
]. People who identify as being from collective cultures are
often from eastern and southern countries, where the majority of people are from Asian,
Latin, First Nations, and African descendants [
]. People from non-Anglo-Saxon countries
are less studied and, therefore, psychology lacks more culturally respectful therapeutic
solutions for people of color. Further, the psychological workforce in the U.S. is over-
whelmingly white, where non-Whites comprise just 16% of the psychological workforce,
including all therapists, counselors, consultants, and medical professionals, psychiatrists
and psychologists [63].
The child welfare system continues to disproportionately intervene in the lives of
children of color for reasons including poverty, racial bias and discrimination by profes-
sionals, geographic location, and inherent structural racism, with Black and American
Indian/Alaskan Native children being overrepresented in foster care [
]. To illustrate, a
recent systematic review in child protective services indicated that racial disparities exist
across the child welfare system for Black children and families [65].
At the same time, children in foster care, compared to the general population, are three
times more likely to have a diagnosis of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD),
due to a variety of factors [
]. With the many diagnoses given to foster children, there
are also concerns regarding the overuse of psychotropic medications that this population
experiences. Records obtained from the governmental insurance program, Medicaid,
reported 40% to 60% of children involved in the child welfare system have a diagnosis of
at least one psychiatric disorder [
]. Over half of children in one study were prescribed
four or more psychotropic medications, with very few receiving decreasing amounts
Societies 2022,12, 26 9 of 15
over time [
]. Similar to therapeutic modalities, psychiatric knowledge is derived from
western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic (WEIRD) societies that support
more individualistic parenting styles, which may contradict the inclusion of community
values and beliefs of collective parenting forms [69].
This reality compounds in the therapeutic milieu, where it meets the structural racism
in psychology [
]. Empirically, Black individuals are three to five times more likely
to be diagnosed as having schizophrenia, as compared to White patients, suggesting that
a portion of these diagnoses are incorrect [
]. Black children suffering from depression
are often misdiagnosed as having oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), due to their dis-
playing symptoms of depression differently from White children [
]. It is common for
White children to display depression by withdrawing, being less active and less attentive,
compared to Black children who demonstrate aggressive and combative symptoms while
depressed [74].
So it was with the Garcia-Smith family. Antonio, having turned seven in placement,
struggled to adapt to his new living situation and was particularly frustrated after visits
with his parents. These supervised visits took place at a local park until the weather
turned cold. Moving inside, the two hours were spent (and observed through glass)
once a week in a dull, government building. Antonio remained in the same elementary
school but was suspended twice for uncustomary outbursts. In the evenings, he was
hypervigilant about his little sister, and chronically yelled at the foster mother about his
sister’s care. His case files described him as angry and combative. Notes recounted his
refusal to follow household rules, as well as regular physical fights with the foster parents’
biological children. One evening, Antonio threatened to jump off the roof of the family’s
two-story home. Antonio was hospitalized for suicidal ideation, diagnosed with depression
and ODD, and prescribed two psychotropic medications. He started to see a therapist in
the community.
9. Immigration Status—Another Layer
As is evident in the Garcia-Smith family vignette, the immigration status of individual
family members interplays with child welfare practices. As immigrant children and fam-
ily populations continue to increase in the United States, immigration policy shifts to an
increasingly anti-immigrant lens, and child welfare and related social agencies find them-
selves at an intersect with increasingly punitive immigration policies [
]. Additionally,
a combination of stressors, such as the process of immigration and acculturation, contribute
to levels of stress among immigrant communities [
]. This provides an opportunity for
child welfare and other agencies to grow into culturally humble, anti-oppressive, and
anti-racist child welfare practices.
Shifts in policy and enforcement surrounding immigration have accelerated an inter-
section between enforcement of inhumane immigration policy, the child welfare system,
and other social services agencies. Because of the increasing traverse between immigration
policy and enforcement and other systems, an opportunity exists to facilitate positive
outcomes in emerging issues at the convergence between immigration and child welfare
systems [
]. This includes a careful and methodical increase in system knowledge of
immigration and the effects on family systems, increased mutual cultural understanding,
and language access [
]. This may result in multidisciplinary collaboration and reduc-
tion of disparities and mistreatment among immigrant communities involved in child
welfare services.
Increasingly anti-immigrant policies, attitudes and public platforms lead to the
marginalization, exclusion, terrorization, and oppression of immigrant communities [
This presents a multitude of challenges to the creation and implementation of successful,
culturally respectful, and person-centered services. Some of these challenges include fear
of access to services, fear of misreporting and ultimately family separation and deportation,
leading to the perpetuation of trauma and immigrant mistrust of agencies and government
services, which we experience with the Garcia-Smith family [
]. The outcome is the
Societies 2022,12, 26 10 of 15
exacerbation of stressors within immigrant communities, including higher rates of sub-
stance use, fear of arrest and deportation, higher likelihood of abusive and or neglectful
patterns, increased risk of maltreatment, perpetuation of trauma and an increased need for
services [53,77,79].
Furthermore, immigrant and undocumented status offer zero protection from the
oppression of systems and agencies, from discriminatory practices and staff, and less pro-
tection from the weaponization of a person’s immigration status [
]. This can increase
the vulnerability for the promotion of less desirable goals, such as long-term foster care,
long-term institutional care, and independent living, that often result in early transitions
and aging out of the system that do not provide adequate support and true permanency
for children. As demonstrated in our case study, factors associated with caregivers’ immi-
gration status may interfere with decisions regarding the child/children’s best interest and
can lead to incongruences in need identification, permanency planning, service, placement
decisions, and other interventions.
10. Conclusions
Antonio and Ebony remain in foster care at the conclusion of this vignette. Jacinda and
Pedro continue to struggle with economic stability and sobriety in the midst of grief and
loss for their children and family life. They have both completed extensive psychological
evaluations and are required to engage in therapy on a regular basis. They are constantly
on buses, to the therapists, to court, to the visitations with their children and, of course, to
work. They are tired but determined to get their children back to their home, supported as
much as possible from behind by their family. Time continues to dwindle, with a resource-
strapped agency simultaneously pursuing reunification and termination of parental rights.
The agency stopped looking for extended family to be a resource and support for the
parents and children. The family meetings occur quarterly, but they do not engage the
wider family system in decision-making; rather, Jacinda sits in a room alone, where she feels
invisible, with at least six service providers peppering her with questions and following up
on “her” services. What she learns every quarter is that the clock is ticking, as the laws are
clear about timely pursuit of permanency for children under six, whether that be with their
family of origin or a new, adopted family.
Laypeople outside the child welfare system rarely see the inner workings of these com-
plicated structures, and one more structure ensures this, namely, the lack of transparency
shrouding the system as a whole, imposed from the system itself in the name of client
confidentiality and government integrity. The system is structured to self-preserve at every
turn, creating an increasingly intractable knot for families, children, and the concerned
community. Indeed, as Braithwaite explains in the following passage:
Regulatory control from the perspective of child protection authorities is largely
about survival. To avert danger to the child, coercive protective measures are
used to change the relationships surrounding the child. To avert destabilization
of the regulatory community in the face of outside criticism, child protection
authorities exercise control over the narratives that are shared with the public [
(p. 50).
Child welfare is not just a government program or service; it is the public’s collective
response to child abuse and neglect. This response depends upon a social contract. CPS
caseworkers intervene in the most private domain of family life, and in return the public is
asked to trust that those workers will intervene in a way that protects, supports and respects
children and their families. The public are essential to the life of this system; elected legisla-
tors create laws and funnel tax revenues to fund child welfare agencies, concerned citizens
and mandated reporters call the hotline when they believe children are being harmed, and
strangers (and kin) foster and adopt children and youths. Yet our participation is based
on trust, which must be earned through open and honest communication between child
welfare and the public, as “to make services accountable is reliant on transparency” [
(p. 6).
Societies 2022,12, 26 11 of 15
The field’s common, consistent practice, though, is the functional equivalent of ducking
under desks, hands over ears, hoping the questions will go away or another controversy
will distract public attention. Meant to address that lack of public understanding is a
range of oversight and accountability mechanisms, focusing on egregious and fatal cases,
varying in form by country, but all trying “to understand the scope of maltreatment deaths,
the size of the interventions that are warranted and the effectiveness of our efforts over
time” [
] (p. 12). However, these well-intentioned, independent, local and even national
reviews may do little to advance rational, evidence-based child protection practices. The
system inaccurately blames confidentiality laws for silence, while promoting a “master
narrative” of monstrous parents and egregious physical abuse to justify budgets, another
form of health terrorism [
]. The unspoken truth, then, is that the child welfare system
is challenged more by poverty-related neglect than abuse and that parents need support
more than judgment. This then becomes “uncomfortable knowledge” that can give rise to
disruptive, troubling moral questions [83].
The result is that child welfare has understandably lost public trust and support, most
especially with the marginalized and oppressed populations that make up a dispropor-
tionately large share of cases and suffer disproportionately negative outcomes. Policy and
practice would benefit from understanding the stories of those with lived experience in the
system, yet the shield of confidentiality is used “to silence the answers contained in their
stories” [82] (p. 59).
The system has been characterized for almost two decades, now, as a muscled authori-
tarian and a controller of families [
]. A response to this, sometimes by those closest to
the system itself, is to laud incremental continuous quality improvements. While hundreds,
if not thousands, of reports have designated child welfare as a broken system, we contend
that is not the case. Rather, the system is producing the outcomes it is designed to achieve.
We recognize that we are joining a chorus of practitioners, administrators, policymakers,
advocates and researchers who are calling for everything from abolition, to transformation,
to reformation of the child welfare system. We acknowledge the efforts of system reformers,
creative practitioners, small local agencies, and all efforts to include the voices of people
with lived experience, which create small openings and pinholes of light. This is only the
glimmer of a new beginning.
The child welfare system has innumerous, deeply embedded structures of oppression,
a few of which we have illuminated and reflected on in this article. There are others that we
did not tackle in this manuscript but we encourage others to ponder, including emergency
removals without court orders, formal/informal safety and support planning, “voluntary”
services, risk and safety assessments, insufficient legal counsel for children and parents,
alike, termination of parental rights (which some advocates have termed the child welfare
death penalty), volunteer child advocates, and record expungement (children being placed
on sex offender registries).
Instead of the existing mandated reporting statutes and processes, laws can be enacted
that create a mandatory reporting system for instances of egregious harm and sexual
abuse, and a voluntary notification system for other family needs, with reporters being
classified as confidential but not anonymous in both instances. This could be one way to
decrease unnecessary surveillance into family life, also suggested by other scholars and
advocacy groups [
]. On average, 80% of child maltreatment reports that do not suggest
egregious harm or sexual abuse could be served by community and neighborhood-based
organizations, to meet families’ basic needs of shelter and food and connect families to
substance abuse, mental health and domestic violence services. This is perhaps the next
generation of differential response in child protective services, whereby the alternative
response to family and child needs is not served through a government agency with family
regulation orientations. If the child maltreatment investigatory processes remain intact, at
a minimum, the substantiation decision, which oftentimes offers an arbitrary distinction,
without a difference, could be exchanged for a statement of family/child needs; if not
replaced or eliminated, it should not be used as a proxy for providing services to families
Societies 2022,12, 26 12 of 15
or forcibly removing children. The child abuse central registry should be eliminated in
favor of applicable criminal registries and their corresponding legal requirements for due
process. Background checks policies should be neutralized to be biased in favor of kinship
placement and not used by street level workers to preclude family systems to care for their
own children. Formal and informal family networks, including children and youths, should
be positioned to be the decision makers when their children become embroiled with child
welfare systems. This will require the following: (1) workers’ roles to shift from surveillance
monitors to service brokers and active family builders and community organizers, whose
responsibility it is to bolster family integrity and organize these family groups to find
solutions that nurture and protect
children (and not who various system professionals
and advocates colonize as our children); (2) juvenile and family courts to respect the due
process and civil rights of both children and parents, by providing effective, direct legal
representation, rejecting the tradition of rubber-stamp judicial approval of government
agency actions, and defer to family-led decision-making. Kin first policies should be the
norm and not the reform. Anti-immigration attitudes and policies have no place in the
decisions of family life.
The chosen language to describe reforms sanitizes the narrative of oppression and
harm. The opportunity lies not in polarized dichotomy between those who seek to abolish
the system and those who seek incremental reform internally, but in honest, joint examina-
tion, alongside communities and stakeholders. Regulatory control may long be a necessary
part of this system, but significant changes must occur to design effective communities that
support families and children, to provide for economic security for the most vulnerable, and
to eliminate hierarchical structures and include families and children in decision-making
about their own lives [
]. In particular, the foundational structures underpinning the child
welfare system, as outlined, are the starting place for examination and significant change.
We contend, on behalf of the Garcia-Smith family and millions of other families, youths and
children similarly impacted, that the entirety of the child welfare system, that advocates
and scholars alike have recently relabeled the family policing or family regulation system,
must be revealed and transformed, oppressive structure by oppressive structure.
Author Contributions:
Conceptualization, L.M.-H., I.D., C.G.-R., A.L., M.J., K.G. and K.M.; Formal
analysis, L.M.-H. and I.D.; Project administration, L.M.-H., I.D. and C.G.-R.; Resources, C.G.-R.;
Supervision, L.M.-H. and I.D.; Writing—original draft, L.M.-H., I.D., C.G.-R., A.L., M.J., K.G. and
K.M.; Writing—review & editing, L.M.-H., I.D., C.G.-R., M.J. and K.M. All authors have read and
agreed to the published version of the manuscript.
Funding: This research received no external funding.
As a collective, we acknowledge the thought leadership of the presenters and
participants, alike, of the Kempe Center’s annual International Conference, A Call to Action to
Change Child Welfare. Many of our ideas germinated through listening to various courageous
leaders who are championing transformative change and abolition. With great awe and humility,
we acknowledge the leaders who have been committed to eradicating systems of oppression, often
while navigating their own racialized identities; their personal sacrifices are beyond measure as their
words and actions call for, and inspire the likelihood of, a more just society. With a heavy heart, we
must acknowledge the children, youth and families who have been oppressed within the field of
child welfare, even by some of our own writing team. We are committed to using our power and
privilege to not only dismantle these oppressive structures, but also to build ways of working with
children and families that are helpful, healing and just. We also thank the peer reviewers whose
recommendations strengthened the rigor of the manuscript and whose encouragement made us
wrestle with some solutions to the problems that many academics and advocates before us have
noted for decades. Lastly, we appreciate our colleague, Professor Warren Binford, W.H. Lea for Justice
Endowed Chair in Pediatric Law, Ethics & Policy of the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical
Campus, whose foundational review guided our manuscript development.
Conflicts of Interest: The authors declare no conflict of interest.
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... According to the National Children's Alliance, parents have lost custodial rights because Child Protective Service workers determined "more than 75% of victims were neglected, 16% were physically abused, 9% were sexually abused, and 0.2% are sex trafficked" (2023, p. 1). However, statistics show that grossly disproportionate numbers of children are referred to and remain in the foster care system based on race and ethnicity (ACF, 2023;Merkel-Holguin et al., 2022;Yi et al., 2023). In the 2020-2021 fiscal year, 391,098 children were living in the state-run foster care system, with 222,110 (60%) identifying as a race other than white (U.S. ...
... The National Coalition for Child Welfare Reform works to make these racially and economically-driven disparities known, and to change the law accordingly (2023). Areas of concern that highlight oppressive experiences for foster children and families include the mandated reporting and investigation referral process, removal process, family team, decision-making meetings, treatment planning meetings, and medical or mental health treatment toward reunification or permanency planning (AAP, 2015;Merkel-Holguin et al., 2022;NCCWR, 2023;Raz, 2022). Additionally, many planning meetings resemble more traditional case management meetings that are directed by one or a small group of child welfare system employees in power, further limiting the voice of birth families, foster families, and the child directly (Merkel-Holguin et al, 2022). ...
... Areas of concern that highlight oppressive experiences for foster children and families include the mandated reporting and investigation referral process, removal process, family team, decision-making meetings, treatment planning meetings, and medical or mental health treatment toward reunification or permanency planning (AAP, 2015;Merkel-Holguin et al., 2022;NCCWR, 2023;Raz, 2022). Additionally, many planning meetings resemble more traditional case management meetings that are directed by one or a small group of child welfare system employees in power, further limiting the voice of birth families, foster families, and the child directly (Merkel-Holguin et al, 2022). As summarized by Merkel-Holguin, "what is supposed to be a support system to protect the most vulnerable has morphed into a fortified composite of structures and administrative barriers that are not only dismembering the family network and thus harming children, but also perpetuating discrimination" (2022, p. 1). ...
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This article reviews the literature related to the disproportionate representation of Black, Indigenous, and other People of Culture children raised in the foster care system. We address the role of bias in referrals made to Child Protective Services, and situate that bias in the greater systems of traumatic oppression that both shape referring professionals' perspectives and systematically wear down families who are pressed to the margins of society, increasing their risk for referral. We explore the role of addiction as a common trauma response and etiology implicated in foster care involvement and question how families are inequitably punished for it. Finally, we call on trauma-informed, anti-oppressive somatic practitioners to help break the cycles of addiction, insecure attachment, involvement in the foster care system, and compassion fatigue for those in its trenches.
... Research has shown that as few as 10% of maltreated children come to the attention of child welfare authorities and that most of the children and families who do receive an investigation "service" do not meet the thresholds required for statutory service interventions, such as out-of-home care (Gilbert et al., 2012a & b;Parton, 2019). Serious questions have been raised about who is "served" by the established and often stigmatizing and punitive protective systems that utilize a forensic intervention model based upon reporting, investigation, and removal (Fong, 2020;Merkel-Holguin et al., 2022;Parton, 2020;Slack & Berger, 2020) that have little if any capacity to address key determinants of child maltreatment. ...
... What is clear is that although the application of predictive risk modeling has potential benefits for earlier identification of high-risk children and families, it is nonetheless not without problematic aspects including the difficulties in undertaking matching of cases, as well as a host of ethical issues such as transparency of the research processes, informed consent, and the replication of existing system biases. Some authors have identified the policy and practice frameworks within closed child protection systems as oppressive for particular social and ethnic groups, and therefore unethical (Braithwaite, 2021;Fong, 2020;Keddell, 2015;Lonne et al., 2016;Merkel-Holguin et al., 2022;Roberts, 2022). It is little wonder then that the use of predictive models in these systems would be seen by some as deeply concerning and potentially unjust. ...
... Yet, public health approaches to the prevention of child abuse and neglect rely upon the public having implicit faith in the agencies that operationalize the early intervention programs and the preventive strategies, including the information and messaging used. The key risk here is that there has long been considerable public, media, and political concern about child welfare agencies-particularly concerning scandals and tragedies (Lonne & Parton, 2014), not to mention the ethics of practice, particularly the use of state authority and power over relatively powerless citizens (Braithwaite, 2021;Lonne et al., 2016;Merkel-Holguin et al., 2022;Roberts, 2022). When most people hear the term "child welfare," they immediately think of child protection workers, and this involves such authority. ...
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Critics are raising serious questions about who is “served” by statutory child protection systems if they utilize an intervention model based on reporting, investigation, and removal. Public health approaches present an innovative alternative, but how to get the right support and interventions to the right people at the right time remains challenging. The power of predictive analytics and big data is seductive, yet the risks of bolting on such tools to existing statutory services may serve only to reify or increase inequity and exclusion if they are used to target “vulnerable” children and families for interventions. The use of such new techniques within the framework of statutory child protection services may be like putting new wine into old wineskins. In keeping with a public health approach, the focus, in keeping with a public health approach, should be on the use of population-based data to deliver interventions of variable intensity, aimed at reducing the exposure of the population to risk factors for each of the forms of child abuse and neglect. The use of integrated systems of administrative data with associated sophisticated predictive analytics offers a panoptic view of the causes, complex interactions, consequences, and complications of child maltreatment and our responses to deal with it. Data linkage and predictive analytics have an important and useful role to play in public health approaches to child maltreatment and service delivery but require us to be mindful of amplifying increasing existing inequalities and not making matters worse for those we are trying to assist.
... Different paradigms for decision-making, such as family group conferencing or decision-making, could improve the involvement of parents and children in decision-making and could potentially contribute to minimizing disparities in decision-making (Allan et al., 2021;Merkel-Holguin et al., 2022). Family group conferencing or decision-making relies on empowering families and implies that child protection professionals decide in collaboration with families about the support that is needed. ...
... A core belief of family group conferencing or decision-making is that child protection decisions are most beneficial if they are developed by families themselves. Family group conferencing was developed in New Zealand with the goal to end colonization and discrimination of Māori populations, who were disproportionately targeted by child protection institutions and was based on the values and tradition of the Māori people (Allan et al., 2021;Merkel-Holguin et al., 2022). Thus, paradigms of family group decision-making have the potential to increase the involvement of all family members and may contribute to diminishing disparities. ...
Professionals who are working in the field of child protection make decisions about children and their families on a daily basis. These decisions range from involving family members to deciding what type of child protection interventions seem needed. Consistency in these decisions, implying that cases with similar case facts result in similar decisions, is important. However, previous studies have shown that these decisions are not always consistent and that racial, ethnic, migrant, and gender disparities seem to occur. In this PhD thesis, Floor Middel investigated racial, ethnic, migrant, and gender disparities in decision-making processes. A quantitative case file study representing over 1,200 child protection investigations showed that migrant and gender disparities seem to occur regarding the involvement of family members. Professionals seem to have more contacts with mothers and girls during child protection investigations. Within the Dutch context, professionals contact migrant parents less frequently. Further, racial/ethnic/migrant and gender disparities seem to occur in decision-making. The decision to refer a case to continuing services seems more likely when a mother or migrant father seems to be the perpetrator of maltreatment. In an experimental vignette study, Middel aimed to investigate whether stereotypes that professionals form about parents can explain disparities. While this study provided evidence for racial/ethnic and gender disparities, it did not confirm that stereotypes result in disparities. However, the study showed that perceptions of morality that professionals form about parents have a distinct impact on decision-making processes.
... For example, a recent estimate from Child Trends suggests that combined spending (i.e., federal, state, local) on child welfare in state fiscal year 2018 was approximately $30 billion (Rosinsky et al., 2021). Some have argued that child protection response can exacerbate instead of improve family circumstances (see Merkel-Holguin et al., 2022). ...
... Current child welfare data suggests that 61% of substantiated cases are a result of child neglect (USDHHS, 2021), arguably a population of families who could benefit from concrete and economic supports (e.g., housing vouchers, tax credits, cash transfers) to avoid child welfare entry. Research shows that not only are outcomes associated with child welfare involvement poor (Merkel-Holguin et al., 2022), but that child welfare intervention disproportionately affects communities of color (Kim et al., 2018). Numerous calls for system reform have been made yet few efforts have resulted in re-design of the child welfare system. ...
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Thriving children require safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments. When caregivers have the resources and support they need, at the appropriate time, and in culturally meaningful ways, they can structure environments and experiences for their children that optimize development. However, all too many caregivers and children experience trauma and adversity that consistently threaten such environments. The USA currently lacks a universal system of care and support for children and families leaving the child welfare system as the only option for many families to get help. This forces child welfare agencies to address problems and issues they are ill-equipped to address. In this paper, we review how a new national effort in the USA, Thriving Families, Safer Children is integrating the core components of a public health framework to create a child and family well-being system across the country. Case study examples are provided from 4 Thriving Families, Safer Children sites. Thriving Families, Safer Children sites are utilizing the core components of a public health framework to address social and structural determinants of health including systemic racism, with a strong focus on changing systems and contexts, through participatory methods of engaging those with lived expertise, to ensure the service context where families can get what they need, when they need it, with an emphasis on promoting race equity. Efforts to transform child welfare through the Thriving Families, Safer Children movement are aligned with the core components of a public health framework.
... Our systems of care to support underrepresented people, families, and communities are broken, and the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the vast disparities including related to illness and death based on race, income, and living environment (Maness et al., 2021). Despite three decades of child welfare reform efforts, these disproportionalities in the US child welfare system have resulted in structures of oppression in the form of practices, policies, laws, and regulations (Merkel-Holguin, et al., 2022). There remains a lack of common consensus regarding how best to balance the role of child welfare with community services. ...
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This paper provides a reflection on the evolution of child maltreatment systems and research across the globe during the time since the establishment of the Kempe Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect (Kempe Center) over 50 years ago. While research has demonstrated that children who are victims of maltreatment have poorer outcomes than their peers, it is also clear that the child welfare workforce faces workforce challenges, and the system established 50 years ago is not the same as it is today. Efforts to move this field of study forward in a changing world rely upon the understanding of child abuse and neglect in the broader culture of our world, including disentangling poverty and social structures from neglect, supporting underrepresented people and communities, and identifying how best to balance the role of child welfare with community services. The Kempe Center’s continued commitment to a multidisciplinary approach to understanding, preventing, and treating child maltreatment, while challenging professional and social reticence to address complex contributing issues and the impact of historical actions, is at the core of its work looking forward to the next 50 years. The continued focus of centering research as a critical component in moving the field forward in just and equitable ways is demonstrated in this sampling of current efforts to support better outcomes for children and families.
... Mandatory reporting 1 has been recognized as a structure of oppression, especially for Black and Indigenous populations. 9 Mandated reporters may fear that they will be sued for not reporting suspected child abuse, as some states allow such tort claims. 10 This fear of liability places tremendous pressure on mandated reporters and may increase the chances that a report is made when it is not necessary. ...
Separation of children from their parents is one possible traumatizing consequence of a mandated report, which is not to be taken lightly. This commentary on a case considers how racism and poverty should influence clinicians' construal of their duties as mandatory reporters of abuse and offers recommendations about how to respond in similarly difficult cases.
... Evidence of their intrusiveness lies in the procedures followed: mandatory reporting, investigations and substantiation of abuse or neglect, state-held records on children and their families, restricted access to information and decision-making about the family by experts. Merkel-Holguin et al. (2022) describe these as oppressive structures. The impact deepens when child protection authorities use these same structures to respond to neglect-not only abuse (Lonne et al., 2013), and their focus extends beyond present harm to future harm. ...
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Child protection reform has been difficult, despite evidence that practice should be more child-centred, respectful and responsively inclusive of family and communities. An Australian survey of 387 third parties working with statutory child protection authorities revealed widespread support for reform, but significant opposition to child protection authorities. Only police aligned themselves with child protection authorities. Welfare and family workers were most likely to have defiant postures of resistance and disengagement and to criticize child protection authorities for their bureaucratic ritualism, poor accountability, low trustworthiness and social exclusion. Lawyers and special service providers shared some of these criticisms, while health and educational professionals remained neutral. System reform is likely to grind to a halt when essential third parties are adopting oppositional positions. Principle-led communities of practice that are multidisciplinary and community-inclusive may offer the best hope for cutting through reform gridlock and broadening and deepening capabilities.
... While poverty contributes to racial disparities, which are heavily rooted in U.S. historical and structural policies and practices (Feely & Bosk, 2021), we contend that racial disparities in CPS cannot be fully understood or addressed without recognizing that the unequal policies and practices that perpetuate structural racism and poverty are influenced by people's implicit (and explicit) racial biases. Several examples of how social workers implement laws, policies, and practices to create oppressive structures in CPS have been recently highlighted (Merkel-Holguin et al., 2022). For example, Cancian and colleagues (2017) found that policy changes in one state that made some families pay for their child's foster care placement resulted in longer foster care stays. ...
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We are thankful for the opportunity to respond to Reddy, Williams-Isom, and Putnam-Hornstein's review of anti-bias trainings as a solution to racial disparities in child protection systems (CPS). As researchers debate the role of racial bias in CPS (Barth et al., 2021; Dettlaff et al., 2021), this article raises important concerns about the effectiveness of individual-level, anti-bias trainings to address systems-driven disparities. Yet, we believe the conclusion to abandon anti-bias trainings altogether may be premature given: (1) current evidence that certain anti-bias trainings can change behavior; (2) problems in measuring racial bias in CPS, and (3) the role of individuals with bias in perpetuating structural racism and poverty, which drive racial disparities.
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The family regulation system identifies families through the use of widespread, cross-system surveillance for the purported purpose of keeping children safe. But the system does not surveil all families equally, leading to the disproportionate impact of family regulation on Black, Brown, and Native families, and fails to protect while causing more harm to children and communities of color. We examine how institutions and professionals that are meant to provide necessary services to the community—medical providers, social services agencies, the police, and schools—act as tentacles of surveillance, entrapping families in the family regulation system. We argue that engineering service and community providers as surveillance agents perpetuates inequality and leads to unnecessary family separation and trauma, and that genuine support for families can only thrive outside of the family regulation system and its surveillance tentacles.
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ABSTRACT. Virtually all studies of policy diffusion are based on statutory enactments by state legislatures. But a substantial number of medicalized marijuana laws were initiated through citizen initiatives and ratified by referenda (I&R). This case study suggests that the diffusion of laws adopted by I&R requires two modifications to the conventional model of policy diffusion. First, early policy adoptions must occur through direct democracy so that horizontal diffusion results when those past adoptions by the I&R process lead to future adoptions. Second, the necessity of bypassing institutions of representative government must be operationalized as an interaction between the availability of direct democracy and the precise political variable that blocks legislative enactments.
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From its inception, child protection policy has been infused with domination, and over the long arc of history has been accompanied by the spread of institutional oppression. A case study of Australian child protection policy and practice illustrates how Iris Marion Young’s (1992) five faces of oppression ((a) exploitation, (b) marginalization, (c) cultural imperialism, (d) powerlessness, and (e) violence) have pervaded the child protection system across time. Further, a secondary analysis of data from the Capacity Building Projects (2008–13) shows how oppression silences families, carers, community workers, and government child protection workers. Informal care networks, restorative justice, and responsive regulation enable silenced voices to be heard but remain at the fringes of child protection practice. Their potential will be reached only with a whole-of-child-protection regulatory refit in which open networks of dialogue are prioritized over networks of oppressive control.
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Social work is a mostly discursive practice, comprised of the verbal and written interactions between service users, social workers, social work managers and supervisors and numerous external agencies. The words used to describe service users and service delivery are therefore important. These words change over time, and new words come into use. With the introduction of New Public Management, new concepts and ideas were introduced to social work service delivery and practice and new words became embedded in the social work lexicon. One of the new words that emerge in both the authors’ research with social work agencies is ‘transparency’. In this article, a critical thematic analysis of the meanings of transparency as it is used in recent social work research literature and commentary is presented. Transparency is explored in relation to how it is used, when it is used, by whom and in relation to what (and who), from the macro-level of social work agencies and governments to the micro-level of individuals as practitioners and service users. In problematising transparency, a rationale for future research is proposed about what transparency means, and could mean, in the context of social services provision and, in particular, for service users.
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The challenges associated with determining causes of fatal child maltreatment have been documented by multiple professional fields and by the US government. This study explored these challenges, as well as the relative lethality of determinations of general neglect, medical neglect and physical abuse. Existing sources of information were used for this study: (1) data from the US National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) data set extracted from annual Child Maltreatment reports published by the US Department of Health and Human Services; and (2) information published in recent state‐level child death review team (CDRT) reports. Results from the NCANDS data set indicated that more children died from general neglect (x̅ = 70.9%) than abuse (x̅ = 44.8%) or medical neglect (x̅ = 8.2%). Children who experienced medical neglect died at the highest rate (6.82 per 1000 medical neglect victims), making it the most lethal, followed by physical abuse and general neglect. The findings from CDRT reports were inconsistent, with some states indicating that more children died from abuse than neglect, which is in direct contrast to national statistics. The inconsistent and confusing use of language and constructs from CDRTs has important implications for multiple child‐serving fields. Key Practitioner Messages • Professional child‐serving fields struggle with making accurate determinations of abuse or neglect‐related fatalities. • Most child maltreatment fatalities are related to neglect. In terms of lethality, medical neglect appears to be most lethal, followed by physical abuse, and then general neglect. • US‐state CDRT reports are not consistent in their use of terms and confuse constructs such as ‘neglect’ and ‘accident’. This makes it challenging to use their reviews as reliable sources of information. • We recommend the adoption of consistency in the use and understanding of terms related to child maltreatment deaths, at a minimum across all jurisdictions in the USA, if not across all nations.
In the early 1970s, a new wave of public service announcements urged parents to “help end an American tradition” of child abuse. The message, relayed repeatedly over television and radio, urged abusive parents to seek help. Support groups for parents, including Parents Anonymous, proliferated across the country to deal with the seemingly burgeoning crisis. At the same time, an ever-increasing number of abused children were reported to child welfare agencies, due in part to an expansion of mandatory reporting laws and the creation of reporting hotlines across the nation. Here, Mical Raz examines this history of child abuse policy and charts how it changed since the late 1960s, specifically taking into account the frequency with which agencies removed African American children from their homes and placed them in foster care. Highlighting the rise of Parents Anonymous and connecting their activism to the sexual abuse moral panic that swept the country in the 1980s, Raz argues that these panics and policies—as well as biased viewpoints regarding race, class, and gender—played a powerful role shaping perceptions of child abuse. These perceptions were often directly at odds with the available data and disproportionately targeted poor African American families above others.
Nearly 750 000 children are currently in foster care in the United States. Recent trends in foster care include reliance on extended family members to care for children in kinship care placements, increased efforts to reduce the length of placement, acceleration of termination of parental rights proceedings, and emphasis on adoption. It is not clear what impact welfare reform may have on the number of children who may require foster care placement. Although most children enter foster care with medical, mental health, or developmental problems, many do not receive adequate or appropriate care while in placement. Psychological and emotional problems, in particular, may worsen rather than improve. Multiple barriers to adequate health care for this population exist. Health care practitioners can help to improve the health and well-being of children in foster care by performing timely and thorough admission evaluations, providing continuity of care, and playing an active advocacy role. Potential areas for health services research include study of the impact of different models of health care delivery, the role of a medical home in providing continuity of care, the perception of the foster care experience by the child, children's adjustment to foster care, and foster parent education on health outcomes.
The overrepresentation of Black children in child protection services has been reported continuously in western societies, but remains poorly understood. This systematic review's objective was: 1) to confirm or refute the existence of racial disparities and the overrepresentation of Black youth in child protection systems in countries where Black communities constitute a minority; 2) to analyze the risk and protective factors associated with these observations. Our study confirmed the overrepresentation of Black children and their disproportionate representation across stages of involvement with child welfare services. Two categories of factors: sociodemographic (gender, age, race and socioeconomic status) and racial discrimination (associated with referrals, investigations and caregivers), were identified as contributing to these disparities. Implications for practice and policy are discussed.
Community workers provide critical support services to parents and families with children who may be placed in out-of-home care by child protection authorities. Drawing on in-depth interviews with fifteen community workers, who represent nine agencies assisting families with child protection issues in a small jurisdiction in Australia, we show how the stigma attached to ‘bad’ parents is passed on to the community workers who are supporting them. The ‘stigma by association’ directed at community workers by child protection authorities means they are stereotyped negatively, undermined professionally and socially excluded. In spite of such stigmatic treatment, community workers remained committed to their professional role. Although workers were frustrated and disappointed in the treatment they received, there was no open acknowledgment of stigma-induced poor mental health. The results are interpreted within a broader social context where child protection authorities are being constantly reviewed and criticized in Australia. The support that community workers give to each other as frontline defenders of families against a powerful and publicly criticized government authority may allow community workers to construe themselves as heroes rather than villains in this highly adversarial environment. The costs play out at the institutional level, however, because reduced trust limits opportunities for genuine collaboration between government and community organizations.