Child Welfare: Responding to the ‘Accident of Birth’

Earlier this week the Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare hosted its 15th Annual Spring Child Welfare Conference at the St. Paul Student Center. Not only did the event feature excellent keynote presentations from renowned child welfare experts Bryan Samuels and Terry Cross, it was a great way to recognize and celebrate National Foster Care Month.

At the forefront of this event were practical and organizational strategies for attending to the concept of “well-being” in child welfare. In an effort to spread awareness during this important time of year, I would like to share some of my experience in this area.

Safety and Permanency: Guideposts of Child Welfare

Safety and permanency have always been the two preeminent concepts in child welfare. Within these two concepts are many characteristics of a safe and permanent place to live. “Maintaining the ties that bind” provides the framework for policies and regulations that encourage the maintenance of sibling bonds and preferences for kinship care. National studies have shown that up to 75 percent of children are separated from at least one of their siblings placed in foster care. These placement issues often make the adjustment to loss and transition that much harder.

The kinship foster care movement has been crucial in enabling children to live with persons whom they know and trust, which strengthens the families’ ability to provide support. Relative foster care also reinforces children’s sense of identity and self-esteem, which flows from knowing family history and facilitates connections to their siblings. These placements are characterized by fewer disruptions than non-kin foster care.

The Emergence of ‘Well-Being’

Now the concepts of safety and permanency have been augmented with what we call “well-being.” The history of this idea is quite interesting. At first well-being was defined as ensuring the educational competency of children in foster care. But the problem was that most child welfare systems did not have the resources to take on the challenges of providing a successful educational experience. It was more than enough for them to make sure children had a safe and permanent place to live.

But the debate surrounding well-being has since encompassed more than just educational competency. The new challenge comes from behavioral economists who say an indispensable component for the well-being of a child is whether or not that child has acquired social skills, sometimes known as “soft skills.” This has been defined not only as a key indicator for success in his or her personal life, but more importantly, a promise that he or she can be successful in the job market.

What kind of social skills are we talking about? Now the debate really opens up. One area of concern is what we refer to as “good manners” or common courtesies such as saying hello, goodbye and glad to meet you. More advanced social skills include empathy, compassion and the capacity for reciprocity. In other words, I know how to take, but when I have something to offer, I also have the capacity to give. These are very challenging behavioral outcomes for a child welfare system to instill, especially when children have been through complex trauma of some kind such as exposure to drugs, violence, abandonment, etc.

Early Childhood Development

We have come a long way in understanding the importance of a child’s early years in encouraging his or her social and emotional development. Today this is a universal concept. In fact, the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota has been a leader in establishing the importance of the early years. Its work in understanding how we can help to shape a child’s future has always emphasized the infant and toddler stages, which is when child welfare is often called upon to intervene.

The human condition is variable, complex and almost always uncertain. When we approach these questions, hopefully with an acute mind, a sense of history and a vivid set of observations on how much work is being done in human behavior, we can begin to find answers. Overall I’m very optimistic about our ability to create a happy, healthy voyage for children born into situations full of complex trauma—and I believe we will continue to find success in responding to what some behavioral economists call “the accident of birth.”

Esther Wattenberg

About the Author

Esther Wattenberg

  • Professor, Coordinator of Outreach, Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare
  • Associate, Center for Urban and Regional Affairs
  • School of Social Work
  • College of Education and Human Development

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