After decades struggling under the burden of underfunded and outdated programming, child welfare stands at the threshold of a new future. The Families First Prevention Act — a groundswell effort from dedicated professionals across the country — expands the available toolkit. Before, our tools were limited to separating children from their parents. Now, cooler heads have prevailed, and we’re ready to keep more children safe at home where they belong.

Funding for Child Welfare Information Systems (CWIS) could replace arcane technology with solutions that reposition child welfare professionals with the information they need at their fingertips.

It’s so promising.

And so fragile.

In technical terms, CWIS solutions are “modular.” You build parts of the solution and then snap those parts together — a bit like building with Legos.

CWIS modules cover chunks of child welfare practice as agencies typically organize it: intake, investigations, prevention, case management, provider licensing. It’s a robust way to build and replace the woefully outdated tech we use now.

What follows next is a predictable conversation. Where do we start? Which module should we focus on first?

More recently, I’ve heard and read guidance to anchor our new CWIS systems in provider management. Some say the first order of business should be making it easier to recruit loving homes, to usher them through a seamless and supportive licensing process and to carefully match them with children who come into foster care.

Make sense?

I hope not.

Anchoring our child welfare work in provider management has a glaring problem: it flies in the face of Families First.

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The whole idea is to stop using placement as the way to “help” families who are struggling. If our goal is to support parents and keep more children safe at home, then why would we put foster parents at the front of the line? I suppose it’s likely related to the general worry that we don’t have enough. Foster parents, I mean.

As near as I can tell, our logic goes something like this:

Children are sleeping in office buildings
Because they are hard to place
Because no one will accept them
and we do not have enough placements
So, we should license more foster parents.

I have enormous respect for foster parents (I am one myself). They play a vital role in child welfare. In this instance, however, I think we have an urgent need to question our logic. Maybe the problem isn’t that we don’t have enough foster parents. Maybe the problem is that we have too many children in foster care. Correcting that is going to be much harder than the joyous task of helping people get licensed.

I invite you to pause and think carefully about this before you move forward.

If we believe that there are too many children in foster care, many of whom could have been kept safely at home but were instead thrust into a system that struggles to tell the difference between poverty and neglect, and if we are committed to implementing Families First to correct that error, then maybe we have the problem statement wrong. If we really mean to right-size the caseload, then I think we should discover that we have more foster homes than we know what to do with.

Our logic could go more like this:

Children are sleeping in office buildings
Because we don’t know yet how to support them
Because we have not done enough to understand from the parent’s perspective what would help
So, we should partner with parents and bring solutions and support that keep their children home.

I know this logic doesn’t hold 100% of the time; it won’t work for every kid. But I also know it’s not wrong 100% of the time. I suspect 80% of kids in foster care could have stayed or could go home.

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Maybe the problem isn’t that we don’t have enough foster parents.
Maybe the problem is that we have too many children in foster care.

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We can start moving in that direction, but we’d have to decide to make that our number-one priority. Starting with provider licensing is the “if you build it, they will come” problem. If that’s the resource we build, that’s the tool we will use. And it carries implicit — and very outdated — messages that suggest child welfare is a pursuit designed to protect suffering children from their parents. That line of thinking demonizes parents.

Instead, let’s steel ourselves against the temptation to leap at an easy target like foster parent licensing. Instead, let’s focus on the whole complex problem: supporting fragile families and their children. Looking at our field across the country, I know we have what it takes to develop solutions that work.

Let’s start with something closer to the heart of the matter.

Connect with Molly via LinkedIn and Twitter and check out some of her other writing:

Molly Tierney

Managing Director – Public Service, Child Welfare, North America

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