Amplifying Parent Voices in the Child Welfare System is Essential to Family Well-Being

By Tiffany Csonka

Depending upon who you ask, the success of the child welfare system in America is a mixed bag. Policymakers and caseworkers seem far removed from the youth and families they make drastic decisions on behalf of every day. Families and children intertwined in the child welfare system find themselves feeling alienated and disillusioned by the lack of racial justice, empathy, and care being shown to them on a daily basis. This polarizing difference best exemplifies the inherent flaws in this country’s child welfare system.

A significant number of families in the child welfare system are apprehensive when approaching caseworkers, Child Protective Services, and other child welfare agencies for aid and support due to lack of trust. It is important to point out the role systemic racism and implicit bias plays in families’ reluctance to interact with the child welfare system as a majority of children removed from families are Black, Latinx, Indian, and/or have some form of disability. In fact, 33% percent of children in foster care are African-American, but they make up only 15% of the child population. I’ve had my own journey with the child welfare system, and while my experiences ended with reunification, being impacted by this current system has left lasting trauma and fear. This system has a long way to go to overhaul outdated policies and practices to mend what is most certainly broken.

Entering the child welfare system in Broward County, Florida was a dehumanizing experience for my family and myself. Those experiences led me to greater advocacy opportunities where I now support systemic change and assist other parents as they navigate this daunting, and often overwhelming system. My four children were removed from my care, but I was able to reunify with them after completing several tasks to “prove” my value as a parent. While it was a painful experience, my community and child welfare leaders have embraced my expertise — sharing research initiatives and parent leadership endeavors. Additionally, innovations like the TouchPoint Parents Network, the Alliance Resiliency Project, and the Broward County Race Equity Workgroup taught me about the inner workings of the child welfare system and its often adverse relationship with parents like me.

As I began to grow into my parent leadership role, I partnered with my former case manager and I was able to be a co-researcher for the Children’s Service Council of Broward County’s Community Participatory Action Research study, a leadership and advocacy initiative moving to improve the lives of children in Broward. Through this work, I was able to take part in a number of activities from analyzing the way data is used to flag parents who are suspected of child maltreatment to interviewing stakeholders. Some parts of this process have been alarming but the entire experience has been eye-opening for me, because I’m afforded the chance to be on the other side and observe how families are being treated. I can say that hearing child welfare system professionals actively try to fix and engage problems that I went through personally gives me hope.

In order to begin mending the relationship between parents who have lost faith in a system built to protect children while supporting families and the child welfare structure, parents must have a seat at the table with those who have the power to affect their lives. By having parents involved in this system as leaders and not figureheads or tokens, we began collectively building trust while also opening up the channel of communication between families, case managers, supervisors, and executive leadership. The end result is an anti-racist, transparent, honest and empathetic systemic that begins to function in ways it was designed to — with families at the center of every transformative decision.

Tiffany Csonka is a Children’s Trust Fund Alliance constituent who also serves as a Children’s Services Council consultant and a member of the Alliance Resilience Project.

Family Voices United is a joint undertaking by Casey Family Programs, FosterClub, Generations United, and The Children’s Trust Fund Alliance to elevate the voices and experiences of parents, relative caregivers and young people, transforming systems to support children and families to thrive. Learn more at https://familyvoicesunited.org/

Young people + parents + relative caregivers working together to elevate voices of those with firsthand experience = change in the child welfare system