my classroom training. Still, the culture I experienced in those eight years as both a field investigator, medical investigator, and supervisor laid the foundation on which my career has been built. But as I’ve learned and personally retraced my experiences in a system that dehumanizes both families and its workforce, I realized I could no longer perpetuate the broken foundation any longer. I had to dedicate myself to empowering and strengthening families. I’ve had to break apart what I’ve learned inside my mind and commit to building something new. Something fundamentally different and strong. Something deeply rooted in humanity. Not the rescue-mentality kind of help, but the support that truly allows families to help themselves. Not only will I outline below my lessons learned, but I will show specific examples of how a long-standing agency can learn and chart a new course in deep alignment with our mission, vision, and values. Whether we work in the public or private sector, we can all do something to continue advancing a new way of working with families. 1. Families are their own experts. I now realize families are their own experts. Most times, they know exactly what they need to safely care for their children. But often, they simply don’t have the resources or supports they need to do so. Through my learning, I’m beginning to understand the importance of elevating the voices of those with lived experience in the system. In 2021, the corporate board of Bethany Christian Services, where I get to serve as senior vice president of domestic programs, blessed our new strategic vision. Within this new vision, we proclaimed our bold commitment to elevating the diverse voices of the children, youth, and families we serve. We are doing this by building intentional infrastructure across our 30-state network to elevate family voices. We are offering honorariums to those with lived experience who speak into our work as we deconstruct the old ways of working and build new ways alongside families. We are also centering youth, family, and community voices to identify what families
need to keep their children safe, their families intact, and their well-being supported. When we can safely prevent kids from entering foster care by investing in their families, we realize children and families can stay safe, healthy, and whole. Due to this belief, our goal over the next five years is to ensure at least 40 percent of our family support, strengthening, and preservation programs are co-built with communities across our network. How can you elevate the voices of the youth, families, and communities you are serving, especially when you may not agree with what they have to say? 2. Poverty should never be conflated with neglect. While my family moved from a trailer park to the suburbs when I was in fourth grade, my parents grew up very poor in the deep South, my mom one of six children and my dad one of eight. At times, my grandparents did not eat to ensure their kids had food in their bellies. I am only one generation away from poverty, yet I never understood the realities people who grow up in generational poverty face every day. Through years of life experience, I have now learned how differently I experience institutions and systems in my community versus how people in poverty experience them. The chasm is wide. I recently heard Aysha E. Schomburg, the associate commissioner of the Federal Children’s Bureau in the Administration on Children, Youth, and Families, share her priorities with national stakeholders. Her first call to action was for states to revisit their legal definitions of neglect. This is key, because I have now learned most families truly want to care for their children’s needs but lack the resources or support to do so. I also now know that other avenues of support are possible. Through Bethany’s Safe Families for Children program, we are leveraging volunteers through churches to surround families in times of crisis, providing those critical concrete social supports. We are beginning to measure the notable increase in families’ Protective Factors, which we know increases child safety and well- being. Bethany remains committed to finding new and innovative ways for the global church
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to humbly come alongside families without judgment or a spirit of saviorism, so these families can stay together. How can we all rethink what constitutes neglect? How can we explore other supports available in our communities that will keep kids safe versus jumping straight to investigations While I was taught to be wary of relatives earlier in my career, I now know that with the right supports, relatives can do it! Kinship care (being placed with relatives and close family friends) has many positive outcomes for children involved in child welfare. Kinship care helps to preserve cultural and family and potential removals? 3. Relatives can do it.
bonds, promotes child and parent wellbeing, promotes permanency, minimizes trauma, and maintains sibling bonds long-term. 4 In 2021, Bethany conducted listening sessions with relative caregivers across the nation. Many of them detailed the complexities of working with the system to care for children in their families. Whether grandparent, aunt, uncle, cousin, or even fictive kin, many relatives end up taking a child in without the advanced planning and training that unrelated foster parents have. With many child protection systems remaining overwhelmed, states must invest resources in getting kids quickly placed ______________ 4 https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/permanency/ relatives/impact/
64 | FIJ Quarterly | Fall 2022
FIJ Quarterly | Fall 2022 | 65
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