In contrast to medicine, technology, and other fields, where great advances have been made in the past century, child welfare has yet to reach its full potential. The author a former youth in care, proposes three practical shifts in child welfare policy and practice, changes that would cost little but would do much to build a better future for children and families: (1) renaming and reclaiming our children; (2) emphasizing communities, not agencies; and (3) valuing principles more than programs. Suggestions for implementing these shifts are highlighted.
As we enter the 21st century, we are excited, energized, and optimistic about our future. Advances in medicine and technology are putting us in a position to create a worldwide quality of life only imagined a few short years ago. Our ability to communicate worldwide and gain access to information is at historic highs. The American economy is booming, with low inflation, interest rates, and unemployment, and record high stock market indices.
Yet there remains an unease about the future of America's children, and not just those children we call "at-risk." Events at Colorado's Columbine High School and in small communities across America remind us that our profile of "at-risk" youths may be grossly inaccurate. With some justification we are alarmed by, fearful of, and confused by school violence, gang proliferation, and the random murders of fellow Americans simply because of their skin color or religion. Perhaps it is time that we accept the reality that if one child is at-risk, all children are at-risk; indeed, we all are at-risk.
Thus, in the midst of this economic boom we are simultaneously overwhelmed, wearied, and worried about our children and their future. Foremost among these worries is how the child welfare system is responding to changing social conditions and the increasing number of youths who may at some point need child welfare services. More and more of our children are entering family foster care or other out-of-home placement [McKenzie 19981. Meanwhile, national and local leaders continue to believe that building jails and prisons is the answer to societal unrest and a growing number of states are passing legislation to try youths accused of crimes as adults.
As one who is a legacy of the child welfare system, I am increasingly troubled and angered about the number of children who are the victims of abuse, neglect, and violence, particularly in light of the progress made in so many areas of our lives. As a society@ we have been negligent in our efforts to make improvements; in protecting and nurturing our vulnerable children. Even today, 25 years after leaving the child welfare system, I still see too many of my own childhood experiences being replicated daily on American streets and in American homes.
As a five-year-old, I watched my father beat my mother. I witnessed him bang her head repeatedly against the wall. I saw blood and heard her scream out that she was "seeing stars" and that he "may as well go ahead and kill her." Then suddenly he stopped beating her and loaded us into an old blue Pontiac and took her, in a dazed and bloodied condition, to the hospital emergency room for medical care. Blood was everywhere and the car upholstery was soaked. Even at age five I thought that this was peculiar behavior. I was confused and terrified and I wondered why he beat her. [Seita et al. 1996:4]
My early childhood and adolescence were punctuated by movement into and out of 15 to 20 family foster homes, group homes, residential facilities, and detention homes, and by life on the streets. These wrenching experiences are no longer vivid or haunting, but they do inform my thinking, advocacy, and action in behalf of children.
In spite of this somewhat gloomy picture, I am hopeful about the future of our children. I am hopeful because we have learned lessons about principles of youth development. I am …