To dramatically improve the child welfare system, you need parents to challenge the entrenched power of the bureaucracy.

David Tobis

As the keynote speaker at the Family Inclusion Network South East Queensland’s Global Day of Parents Forum on Tuesday, 4th June, sociologist David Tobis told the story of how parents worked with allies in New York City for over twenty years to bring about dramatic change to the child protection system. The story began in 1990 when David’s friend inherited money that she needed to give away. After considering what they’d like to achieve, they created the Child Welfare Fund. They spent about $1 million per annum over 18 years, a fairly small investment that allowed for overwhelming social and economic gain. The Fund administered collaborations between governments, service providers, parents and foundations. David was the Executive Director of the Child Welfare Fund from 1992 to 2009. In 2002 he also founded the Fund for Social Change and remained its Executive Director until 2012.

David noted that for the past thirty years he has worked to reform child welfare in the United States. Whilst the journey was not without its setbacks, there are many lessons learned that he’s able to share with other jurisdictions.

The Child Welfare Fund’s approach was to provide grants to help children, families and others, to bring about changes to a child protection system that denied parents their rights. One of their main activities was creating and supporting programs that gave a voice and power to parents.

There are fifty states in America. Each state has different laws, policies and funding. In New York, child protection is governed by the Administration for Children’s Services led by a Commissioner. Government does all investigations and contracts non-government organisations for service provision. Half of these organisations are religious agencies.

There were 50,000 children in the New York statutory child protection system in 1994. Today there are around 9,000 children. David was clear that in the 1990s many of the children in care didn’t need to be there but were due to inadequate supports for children living in their homes with their families: “There was no intervention with families until the issues faced were exacerbated.”

Over time the Child Welfare Fund developed a 3-prong strategy to change the system:

  1. They supported the grass roots organising/agency of parents working in collaboration with professionals. The first organisation was the Child Welfare Parents’ Organising Project comprised of half parents and half professionals. David noted that parents in the system were demonised at this time. Parents demonstrated on the streets and at the Commissioner’s house. This group developed the training program for parents to assist them in working within the system to bring about change. “It highlighted the voices of women who were victims of domestic violence – battered by partners, then the legal system. Groups of fathers who felt their children had been removed unfairly also rose up. This changed how people saw parents. They’d been demonised by rare cases of child abuse reported in the newspapers. These didn’t tell the whole story of poverty and a lack of resources to care for their children. They created a publication called Child Welfare Watch that critiqued different aspects of the child welfare system. They brought child welfare workers, commissioners and the writers to the table to work together.”
  2. They helped support a publication called Rise Magazine written by parents telling their stories.
  3. They created awards – every year a dozen parents are recognised with a small grant of $1,000. Awards also go to social workers who go above and beyond their duties.

There were various stages of the reform efforts:

First – For ten years there was significant contention and conflict. Parents continued to be demonised. In the early 2000s, a period of collaborations slowly developed.

Second – Pilot testing of child safety conferences and events with parent advocates. David noted that this appears to be the stage that Queensland is at the moment.

Third – Institutional reforms.

“Hundreds of the parents in New York City, mostly women, mostly African-Americans and Latinos, almost all poor, have worked one-on-one to help other mothers and fathers transform their lives. Moreover, by working with social workers, charitable foundations, lawyers, and like-minded supporters in government and child welfare agencies, they created a paradigm shift in the child welfare system towards assisting families when they were having difficulties rather than removing their children as the first response” said David. Parents’ rights were also protected through adequate legal representation, and parents and young people’s concerns were listened to.

The changes:

  1. The number of children and young people in care decreased dramatically. The figure of 9.000 children has been sustained for 5-6 years.
  2. Whilst previously parents had terrible legal representation and no investigators, parents lost almost every case in court. Now there are three law firms with federal and state funding to provide an interdisciplinary team of lawyers, social workers and a parent advocate* to provide quality legal services to parents. With this team, the length of stay in care has decreased by 4 months. This has led to an average annual saving of $40 million.
  3. Increased support and services for families. Whilst many more services are needed, particularly with regard to support with drug and alcohol issues and mental health, David noted this was a step in the right direction.
  4. Parents now have a voice at all levels of policy and programs.

*A parent advocate is someone who has had a child removed, changed their lives, had their child returned and has then undertaken a 3-month training program around child protection policies and practice, support groups and public speaking. The importance of children remaining with their families is highlighted.

David and his team advocated that parents be employed by child welfare agencies. Subsequently 100% of the parents involved were hired to work in agencies. Parents are paid across the 3 levels of child welfare:

  1. Conference/case level – a parent advocate attends. In 2018 ten thousand conferences were attended by a parent advocate.
  2. Parents employed to work as coaches/guides/mentors to assist the reunification of children with their families.
  3. Policy level – the Parent Advisory Group meets with the Commissioner.

“The main lessons from our experience were that to dramatically improve the child welfare system you needed parents themselves, with powerful and committed allies, to become a countervailing force to the entrenched power of the bureaucracy and care agencies. Parents organising as a collective force pressurised the system to change so they were able to secure the support they needed and access to good legal representation when their children were about to be removed,” stated David. He also noted that some key people played a significant role in shaping policy in the government.

David recognised that the work undertaken was not without its challenges. In 2009 the donor decided she wanted to focus attention on the important work of improving the connection between mothers and their children as well as their mental health and wellbeing. With this change of direction in attributed funds several parent organisations collapsed. Issues such as an adversarial parent leader and several child deaths also led to further slippage within the system. In spite of these factors, the number of children and young people in the statutory system remained low.

An 82% decline in the number of young people in care in New York is an extraordinary statistic. How did this child protection system achieve such significant change? David asserts that the key factor is that parents were involved in pushing the system to change. “Working with allies and commissioners pushed by parents. Progressive commissioners and advocate parents working together to make a difference. There are many, many ways to bring about change,” said David, “But you absolutely need an external force pushing.” He ended his presentation with Margaret Mead’s quote:

Following his presentation, David offered further wisdom in conversation with forum participants:

“The juvenile justice system is fed by the family care system.”

“Removal doesn’t increase the safety of children.”

When asked about the time of reunification needed before adoption, David noted that additional support is needed during this time: “Our system moved towards adoption too quickly. Have a look at the Rise Magazine for more information on reunifications.” He further stated: “Finland doesn’t allow adoption without parental consent. It would be great to see that everywhere. Concurrent planning with adoption and reunification also concerns me. Starting an adoption process (at the same time as a reunification) undermines reunification.”

In responding to a question of how to keep ‘clean’ processes in a child protection system that operates business agencies fearful of funding loss and currently funded for children ‘in care’ with a strong incentive to keeps kids in care, David responded by saying: “Government had the power to choose the best agencies after a comprehensive and lengthy assessment process and various avenues for corrective action. The number of care agencies went from 75 to 30. Those performing poorly were closed down. This took longer than I thought it should have but these are powerful institutions. The rate of abuse in foster care is twice that of the abuse in general population – that helped us close organisations.”

“There is no evidence of increase in harm when children go home more quickly.”

Another consideration was offered during the conversation by Ros Thorpe, Family Inclusion Network, Townsville: “We need to change the language and remove the term intervention in favour of support.” She noted that intervention implies an imposing process rather than one of support that denotes working alongside another.

David Tobis is the author of From Pariahs to Partners: How Parents and Their Allies Changed New York City’s Child Welfare System, published by Oxford Press in 2013.