Special Foreword: Family Poverty, Racism, and the Pandemic:
From Crises to Opportunity for Transformation

This article appears in “Poverty, Race, and Child Welfare” (Volume 99, Numbers 3 & 4), a special double issue of Child Welfare journal.

by Lenette Azzi-Lessing and Vandna Sinha, Guest Editors

When we accepted the invitation, more than a year and a half ago, to guest co-edit a special issue of Child Welfare focused on poverty and the child welfare systems in the United States and Canada, we couldn’t have envisioned the transformative events that would take place by the time of the issue’s publication. The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted nearly every aspect of our lives and placed unprecedented demands on already-insufficient resources around the globe. As 2020 went on and the rate of hospitalizations and deaths climbed, so did school closures and job losses, heaping additional stresses and hardships on top of those already experienced by families who are vulnerable—particularly those living in poverty. Policy-makers and the media began calling attention to these once nearly invisible families with frequent, prominent discussions on child hunger, the potential effects of evictions on an already burgeoning population of families experiencing homelessness, and how to interpret a steep drop-off in the number of child maltreatment reports.

We also were forced to confront, in a sharply focused way, the effects of 400 years of systemic and structural racism in the wake of the highly publicized police killings of George Floyd and a number of other Black adults and youths. Protests around the nation and throughout the world made clear that the destructive plague of racial injustice could not be ignored or wished away any more than could COVID-19. These two crises collided to lay bare the harmful effects of both poverty and racism, particularly when they intersect, as they do for millions of families with children. They also spotlighted the inadequacies and injustices inherent in many of our systems, from health care and education to law enforcement and child protection.

As we work to understand and respond to lessons from these unprecedented times, new opportunities for addressing the inequities of poverty and racism are emerging. In recent years, scholars, journalists, and advocates have begun raising important questions about the effectiveness, equity, and unintended consequences of the child welfare system. They have pointed out how decades of new legislation, innovative practices, and evidence-gathering failed to substantially improve the experiences of and outcomes for the hundreds of thousands of children and families ensnarled in this system. The intensified focus on racial and economic injustice that is now present in the public arena brings new opportunities to address concerns about the impacts of the child welfare system on children and families—and, in particular, on families in poverty, Black families, and Indigenous families, who are overrepresented in the child welfare system.

Initiatives for change include the launching of the upEND Movement to abolish the “family policing” system and “center the experiences of Black, Native, and Latinx children and their families” (upEND Movement, 2021) by the University of Houston School of Social Work and the Center for the Study of Social Policy. They also include equity and antiracism initiatives launched by the Child Welfare League of America, the Child Welfare League of Canada, the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies, and other organizations are helping to educate practitioners, scholars, policy-makers, and activists regarding the pressing need for transformation of the child welfare system. These efforts urge us to embrace a true ecological approach in which prevention and intervention with children and families includes addressing structural issues. They call for dismantling structures that perpetuate the systemic racism and entrenched economic inequality that harm millions of children and their families and replacing them with an equitable, comprehensive, and responsive system focused on supporting child and family well-being.

It is reasonable to question whether such transformative change is possible given the poor track record of past child welfare reform eff orts and the magnitude of the challenges inherent in attempting to radically change systems that operate with a great deal of autonomy across states, counties, provinces, and territories. However, we need look no further than the unprecedented policy changes quickly enacted in response to the pandemic to see that previously unimaginable progress is indeed possible. In the United States, these include the provision of supplemental unemployment benefits, near-universal cash transfers, and fully refundable child tax credits. We are optimistic that this particular historical moment presents the opportunity for substantial and meaningful change in how we address the needs of families who are vulnerable, despite the many challenges.

The authors whose work is contained in this special double issue write with similar attunement to this moment and the opportunities it may hold. We have divided the articles and commentary pieces into two distinct but interconnected groups. The articles in the first issue focus on theoretical perspectives, simultaneously calling us back to our ecological framework roots and pushing us toward a more complex interpretation of ecological theory that targets the structural forces that shape the conditions and life chances of individual children and families. The authors in this group highlight the necessity of simultaneously employing this structurally focused perspective while centering the lived experiences of child and families in order to transform the child welfare system.

  • In their opening commentary, Jerry Milner and David Kelly call for a justice-oriented approach to meeting the needs of children and families who are vulnerable. Noting that years of child welfare reform efforts driven by quantitative evidence have not significantly improved child welfare outcomes or reduced racial and economic disparities, they argue for radical transformation of the child welfare system. Required, they say, is a new paradigm that “explicitly acknowledges that social conditions and social structures leave some families more likely to come into contact with the child welfare system.” In place of child welfare practices that cause trauma and unnecessarily separate poor families and families in some racial groups, they call for: a universal approach to ensuring equity and well-being; family and community co-ownership of the child welfare system; and redesign of laws and funding to support  a just, effective child welfare system.
  • Anne Blumenthal takes up the call for a justice focus in child welfare. She highlights a false dichotomy in the understanding and use of the term “neglect”: It is either treated as a result of parental failure or as a result of collective failure to address underlying factors such as poverty. She argues that “parent-centered neglect is actually a form of collective neglect that is misdiagnosed due to racism, classism, or an excessively parent-blaming CPS system.” Noting that current patterns of poverty have been shaped by racism and colonialism, she calls for an understanding of neglect that integrates the ways in which poverty creates conditions that are often interpreted as parental failings. In so doing, she calls the field back to its roots in ecological theory and also pushes us forward, calling for a version of ecological theory that is more structurally focused.
  • Alan Dettlaff, Reiko Boyd, Darcey Merritt, Jason Anthony Plummer, and James D. Simon embrace a structural perspective, arguing that both the high levels of poverty experienced by Black families in the United States and the overrepresentation of Black children in the child welfare system are driven by systemic racism. Turning their attention to how systemic racism manifests in child welfare research, they examine the ways that prevailing notions of evidence support construction of harmful narratives that diminish the role of racial bias in child welfare. They argue for research that centers “a focus on the power relationships present within the system and how this power maintains racial hierarchies.” Finally, they call for a shift in child welfare research: to prioritize qualitative methods that treat the existence of racism as a given, center the lived experiences of people of color who interact with the child welfare system, and focus on systemic change.
  • Johanna Caldwell, Ashleigh Delaye, and Tonino Esposito consider strategies for centering the lived experiences of families and children, focusing specifically on the way that neighborhoods have been defined and analyzed in relation to child welfare engagement. They call for a return to and deepening of our use of ecological frameworks and the use of mixed methods to move beyond the treatment of neighborhoods as static, geographic units. Instead, they argue for research that considers the ways that residents may see, name, and experience their neighborhoods depending on their vantage points, identities, socioeconomic situations, and relationships to neighborhood spaces over time.

The articles in the second of our two issues address the multiple ways in which poverty—often intertwined with racism—impacts the child welfare involvement of families, communities, and Indigenous nations. The authors in this group embrace and respond to different aspects of the arguments put forward in the first set of articles. Collectively, these authors call on us to broaden our understanding of the ways in which the policies and power dynamics of the current child welfare systems damage the well-being and harm the life chances of children and their families.

  • Picking up Dettlaff and colleagues’ call for a focus on power relationships and Blumenthal’s focus on the ways in which structural factors shape patterns of neglect, Patricia Montambault, Maude Ostiguy-Lauzon, Marie-Pier Paul, Carl Lacharité, and Tonino Esposito examine the colonial roots of neglect in First Nations communities in Quebec. They trace the relationships between structural patterns of historical oppression and the current day overrepresentation of First Nations children in the child welfare system. Framing neglect, and the overrepresentation of First Nations children, as consequences of the poverty and intergenerational trauma caused by colonialism, the authors argue for cultural safety and self-determination in child welfare services. They point out that child welfare services must be adapted for cultural context and that First Nations must have authority to legislate on issues affecting children and youth in their communities.
  • Linda Callejas, Lakshmi Jayaram, and Anna Davidson Abella continue the examination of power in child welfare, centering the voices and experiences of mothers receiving family preservation services. They call for interrogation of the ideologies that shape worker practices and decision-making and call for an approach that acknowledges mothers as “active agents fighting for resources, safety and dignity.” The perspectives of the mothers they interviewed highlight a paradox: While CPS can be a source of financial and material resources, it is experienced as authoritarian and threatening by recipients in disadvantaged communities. These authors call for a just system that supports mothers in addressing issues that they identify as being critical to ensuring the stability of their families and the well-being of their children.
  • Amy D’Andrade draws on interviews and focus groups with professionals involved in child welfare reunification processes to examine pathways by which poverty hinders family reunification, illuminating ways in which the child welfare system itself creates circumstances often viewed as parental failures. She describes how child placement can reduce the resources available to birth families, limiting parental abilities to comply with case plans. She describes the conflict many parents face in trying to earn sufficient income while also adhering to other conditions of the case plan, such as attending counseling and/or parenting classes. She highlights the need for the child welfare system to support parents in securing adequate housing, addressing challenges with transportation, and meeting other expenses. Her research draws attention to the punitive impacts of current child welfare policies on families and calls for income supports that extend through the period in which families are working to meet the conditions for reunification.
  • Ignacio Navarro’s research reinforces the need for supports that help stabilize the incomes of families who are vulnerable. He examines the child welfare impacts of poverty spells that differ in length and predictability, finding that the chances of being re-reported to CPS are elevated for families that experience sustained periods of poverty and those that experience short spells of unexpected poverty. His research highlights the need to expand the safety net for families with fluctuating incomes, such those dependent on seasonal or gig economy incomes, and to distribute tax credits throughout the year rather than the current lump sum payment form of the earned income tax credit. These findings are particularly timely, given that the American Rescue Plan of 2021 includes important measures along these lines and that the Biden Administration seeks to extend some of these, including monthly child tax credit payments through at least 2025.
  • Holly J. White-Wolfe, Raphaël Charron-Chénier, and Ramona Denby-Brinson take up calls made by both Caldwell and colleagues and Dettlaff and colleagues, separately estimating the association between community hardships and foster care entry rates for different racial groups in order to examine the differential impacts of resource inequities on child welfare outcomes for Black, Latinx, and White families. Their findings suggest that community poverty levels, as opposed to rates of unemployment and renter occupancy, are associated with foster care entry rates and have a similar impact for all three racial groups. However, their findings also suggest that community poverty is experienced differently across racial and ethnic groups. Foster care entry rates remain different across racial groups even when poverty levels are similar. Accordingly, the authors call for additional research to identify factors that contribute to racial disparities that persist even with community poverty is reduced and for policy approaches that take these factors into account.
  • We close this special double issue with a commentary, from Michelle Johnson-Motoyama, who explores ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic, and the governmental response to the economic effects of the pandemic, may have affected the incidence of child maltreatment in the United States. She draws parallels to the human and government responses to natural disasters as well as to the impacts of policy responses to the Great Recession. She highlights the ways in which enhancements to the safety net under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act of 2020 and the American Rescue Plan of 2021 may have reduced risk for child maltreatment by supplementing losses of income, preventing evictions, and decreasing hardship for millions of families. She calls for extension of these measures to support families through a potentially extended period of economic recovery, and also for research to “to determine the overall and local effects of the pandemic on child maltreatment, and whether subgroups of children benefit differentially from social safety net policy changes over time.”

As a collection, these articles and commentaries constitute an urgent, morally compelling call to transform the ways in which we recognize and respond to the needs, desires, and aspirations of children and families ensnared in poverty and those impacted by systemic racism. The authors featured in this special double issue push us to come to terms with the degree to which our existing structures and systems are failing children and families and to search for the concrete ways in which each of us can contribute to transforming the culture and structure of child welfare. The sweeping changes in the child welfare system that are needed to achieve justice for children and families will require nothing less than a critical mass of stakeholders, at all levels and locations, committing to the ongoing, daily work of interrogating power and privilege in the child welfare system. We must persist in asking whose voices and perspectives are centered, how historical patterns and systemic factors are taken into account, and what we can do to build the new relationships and structures required for transformation. The obstacles we must overcome are daunting. To be honest, we felt overwhelmed as well as inspired as we worked with these manuscripts. However, given the unprecedented clamor for change emanating from so many sectors, we are optimistic that transformation is indeed possible, and that its time is now.

Lenette Azzi-Lessing
School of Social Work
Boston University

Vandna Sinha
School of Education
University of Colorado Boulder

upEND Movement. (2021, June 18). The upEND Movement releases How We endUP: Ideas about how we can, in community, move towards the abolition of family policing. Author. https://upendmovement.org/press_release/the-upend-movement-releaseshow- we-endup-ideas-about-how-we-can-in-community-move-towards-the-abolition- of-family-policing/