By: Sharon Hirsch, Prevent Child Abuse NC President & CEO  Date Posted: June 13, 2019

I recently spoke to a delegation from Uzbekistan who came to North Carolina to talk about creating a child welfare system for their country. My role was to share my perspective on ways to design a child welfare system from the start with a focus on prevention. It was an exciting opportunity to think about designing a system that begins with the end in mind and is based on the latest science about what works. All systems are designed to get the results they achieve. I encouraged them to NOT replicate our system.

Our system has focused so narrowly on protection – we call it “child protective services” – that it has done unintentional harm by removing so many children from their parents and placed them in foster care or group homes. Removing a child from their parents is one of the most traumatic adverse childhood experiences – and without buffering, can result in serious physical and mental health problems in adulthood that impact educational attainment and workplace productivity. Yet, our system in the U.S. often emphasizes removing children from their parents instead of supporting, educating and building the capabilities of parents.

A recent study by Alia Innovations and Ecotone on the social return on investment in foster care came to a stunning conclusion: for every $1 invested in one year of foster care, the return on investment was -$3.64. For a more typical scenario with a child in foster care for 4 years, the return was -$9.55. So, in addition to the costs of case workers, foster placements and therapeutic interventions, the costs to the child and to the public in reduced well-being are terrible. We could do much better with a focus on the growing knowledge of brain development, adverse childhood experiences and evidence-based programs.

So, what did I recommend?

I recommended designing a system that creates safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments for children by building Protective Factors. Dr. Jack Shonkoff at the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University recommends three design principles for an effective system to support positive outcomes for children and families:

  1. Build responsive relationships
  2. Reduce sources of stress
  3. Strengthen core life skills

These design principles are consistent with the Protective Factors. I also focused on the interconnected nature of systems design that focuses not only on programs and services for families, but policy and public engagement. Families live in communities, so building a sense of community and support for each other is critical to building the safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments that families need for children to grow up healthy, safe and thriving. Policies that support and strengthen families’ ability to be economically secure are also key. My top recommendations were:

  1. Educate the public about investing in early childhood based on the science of neurobiology and ACES.
  2. Create a multi-tiered universal home visiting system and a continuum of parenting education supports.
  3. Provide access to quality early childhood education for children – and knowledge of child development should be taught in high school so that parents have a base of understanding.
  4. Build systems for concrete supports in times of need: affordable housing, living wage jobs, paid family leave, transportation, access to services in crisis situations such as diapers, food and shelter. This is about addressing some of the adverse community conditions and environments in which families live, particularly poverty.
  5. Invest in income supports for parents – in this country things like Paid Family Leave and the Earned Income Tax Credit are strategies that are recommended by the CDC to reduce neglect, which is much more prevalent than abuse.
  6. Be intentional about creating opportunities for families and children to build connections – social connections, connections to resources and connections to formal support systems. Everyday connections and relationships are more important than we ever believed. Science now tells us that relationships have the power to shape our brains. Relationships help us to learn better, work better, parent better. When we experience tough times, they help us heal.  With each connection, we develop a stronger, healthier community. Helping parents, community leaders and policy makers understand the power of relationships and connections for families is a key strategy to build a strong system of support for families.

What do you think? Are these the right investments? Would you recommend anything else? I’d love to hear from you!