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Social Justice and Child Welfare Fundamentals

So before we can tackle how social justice intersects with the child welfare system, let's just lay some foundations for how the system is currently structures and how it came to be this way.

Mary Ellen Wilson, Wikipedia


A governmental child welfare system is based on the beliefs that caretakers have a duty to care for and nurture their children and that there is a baseline standard for doing so. Note that both of these beliefs must be present. If there's only one of the two, then any evaluation or judgment about quality of care will remain on the level of personal opinion. "I do not want to raise my children that way." And so forth.

A third critical belief is that when a caretaker does not meet their duty, the government has an interest in becoming involved - either because the government itself has a duty to ensure that all children receive at least this baseline level of care, because it is in the public interest to intervene, or both.

Rather than approaching from the tack of ensuring minimum standards of care, should we instead focus on making sure as many children are thriving?

The rise of this kind of sentiment in the US arose in the latter half of the 1800s along with the related concepts of domestic abuse and animal abuse. Although there had been previous cases of governmental intervention and judges were empowered with broad jurisdiction to stop abuse, it was from this time that an organized system of child welfare began. The case of Mary Ellen Wilson is often cited as a landmark case in this shift.

Best Interest of the Child or Public Interest

Since then, the US system has always subscribed to the first two foundational beliefs but has vacillated between it's emphasis on either it's duty to children ( and therefore to prioritize the well-being of children ) and it's recognition of the public interest at large.

You might think that the best interest of children and public interest should always align, but that has not always been the case, and the line is somewhat blurred. Take for instance the project of Indian Removal where native American children were aggressively removed and adopted by white families. Of course there was a sentiment of saving children from being raised savages, but it seems clear it was the public interest in eradicating native culture that was prioritized (there is no way to argue that the situations native children found themselves could be explained by a concern for their welfare).

In more modern times, this schism shows up in other ways, including government policies that restrict eligibility for who can be a foster parent based on race, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, or any one of a number of categories.

Social Justice

How do we carry our social justice lens into the child welfare realm just based on the fundamental principles of the modern child welfare system discussed so far? If social justice is the project of working toward liberation for all, what would that look like as applied to ensuring that all children are cared for?

Even just discussing these foundational beliefs of the child welfare system, we can identify areas where deep thought needs to be applied.

For instance, what is the standard of care, how is it chosen, and who gets to interpret it?

Ok, once we answer that, then we have to deal with the question of intervention. Is intervention warranted? By whom? And how?

Even more elemental, are we approaching this all from the wrong perspective? Rather than approaching from the tack of ensuring minimum standards of care, should we instead focus on making sure as many children are thriving?

Food for thought and I hope you'll consider that and bring your ideas to next week's blog post when we talk about how these fundamental ideas are implemented in law and policy.

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