Leadership Lens

Christine James-Brown

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The two feature articles in this edition--"Fatal Distraction" and "Babies Behind Bars"--are heartbreaking. There are many things in child welfare that are very difficult to comprehend, including the idea of child deaths and babies living in prison. Among the challenges we face in getting people to support child welfare is that the problems our families and children face often involve situations that most people want to pretend do not exist. People outside of the field--and sometimes even those of us who are in it--have a tendency to want to ignore the fact that thousands of American children are in the child welfare system and many of these children have been victims of extreme trauma.

The complexity of our work starts with the continuing struggle to find the appropriate balance between safety, permanency, and well-being. This struggle is illustrated in the prison nurseries article on page 10: Is it better for a child to be with a parent in prison, or without a parent outside of prison? Is the trauma of being removed from a parent better or worse than the trauma of an innocent baby spending up to 30 months in prison, or the trauma of the adult memories of this experience? Where does the issue of safety fit in this situation? Despite screening out potentially violent prisoners, what is the risk that the violence of a day in prison could spill over into the nursery and put babies at risk? What is really in the best interest of the child, and how will we know? All of these questions apply not only to the situation of incarcerated mothers but also in many of the other situations that our field deals with every day.

In "Fatal Distraction," page 20, we meet several parents who have done the unimaginable: left their babies in a car by accident, resulting in their children's deaths. While their stories show unintentional--but still tragic--neglect, the idea of a child dying as the result of a parent's actions is all too frequent in the child welfare world. When a child involved in the system dies, people are quick to try to find blame. Frequently too, not too long after the frenzy that comes with the loss of a child, everyone wants to forget the ugliness of the situation and go back to their normal lives without thought of the thousands of children who have been abused or neglected in some way.

The issues and concerns that we have as part of the child welfare system are complicated and often ugly. They include the things that most of us fear--danger, hurt, and loneliness--and represent the kind of things we want to forget. But the close to half a million children in the foster care system are not able to close their eyes and pretend that their problems do not exist. As CWLA continues to transform its work to be better equipped to support our members in achieving improved outcomes for children and families, one of our greatest challenges will be to translate the complexity of our system into a language that will galvanize this country to join us in addressing the needs of its most vulnerable children and families--rather than pointing fingers of blame or looking the other way.

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