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Parents aren’t the problem; they’re the solution

A fundamental shift in child welfare prioritizes strengthening families and keeping them together.

Q&A with Julie Paine, MSW, LICSW, Senior Director, Domestic Family Strengthening and Preservation Programs

Carol Lee, Senior Editor – Bethany Christian Services

Over the last five years, the number of children in foster care in the U.S. has averaged more than 429,000. That’s nearly 8,600 children per state separated from their families. Although many foster families have generously stepped in to provide temporary care, state agencies still struggle to find enough foster homes for all the children they’re seeking to place in care.

Most people’s perceptions of foster care—and parents whose children are in care—are shaped by entertainment media, which overwhelmingly links foster care to physical or sexual abuse. Of course, every instance of abuse is tragic, but it accounts for a surprisingly small percentage of children who enter care. According to data tracked annually by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, children are nearly six times more likely to enter foster care due to neglect, which is often linked with a parent’s substance use disorder, mental health, incarceration, or homelessness.

In the foster care narrative, parents have long been the villain. But emerging research on foster care assumptions and methodologies is suggesting that prevention efforts that strengthen families and keep them together are more cost effective and produce better outcomes for children.

Julie Paine, senior director of domestic family strengthening and preservation programs at Bethany, sheds light on the growing movement within child welfare to invest in prevention programs that safely keep children out of foster care and with their families.

If parents aren’t the problem, what is the problem?

Many people are facing real challenges that make it harder to parent, including addiction, mental health disorders, domestic violence, trauma, and more. Now add the stress of making ends meet on a low income and having limited access to healthcare, employment, and educational opportunities. And if you live in community where there’s violence and a short supply of safe, affordable housing, you’re going to carry another layer of heaviness and fear.

There’s a wealth of existing research on five protective factors that help children and families thrive, and in 2020, The Center for the Study of Social Policy produced a report on community conditions that strengthen families. These conditions include “equitable access to meet essential needs, social support and connection, racial and social justice, and a shift in the social contract” to include shared community responsibility for child and family well-being.

Too many families are missing support, connection, and a sense of belonging in their communities.

What are common assumptions we need to unlearn about parents in crisis?

There’s an unquestioned assumption that parents whose kids enter foster care are objectively bad people who choose bad things and bad behavior over their children. They must not love their children enough to change, the argument goes, so they don’t deserve to have a role in their child’s life.

In our culture, people who harm children are at the very bottom of the social hierarchy. They are so unquestionably “other” that our instinct is to punish rather than understand them, much less offer to help. But the way we punish parents, separating them from their children, also punishes children by interrupting their sense of belonging in their families. That disconnection is itself damaging to a child’s ability to feel safe. We need to invest in new solutions that support and empower parents to keep their children physically and emotionally safe.

To be clear, I’m not saying it’s OK when parents harm their children. I am saying we rarely view parents through a trauma-informed lens, recognizing their pain-based behavior. Research tells us that our bodies hold onto trauma. It literally creates new pathways in our brains, and the pain of trauma comes out in our behavior. We’re often quicker to blame parents—labeling them as lazy, bad decision makers, mean, evil—than to recognize their behaviors may stem from the trauma they’re trying to cope with. Healing from trauma’s effects takes a lot of intentional work and the presence of supportive people. Taking their children away compounds parents’ trauma while doing nothing to solve their actual problems.

Two things are true here: Parents need to be responsible for their actions, and they need support. It’s not one or the other. All parents need hope, access to essential supports, and to be recognized for their strengths and the vital role they play in their children’s lives. Our posture toward parents matters a lot, for them and for their children.

Safety seems to be at the heart of this conversation. Can you say more about that?

The focus of foster care has largely been keeping children physically safe. But the way we do that overlooks a child’s need for psychological safety, which is deeply affected when children are removed from their homes and separated from their families. We need to think about safety in a more holistic way.

Dr. Amelia Franck Meyer, founder of Alia Innovations, summarizes psychological safety as the concept of belonging. In her widely viewed TED Talk, she emphasizes how critical it is to every person’s health and well-being to know we belong, to know we are safe. But while trying to protect children from harm, removing children from their families into foster care introduces a different kind of long-term harm.

Beyond physical safety, the child welfare system needs to focus on well-being, of both children and families. We need to look upstream and invest in prevention opportunities that keep family issues from becoming problems, and problems from becoming crises that compromise anyone’s safety.

So is foster care with another family ever appropriate?

If a child cannot be kept safe with their family—even with intensive, home-based services like Homebuilders that help parents keep their children safe—then foster care is the next step, with the goal of reunification. Approaching foster care in a different way can make a big difference.

When children are in foster care, agencies and foster parents should make every effort to strengthen and nurture the child’s relationship with their parents. Children are best served when parents and foster parents connect, share information, and work together to meet the child’s needs. This is a growing, research-supported concept (often called shared parenting) that keeps the child connected to their family and prepares both for reunification.

At Bethany, we see the primary role of our foster parents, Safe Families host parents, and support volunteers—anyone who comes alongside a family in crisis—as helping to strengthen and preserve that family. We recognize that all families, even those experiencing dysfunction, have strengths they can call on and develop. And we acknowledge that most families need a village of support when raising children, including social, emotional, and financial support. Parenting is tough in the best of circumstances. We want to normalize rather than stigmatize the truth that most people need help, and it’s OK to ask for it.

How significant is this shift from child-centered intervention toward family-centered intervention?

It’s a big shift, and it’s grounded in research—both on how to buffer children from trauma and how to heal from trauma. We know so much more today about trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), and we understand that the best way to protect children is to provide services that care for children and their parents. There’s growing research on the tangible cost of exposure to ACE’s and leaving childhood trauma untreated; costs in individual health, learning and education, and community safety.

There’s a ripple effect in how we work to prevent and respond (or not) to family trauma. Investment in prevention—strengthening and supporting families—goes a long way in reducing the many costs of out-of-home placement. Investing in the well-being of children and parents helps families and communities thrive, creating more safety and stability for all.

This idea has been building momentum over the last ten years, and national conferences of child abuse prevention advocates and social services agencies have focused not just on reforming the child welfare system but on fundamentally disrupting and changing it.

The Family First Act, passed in 2018, reinforced this shift by designing policy to support it. For years, federal funding was available only for adoption and foster care services for children. But after years of advocacy for child welfare reform, the Family First Act prioritized family preservation as a way to care for children. States are now incentivized and held accountable for interventions that keep families together.