Reforms to the Kansas child welfare system should focus on keeping families together

Ariel Lambert, pictured in the front left, with her siblings and mother. (Submitted)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Once a child of the welfare system, Ariel Lambert is a student in the communication master’s program at Kansas State University.

My birth mother struggled with addiction and at the age of 3, I was removed from my home due to neglect, placed in foster care and moved between seven different homes in the span of two years.

Removal from my birth family placed me in situations that could have been avoided. I became a victim of sexual, psychological and physical abuse.

After her attempts toward sobriety failed, my birth mother terminated her rights as a guardian to my sisters and myself. Fortunately I was adopted, but my sisters aged out of foster care. Had the system’s goal been family preservation, my sisters and I could have avoided a level of unnecessary trauma that affects us to this day.

With nearly 424,000 children in foster care in the United States, about 7,000 of which are in the Kansas foster care system, we need to change the system and focus on family preservation efforts. A refocus on family preservation will lessen the trauma children experience, decrease racial bias and allow for the redirection of resources to aid and support families in need.

The child welfare system in the United States has three longstanding goals: to promote child wellbeing, achieve permanency and strengthen families. One way to meet these goals is to remove the child from abuse and neglect. However, multiple studies show that the removal process is traumatic for children.

While the current system may be well-intentioned, we must not ignore the issues that removal produces.

In addition to avoidable trauma, the practice of removal unjustly targets children on the margins, including African Americans, Latinx people and American Indians. As one example, African American children, who make up only 14% of the U.S. population, compose 23% of the U.S. foster care population. This represents the largest racial and ethnic group in foster care.

So, why, given evidence that removal causes harm, do child welfare agencies continue to rely on such policies? In short, too many decision-makers in the child welfare system still don’t seem to understand the impact removal has on the children they are trying to protect.

This lack of understanding, combined with established policies and practices, makes it hard to untangle instances of legitimate abuse from cases of negligence, racism or poverty. Many children, rather than being saved from abusive situations, are taken from homes because their families do not have the funds or means of providing the child with basic living resources (i.e. food, healthcare, clothing). If we maintain this policy and belief that removal equals safety, we will continue to subject children to unnecessary and traumatic circumstances, particularly children from less privileged communities.

It should be noted that preservation is not always the right approach to child safety and is not a one-size-fits-all solution. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services stipulates that when a child must be removed due to severe abuse or neglect, the hope is to keep out-of-home care as short as possible and strive to reunify the family and child.

Nevertheless, the majority of evidence points to the harm of removal and I see many benefits to preservation. Congress has already implemented several programs to provide services to families in need.

In Kansas, Gov. Laura Kelly has increased benefit assistance in the COVID-19 pandemic, discussed an increase of funding for social workers and preservation, and created a special response team to investigate runaway foster youths and work toward decreasing youths who enter foster care. In addition, Kelly would consolidate all state departments into one agency, which she says will allow the state to focus on preservation. This push for preservation would help eliminate the areas where there is corruption, decrease missing children, and phase out the racial bias toward less privileged communities.

These are good steps in the right direction, but these children should not, and we must not, accept “good enough.”

My experience in foster care gives me the advantage of seeing both sides of the system and is why I want to see fundamental system reform. We should be aware of the pros and cons to preservation and remember that adjustments can be made as we go. But the system we have right now is broken. If we do nothing, then nothing changes. To discontinue the harm that the child welfare system produces, we need to start championing our local welfare programs, supporting our neighbors in need and advocating to keep families together.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.