Fixing Kansas’ child welfare system requires the voices of families ‘closest to the pain’

September 13, 2023 3:33 am
DCF admin sign in front of building

Repairing the state's child welfare system will take direct input from those with lived experience, writes Tara Wallace. (Sam Bailey/Kansas Reflector)

“Those closest to the pain should be closest to the power.”

This quote from U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts is the impetus to solving many of the problems faced by Kansans. She meant that policies and laws should be filtered through the experiences of those most affected by them. If they are not capable of being fully present, their voices should be represented in the purest form so their experiences can be validated.

In Kansas, the Special Committee on Restricted Driving Privileges is considering a proposal related to restricting, revoking or suspending drivers’ licenses for unpaid tickets and fines. The cumulative effect of current policies and laws harms those living in poverty. They can ill afford to lose driving privileges because they are a lifeline for the entire household. Simply put, it is counterproductive to take away the means of earning a living and then penalize individuals for not being able to pay their fines.

Changing these laws to consider factors such as access to alternate methods of transportation and proximity to resources that meet basic needs makes a difference. Individuals are then positioned to recover from the consequences of breaking the law without additional hardship. Both legislative and non-legislative voices recognize the need for change and are putting in work toward this effort. Constituents have spoken and their voices have been heard loud and clear.

What this group is addressing mirrors the experience of families reported to child protective services.

Families are often connected to CPS due to a lack of adequate resources to address their needs. Quite often, the reasons for contact pale in comparison to the harm experienced by families the moment the decision is finalized. Simply put, it is counterproductive to impose unnecessary tasks when families are in crisis and the tasks have nothing to do with the reason for their being referred.

Many families turn to child welfare when they have exhausted all options, and issues of safety and survival become their priority. The expectation is the family will work with child welfare to address the intensive needs of a child, while maintaining their connection following a complicated and scary decision. What they do not expect is to have their abilities as parents questioned, or threats to lose other children to the child welfare system.

But it can and does happen, often. Kansas families are powerless to stop it.

Families are forced to use limited resources to meet requirements that have nothing to do with their child’s placement, and everything to do with assumptions about their response to the unique challenges of each situation.

– Tara Wallace

The adage “where there’s smoke there’s fire” should not apply to any circumstance in child welfare. That is not to say CPS reports should not be investigated. A reasonable effort should be made to determine the circumstances leading to such a report. However, imposing drug tests, anger management, budgeting, parenting classes, and psychiatric evaluations in every situation is not only unjustified, it places an unnecessary burden on families already at a deficit physically, mentally, emotionally and financially.

Families are forced to use limited resources to meet requirements that have nothing to do with their child’s placement, and everything to do with assumptions about their response to the unique challenges of each situation. The family’s inability to meet these requirements is perceived as refusal or unwillingness to be responsible, further perpetuating myths commonly associated with families living in poverty. The tasks are punitive, assumptive, and detrimental to the stability of families teetering on the brink of survival.

There are no laws, policies or regulations in Kansas requiring families to complete this laundry list of tasks.

What’s more, such tasks do nothing to address the issue facing families. They only adds to the struggles. In fact, research indicates child welfare, with its coercive authority, disproportionately affects minority families living in poverty. Why, then, are families forced to use their limited resources to comply with antiquated and often unnecessary requirements? The same reason a child protective services worker makes the decision to move forward with a case despite their justification being more about personal feelings than verifiable facts.

Kerrie Lonard from the Division of the Child Advocate said it will take the efforts of everyone to fix what is broken in child welfare. And it will. Every voice. Especially those whose lives are forever changed.

Generational trauma is perpetuated by policies, laws, regulations, and biased behavior cloaked in minimal understanding of how poverty operates. When those living in poverty are dehumanized, no voice can be heard. There is no opportunity to create understanding and no possibility of change.

We are not gods to dictate what is normal or right outside the boundaries of the law. We are humans tasked with helping other humans face challenges. How we appear in the story of their lives is determined by the role we choose. Weaponizing child welfare to force what we believe is best for others will not lead to a happy ending. Before we question others, we must question our motives and be honest about what has shaped our perception.

If we operate with integrity after weighing all the facts, we will be clear in our decision to work with the family rather than against them.

Tara D. Wallace is a licensed clinician and trauma therapist in Topeka. Through its opinion section, 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.

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Tara Wallace
Tara Wallace

Tara D. Wallace is a licensed clinician and trauma therapist in Topeka. She is an adjunct professor and executive director of Lighthouse TCO Foundation, a nonprofit organization working to address racialized trauma in communities of color.