A New Year and A New Conception of Justice for Children and Families

January 29, 2021

By Kara R. Finck, Esq., Field Center Faculty Director, Practice Professor of Law, Director of Interdisciplinary Child Advocacy Clinic

Traditionally, a blog post at the start of the new year should be replete with hopes, aspirations and resolutions for the year ahead. I should be making predictions about the Biden administration’s plans for family and children, especially in response to the previous administration’s relentless focus on family separation or reflecting on the last-minute passage of pandemic relief for older youth in foster care. Of course, this past year was unlike any other in recent memory, and my attention was drawn away from specific policies and predictions towards larger questions of justice, equality and our common humanity. Writing about the year ahead in isolation from systemic racism, the ongoing pandemic, and political chaos would not only be tone deaf but also a missed opportunity to connect our work as advocates to the larger movements to bring social justice issues to the forefront of our national dialogue and efforts.

In this way, I am reminded of the words of the first National Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman who transfixed the world with her poem “The Hill We Climb” at the inauguration. While her words were undoubtedly intended to reflect the solemnity and significance of a transfer of power after a year marked by unfathomable tragedy, upheaval and injustice, I could not help but reflect on their relevance to our work in the child welfare system. As she wrote,

We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace,
and the norms and notions
of what just is
isn’t always just-ice.

If the past year has brought anything worth ushering into the new year, it is this profound understanding that our fundamentally flawed systems are in need of more than mere policy reform. For many, this comes as a new realization and for others, including parents and children in the child welfare system, this is their lived experience. As a child welfare community, we should be questioning the foundations underlying our roles in family’s lives and radically re-envisioning the mechanisms by which we promote child protection and well-being in our country. We need to move beyond what is permitted simply because it has just been that way and reconceptualize what it means to achieve justice for parents, children and families.

This spring, the Field Center will hold a virtual community symposium focused on the issue of representation for parents in child welfare proceedings. Originally scheduled for March of 2020, the topic is especially resonant after the increased calls and coverage to abolish the child welfare system and confront institutional racism targeting Black families. The topic holds particular significance for me, as it harkens back to my early work starting the Family Defense Practice at The Bronx Defenders and seeing firsthand the devastating impact of family separation. As a new attorney, I was immediately struck by the high rates of removal, lack of due process for parents in abuse and neglect proceedings, and the arbitrary nature of what was determined to be in a child’s best interest. I couldn’t fathom how a parent would navigate a case in Family Court and the requirements imposed by the child welfare agency without access to an interdisciplinary legal team: an attorney who provides a strong defense and hold the agency accountable for following the laws which prioritize children remaining with their parents whenever safe; a social worker and parent advocate who provide an individualized assessment of a client’s strengths and needs, and address the underlying issues which may have brought the family into contact with the child welfare system in the first place.

While the topic is focused on the role of interdisciplinary legal teams for parents in reforming the child welfare and Family Court systems, it introduces broader questions for child welfare advocates. What does it mean to promote family autonomy and integrity in the child welfare system? What role must child advocates and other child serving professionals take to promote children remaining with their families whenever possible? What are other interventions to support families outside of the child protection system? How can we prevent the historical conflation of poverty and neglect and its disparate impact on families of color? My fervent hope is that we spend this new year coming closer to the simple truth that we can’t possibly improve outcomes for children without improving outcomes for their parents as well.

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