Better policies, professional development needed to support families of color involved with child welfare system

Three Erikson experts explain how a lack of integrated efforts among agencies and institutions is providing a ‘fragmented experience’ for many families and young children.

A lack of synergy between child welfare and other early childhood systems, combined with numerous federal and state policies that impact communities of color, is having disastrous effects on many children and families, particularly African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans, throughout the country.

That was the message three members of the Erikson Institute community delivered in a presentation titled “Shattered Bonds: Reweaving the Fabric of Black Family Support in Child Welfare,” which they gave at the National Black Child Development Institute’s 46th Annual Conference in Orlando.

The presentation was given by Professor Tonya Bibbs, Ph.D., ’14; Andria Goss, M.S. ’02, director of Erikson’s Early Childhood Project with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS); and Professor Emerita Aisha Ray, M.Ed. ’72, Ph.D.

“The research clearly shows that a disproportionate number of children, especially from birth to age 3, in the welfare system are children of color,” said Dr. Ray. “Too often the systems that are intended to support and strengthen families — including child welfare, child care, and schools — engage in policies and practices that end up weakening family ties. This is especially problematic when children are very young.”

For example, she said, child neglect is a common reason for black families to become involved with the child welfare system in Illinois. However, what is often considered neglect can be a symptom of deeper issues affecting families, namely concentrated poverty in under-resourced communities. Many low-income, working parents or parents with marginal attachments to the workforce are given a “devil’s choice” between missing work and working multiple jobs to pay for child care they cannot afford, or entrusting their child’s care to older siblings. The absence of comprehensive family support policies and programs leaves many economically disadvantaged black families with difficult choices that can bring them to the attention of child welfare agencies.

“Sometimes, because the social safety nets for families have been decimated, the result is more families at risk,” Dr. Ray said.

Insufficient professional development opportunities also limit the ability for members of the workforce to help young children involved with the child welfare system thrive, Dr. Bibbs added. Families and young children benefit when case managers have the knowledge to make referrals for services such as quality child care and psychosocial intervention that is developmentally appropriate and addresses the needs of children who have experienced trauma and other adverse events. In addition, educators need knowledge that would enable them to best support children in their classrooms who are involved with the child welfare system.

“When all of these systems are not integrated with one another, families and children have fragmented experiences,” said Dr. Bibbs, co-principle investigator on a study examining the capacity of the Illinois DCFS to work with infants, toddlers, and families. “We have some knowledge of the types of partnership needed across systems, especially early childhood education and child welfare. Our goal is to contribute to research-based policy to support ongoing best practice.”

Erikson’s Early Childhood Project with the Illinois DCFS serves as an example of a partnership that is infusing deep knowledge of child development into the child welfare system, and it could be a model for other states, Goss said.

The project, established in 1998, helps meet the developmental and mental health needs of children from birth to age 5 who are in DCFS care or being closely monitored by the child welfare system through direct services and public policy influence. Early childhood specialists based at Erikson and in DCFS offices across Illinois take a relationship-based approach to their work providing assessments, trainings, and referrals to children and families.

“By sharing information about our Early Childhood Project, we want professionals to consider what is in the best interest of young children in the child welfare system, especially those who have lived through traumatic experiences,” Goss said. “We want them to think about children’s developmental needs and their relationships.”

The conference and the “Shattered Bonds” presentation drew professionals from across the country who work with children and families in a range of settings, including schools, child welfare, and child care. With a multidisciplinary audience, the Erikson presenters sought to help professionals in different fields understand how their work is connected.

“We bring an interdisciplinary, integrated perspective to this conversation,” Dr. Bibbs said.