Notes from the Epicenter of Texas Child Welfare

Notes from the Epicenter of Texas Child WelfareBy Jesse Booher, Senior VP and Chief Operating Officer at DePelchin Children’s Center

People with passing knowledge of our sector often ask Texas child welfare leaders, “What will it take to change the system?” The answer is simple: change is already happening.

In the last three years, the Texas child welfare system has resided within the vortex of five generational changes. Each of these, on their own, would be enough to drive systemic change. As it stands, all are occurring at once; none occur in a vacuum; and those on the frontlines of serving children and families are left with a disconcerting sense of driving at night in the fog.

So, if the question is not “what will it take to change,” then what is a better question? I argue that we should be asking something more nuanced. Are these seismic shifts good for families or the frontline staff who serve them? The honest answer is that no one knows for sure. Despite the uncertainty, a sort of clarity has begun to emerge from those on the frontlines providing services and support. Many of us work in organizations providing services along the continuum from prevention through adoption. With that diverse vantage, we can see a path toward progress and roads to regression.

A Path toward Progress: Renewed respect for the family

The term “child welfare” is an outdated descriptor of our sector. Some quibble over the word “welfare,” but a singular focus on the “child” has created just as many challenges. With an exclusive focus on the “child”, there is a tendency to neglect the importance of the family. However, we know that children thrive in strong families.

One path toward progress is the relatively recent rejection of child welfare and a renewed urgency toward “family wellbeing.” In a family wellbeing model, the key systemic actors focus their work on families through proactive, prevention focused supports. In a child welfare model, the work focuses on children separate from their families with the use of reactive, intervention focused supports. This shift to the family wellbeing lens has created many opportunities for our sector to progress, including:

  1. A more robust understanding of the trauma caused by separating children from their family, even when abuse or neglect is present. In reaction to this, there has also been an outright rejection of poverty as equivalent to neglect.
  1. Ongoing investments made in maltreatment prevention programs. Ranging from concrete services (think beds, food, clothing, etc.) to parental skill building to counseling to substance use treatment. The suite of maltreatment prevention programs has grown, is growing, and continues to become more evidence informed.
  1. An emphasis on placing children with their extended families or close friends when out-of-home placement must occur. Even with the best prevention services in the world, there will always be times when children cannot safely reside in their home of origin. Texas has recently made remarkable strides in not only placing more children needing out-of-home placement with kinship families, but also increasing the support needed for these families to thrive.

The sector’s shift away from child welfare and toward family wellbeing represents a hopeful path toward progress. It is one that can, and has, energized those providing services as we seek to wrap around vulnerable families, keep families intact, and prevent child maltreatment from ever occurring.

The Road to Regression: Demons, Saviors, Straw Men, and the Overton Window

Child maltreatment has not been immune to noisy arguments devoid of nuance and fact. Were these arguments confined to dark corners of the internet, or locked away in ivory towers, the road to regression wouldn’t hold such a powerful draw.

As it stands today, however, some of the more outlandish claims about the child welfare system have moved from the fringes and become more accepted in legislative, judicial, and academic circles. These claims include foster care systematically abuses and traumatize children, the effects of neglect are not as serious as the effects of abuse, and current responses to child maltreatment are tantamount to genocide and colonialism. 

These claims impact both the children and families who need services and support and the nonprofit organizations who work to serve and support. Children and families often find themselves at the mercy of a system mired in conflicting priorities, perverse incentives, and intellectual exercises played out in policy. Those who have devoted their lives to this work often feel patronized, ignored, or even demonized. To avoid the road to regression, it is critical to realize a few basic truths. 

  1. Racism, sexism, and classism are absolutely present in the child welfare system. However, this does not negate the fact that child maltreatment is real, and its effects are horrific both in the short term and long term.
  1. Outright abolition of the child welfare system is not a viable option. Unless there is a realistic, bipartisan supported, and quickly implemented replacement, advocating for the destruction, or abolition, of the current safety net for maltreated children is not only irresponsible, it is dangerous.
  1. Prevention services are the most important intervention along the continuum of care. However, they are not a panacea. The elimination of child maltreatment is the goal, but it is one that will remain out of reach for the foreseeable future. To believe otherwise is utopian idealism. Therefore, when maltreatment occurs, we need people and programs ready to help families heal.
  1. Good data to understand the system exists. It is publicly available. Very few people use it and even fewer understand it.  
Where do we go from here?

Whether you support the perspective outlined in this article, reject it, or are indifferent, the fact remains that we are all responsible for supporting children who face maltreatment and their families. We can walk the path toward progress and create a Texas child welfare system focused on holistic family wellbeing. This starts with the simple steps of:

  1.   Resisting the urge to demonize. There are few demons worth vilifying in this space. This includes children, families, frontline staff, nonprofit agencies, public sector leadership, legislators, lawyers, judges, and academics, most of whom are doing what they can to improve the corner of the system over which they have agency.
  1.   Reject the voices who shout with certainty. This world is complex. We don’t operate in absolutes. We operate in the gray. Anyone who speaks with absolute certainty about their solution is either lying, has fallen prey to the Dunning-Kruger effect, or both. These voices sometimes see themselves as shifting the Overton Window. While that may be helpful in academia or politics, it is far from helpful in practice.
  1.   Demand that the primary actors in this field have access to the same information at the same time. When the public agency, the judiciary, and the nonprofits that provide services work off the same resources and information, they can act with coordination, in lockstep, and toward similar goals. Outdated data, weak communication, perverse incentives, and lack of coordination cause more harm than any of us fully comprehend.

We are living through unprecedented times. Not all upheaval is bad, and it is often through painful change that the greatest growth emerges. Let’s hope that the changes we’re seeing can lead to more justice, equity, and support for our most vulnerable children and families. 


Read more:

​​Stop Saving Children, Start Demanding Family Involvement in Child Welfare

How the Child Welfare System Keeps Families Apart

Bringing Lived Experience to Child Welfare: Q&A With Leroy Berrones Soto, Jr.

Moving Away from Mandated Reporting of Child Abuse: Q&A With Catherine LaBrenz