What the system taught me
4 myths about foster care I no longer believe
Cheri Williams, senior vice president of domestic services
I stood at the door, trembling. I was 24 years old and working my first solo cases as a child protective investigator. I nervously played multiple “what-if” scenarios through my mind each time before I knocked.
What would happen when someone answered the door and learned I worked with the state? How would they react when I told them that someone had called with concerns about their children?
Surprisingly to me, each door I knocked on was usually answered. With my warmest smile and kindest voice, I explained who I was, why I was there, and asked to come inside. Most people let me in, although they usually had terror in their eyes as I asked them about their kids, relationships, whether they had any mental health issues, substance abuse problems, or a history of violence.
Although I had a degree in family and child sciences, I had no idea what it really meant to be a parent. I certainly had my fair share of criticisms for what my parents had or hadn’t done, but that was all the parenting life experience I had. My supervisor also wasn’t a parent.
It’s critical to know how young and afraid I was as I share my personal truth and experiences of more than 24 years working in the child welfare space.
Despite no real experience with parenting, I was the sole person investigating a family. Through a couple of conversations with my direct supervisor, I determined whether a parent was “appropriate” or not. If that sounds incredibly subjective to you, it was. After starting each investigation, I had a short phone call with my supervisor where I routinely got the same question:
“Can you guarantee their safety, Cheri?”
If I couldn’t answer with a confident yes, the response was always, “Then you have to pull ‘em.”
I would take the next step to call the police and wait for them to arrive at a neutral meeting spot. I’d brief the officers, whose primary duty at that point became guaranteeing my personal safety. I would then go back to the home and knock on the door again, but this time with reinforcements.
As a representative of the state, I removed screaming children from their parents' arms and loaded them into the backseat of my blue Chevy Malibu. It was the first car I had ever purchased for myself as an adult, and now the back seats were tear-stained from the dozens of children I personally removed.
This happened again and again for 15 months until my mind, body, and spirit could no longer take it. We didn’t talk about trauma back then. We didn’t know much about it—at least in my child welfare circles. I was taught that my sole focus was to keep kids physically safe, no matter the cost. “Mental injury” was also a legal maltreatment, but we learned in training that it was difficult to prove, so physical safety became the battle cry I carried forward day after day.
But the system taught me a whole lot more than that—primarily that the most important thing was to avoid being on tomorrow’s front page of the newspaper.
It took me nearly 20 years in child welfare to learn how I had unknowingly reinforced harmful learning in my early career. This realization has now inspired me to dedicate every day in the second half of my career to prioritizing the well-being of families and empowering them to keep their children safe.
It’s important to note that I’m not placing blame or shame on anyone who currently or has in the past worked in the child welfare system. I have met some of the most amazing people in my life through this field of work. My intent is to share how the system can dehumanize all who touch it. And that core values and beliefs are baked into the system that remain largely unconscious to us.
As the late Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” This is me trying to do better. For all children and their families.
Myths the system taught me
Myth 1: “Protect yourself at all costs.”
My state’s child welfare system was in crisis when I completed my 12-week classroom training in 1998. Everything I was taught in theory about the law and judicial proceedings was now confronted with real children, real families, and what we now know to be real trauma. Shortly after I started my career, a child named Kayla McKean (1) was murdered by her father. Past investigators had missed lots of signs that could have potentially saved her life, and the system was thrust into an extreme state of hypervigilance.
Vig·i·lant: Attentive to discover and avoid danger, or to provide for safety; circumspect; wary.(2)
In this vigilant atmosphere, investigators like me had more than 30 new investigations each month. We worked 50-60+ hours each week, including many nights and weekends. My friends eventually stopped inviting me places since I usually canceled due to a crisis case. I was taught to “discover and avoid danger … and provide for safety.” Essentially, I was taught to go into a home with the express purpose of finding everything the parents were doing wrong and determine whether those parents were “appropriate.”
What I wasn’t taught in formal training, but I now realize, is that early in my career I was consistently taught to prioritize my own safety, comfort, and well-being above the needs of children and families. Again, I was asked after commencing each investigation whether I, a 24-year-old young woman who grew up initially in a trailer park and later in the suburbs, could guarantee the safety of children, despite never having parented.
My 24-year-old brain couldn’t understand how I could ever guarantee anything. I was also commonly asked by my superiors whether I wanted my name on the front page of the newspaper the next day because a child on my caseload was murdered. These two questions repeated over time, made an “unspoken” rule loud and clear: Protect yourself and protect the state. It’s far better to err on the side of caution.
And those were the exact words I heard my favorite judge utter over and over in my numerous judicial hearings: “I’m going to err on the side of caution and find probable cause for this removal.”
Myth 2: Poor parents cannot be trusted to keep their kids safe.
About 60 percent of child protection investigations are due to allegations of neglect.(3) In these cases, I was trained to assess a situation based almost solely on what food, shelter, clothing, and medical care kids were given.
If I went to a home and parents had no way to keep their water running?
If a mom kept missing doctor appointments for her medically fragile child because she had no reliable transportation?
I was taught to approach each family as a stand-alone system, with the full responsibility of providing basic needs landing squarely on the shoulders of many parents who were living in generational poverty. We never talked about root causes of why some families simply didn’t have access to resources or supports. I don’t remember having a single conversation about the systemic effects of poverty over time. Pair that with the fact that my education, and the education of most of my peers, was not in social work, and I was the perfect specimen to “succeed” in this field.
Risk averse: CHECK
Anxiously wired: CHECK
Young enough to:
- Think I knew what an “appropriate parent” was, despite never having been one
- Go along with what The System taught me
- Likely not have a fully formed pre-frontal lobe in my brain
- Be motivated by fear
Myth 3: The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
I heard this statement repeatedly when looking for relatives to care for children. The underlying belief was that relatives were just as “bad” as the parents who had children removed and that “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch.”
Throughout my career, I’ve watched as hundreds of children have been removed and placed with licensed foster parents, many of whom are amazing people—yet the fact remains these foster parents are strangers to these children. I also now realize how much “easier” it was on me as a worker to place a child in a foster home fully intent on vetting available relatives, yet the new cases always kept coming. And once I knew kids were safe, my priority remained trying to “guarantee” the safety of others. In all honesty, following up on potential relatives after the initial removal and placement were rare.
Myth 4: Local child welfare culture and subjective interpretation always trumps the law.
In 2000, after being a child protective investigator for only 15 months, I went to work for an organization that conducted medical examinations and forensic interviews of children and was there for nearly seven years, including five years as a supervisor.
While the law has specific definitions of abuse, I saw thousands of child protection cases hinge on the legal interpretations of a very small team of people—a child protective investigator, their supervisor, and sometimes the findings of an expert medical doctor or attorney. I also saw many medical and legal professionals disagree over whether abuse had, indeed, occurred. What these years taught me is that local child welfare culture and subjective interpretation are much stronger forces than broad child protection laws.
Remember how I struggled to understand “appropriate” parenting earlier? I can’t tell you the number of shelter petitions I wrote that described parental behavior as “inappropriate.” While I always went on to behaviorally define what I meant by that word, the fact remains that there is bias and interpretation from the start of every investigation. Implicit bias and confirmation bias can play a huge role. And I never learned about this until much later in my career.
When parties to a child abuse case began legal arguments on the “best interest of the child” in court proceedings, I witnessed the courtroom quickly become a rodeo of subjective judgments and “better than’s.”
“Foster care is better than …” “Ensuring this child is safe is better than …”
The problem was anyone could stand in court and argue their “better than” philosophy. And since we didn’t yet know about the far-reaching effects of trauma, the central importance of family connection, and the emotional damage family separation causes, “better than” often looked like a child in a home with more resources, plenty of food, and brand-new school clothes rather than in a home with their family of origin.
What I know now
The lessons the system taught me were not obvious. I did not learn them overtly in my classroom training. Still, the culture I experienced in those eight years as both a field investigator, medical investigator, and supervisor laid the foundation on which my career has been built. But as I’ve learned and personally retraced my experiences in a system that dehumanizes both families and its workforce, I realized I could no longer perpetuate the broken foundation any longer. I had to dedicate myself to empowering and strengthening families.
I’ve had to break apart what I’ve learned inside my mind and commit to building something new. Something fundamentally different and strong. Something deeply rooted in humanity. Not the rescue-mentality kind of help, but the support that truly allows families to help themselves.
Not only will I outline below my lessons learned, but I will show specific examples of how a long-standing agency can learn and chart a new course in deep alignment with our mission, vision, and values. Whether we work in the public or private sector, we can all do something to continue advancing a new way of working with families.
1. Families are their own experts.
I now realize families are their own experts. Most times, they know exactly what they need to safely care for their children. But often, they simply don’t have the resources or supports they need to do so. Through my learning, I’m beginning to understand the importance of elevating the voices of those with lived experience in the system. In 2021, the corporate board of Bethany Christian Services, where I get to serve as senior vice president of domestic programs, blessed our new strategic vision. Within this new vision, we proclaimed our bold commitment to elevating the diverse voices of the children, youth, and families we serve. We are doing this by building intentional infrastructure across our 30-state network to elevate family voices. We are offering honorariums to those with lived experience who speak into our work as we deconstruct the old ways of working and build new ways alongside families.
We are also centering youth, family, and community voices to identify what families need to keep their children safe, their families intact, and their well-being supported. When we can safely prevent kids from entering foster care by investing in their families, we realize children and families can stay safe, healthy, and whole. Due to this belief, our goal over the next five years is to ensure at least 40 percent of our family support, strengthening, and preservation programs are co-built with communities across our network.
We’re asking: How can we elevate the voices of the youth, families, and communities we are serving?
2. Poverty should never be conflated with neglect.
While my family moved from a trailer park to the suburbs when I was in fourth grade, my parents grew up very poor in the deep South, my mom one of six children and my dad one of eight. At times, my grandparents did not eat to ensure their kids had food in their bellies. I am only one generation away from poverty, yet I never understood the realities people who grow up in generational poverty face every day. Through years of life experience, I have now learned how differently I experience institutions and systems in my community versus how people in poverty experience them. The chasm is wide.
I recently heard Aysha E. Schomburg, the associate commissioner of the Federal Children’s Bureau in the Administration on Children, Youth, and Families, share her priorities with national stakeholders. Her first call to action was for states to revisit their legal definitions of neglect. This is key, because I have now learned most families truly want to care for their children’s needs but lack the resources or support to do so. I also now know that other avenues of support are possible.
Through Safe Families for Children, we are leveraging volunteers through churches to surround families in times of crisis, providing those critical concrete social supports. We are beginning to measure the notable increase in families’ Protective Factors, which we know increases child safety and well-being. Bethany remains committed to finding new and innovative ways for the global Church to humbly come alongside families without judgment or a spirit of saviorism, so these families can stay together.
We’re asking: How can we all rethink what constitutes neglect? How can we explore other supports available in our communities that will keep kids safe versus jumping straight to investigations and potential removals?
3. Relatives can do it.
While I was taught to be wary of relatives earlier in my career, I now know that with the right supports, relatives can do it! Kinship care (being placed with relatives and close family friends) has many positive outcomes for children involved in child welfare. Kinship bonds, promotes child and parent well-being, promotes permanency, minimizes trauma, and maintains sibling bonds long-term.(4)
In 2021, Bethany conducted listening sessions with relative caregivers across the nation. Many of them detailed the complexities of working with the system to care for children in their families. Whether grandparent, aunt, uncle, cousin, or even fictive kin, many relatives end up taking in a child without the advanced planning and training that unrelated foster parents have. With many child protection systems remaining overwhelmed, states must invest resources in getting kids quickly placed with their kin. Kinship caregivers also require specialized supports due to the complexity of caring for their relatives’ children.
After learning more about these complex needs, Bethany created a program, called Say Yes 2 Family (Family Always Matters In the Lives of Youth). Provided through a cooperative agreement with the Administration for Children and Families, Say Yes 2 Family partners with 30-Days to Family®, an evidence-based program that significantly increases the placement of children with family in their first 30 days in care. Each child removed to foster care has an average of 150 relatives(5), and Bethany believes relatives can do it. Bethany also offers specialized kinship training, support, and counseling, as well as shared parenting supports, to ensure kids stay closely connected with their families.
We’re asking: How can we start shifting our mindset about relatives and investing our dollars in a manner that promotes this shift?
4. Best-interest determinations are extremely subjective and must be reframed through a lens of family connection and human belonging.
Since my beginnings in investigations in 1998, I have worked in foster care, adoption, quality improvement, and training and I have held numerous leadership and executive roles. I have worked in several child welfare systems in multiple states. I now realize each agency, county, and state has its own culture and subjectivity around best interest determinations.
I first heard Dr. Amelia Franck Meyer, president and founder of Alia Innovations, speak at a conference in 2019, and her bold truth-telling about the consequences of family separation reignited in me pieces of myself that had been cast aside for decades. Pieces of my soul knew that pulling crying children from their mothers’ arms was traumatic for all of us. I’ve learned that a better way is possible, and one of the ways is through co-building solutions with community.
Bethany partners with Alia Innovations(6) both in our Say Yes 2 Family program and our five-year strategic plan to significantly change the way we invest in families through family support, strengthening, and preservation services. Not only has Dr. Franck Meyer published the research to prove the detrimental societal cost of family separation(7), she and her team are helping organizations like Bethany build a new way, together with communities.
We’re asking: How can we innovatively build solutions together with the communities we serve?
This year marks exactly half of my life I have invested in serving vulnerable children and families. Over the past five years, I can point to two specific experiences that have caused me to reflect deeply on my career. The first was a three-day intensive training experience on racial equity I attended in the summer of 2018, and the second was seeing Dr. Franck Meyer speak in the fall of 2019 on how the system harms families. This time frame coincided with taking my current role with Bethany’s headquarters, where I help set the strategic direction for future programs.
These two experiences kicked off my deep and personal journey of reflecting on the perpetuation of systemic inequities in the child welfare system in America. At first, I was ashamed that I had been in this work for 20 years before learning many of the foundational origins of America’s child welfare system. But now I know that by continuing to partner with transformational trailblazers, and, most of all, truly listening to youth, families, and communities, we can build a new way together—in both public and private child protection spaces.
And that is what it’s going to take. Reflecting. Learning. Listening. Dreaming. Building. Supporting. Now that we know better, we can all do better. The well-being of children and families in our communities depends on it. Who’s in?
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of Family Integrity and Justice Quarterly, a publication of Family Integrity and Justice Works, and is reprinted with permission. Learn more at fijworks.com.
- “Baby steps” made to protect kids 20 years after Kayla McKean, 6, was murdered by father
- vigilant | Definition of vigilant by Webster's Online Dictionary (webster-dictionary.org)
- Child abuse, neglect data released | The Administration for Children and Families (hhs.gov)
- 30 Days to Family® FAQ – Institute for Child Welfare Innovation
- Alia-Research-Brief-2019.pdf (thetcj.org)