In December, SPARC members had the opportunity to convene in Baltimore at the Annie E. Casey Foundation offices. (State Policy Advocacy and Reform Center, or SPARC, is a network of state child welfare advocates housed at the Partnership for America’s Children and supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, and the Aviv Foundation.) Throughout our days together, members had a chance to learn from each other and lived experts, researchers, and other speakers from across the country. A common thread of the discussions was how we can re-think our current systems and use policy levers to create transformational change in child welfare. This can mean critically examining some of the most long-standing facets of child protection work, such as mandated reporting and child abuse registries, as well as prioritizing and expanding areas that have typically received less focus, such as engaging youth and family expertise and investing in primary prevention.
One consistent theme throughout SPARC’s discussions was that far too many people become unnecessarily involved with state child protective agencies in ways that don’t truly protect or best meet the needs of children. SPARC members are working to address these issues in various ways and spent time at the convening continuing their learning and work:
- SPARC’s race, equity, and inclusion workgroup led a discussion on neglect statutes as part of their current project on revising state definitions of child neglect to ensure that families do not become involved with child protection systems when they are not at imminent risk of harm;
- Several SPARC members presented how their states have reformed their central registries of child abuse and neglect so that they are more accurate and fair, including revising who is placed on registries and for how long, and ensuring due process for those placed on registries; and
- We also heard from several experts about how states can work to improve their mandated reporting policies and help communities move towards “mandated supporting” and community-initiated alternatives, including our New York member sharing their state’s efforts to improve training and offer alternatives to reporting.
We also spent time learning together about what child welfare systems should be doing more of:
- Lived experts and staff from Foster Club and Florida Youth Shine taught participants principles and strategies for partnering with youth with lived experience to bring about policy change;
- Representatives from New Jersey’s Family Success Centers shared insights into how their family resource centers support community members in addressing challenges and meeting their families’ needs outside of the child welfare system;
- A researcher from Chapin Hall shared research findings on preventing child maltreatment through economic and concrete supports.
- SPARC’s prevention workgroup shared updates on their current project to support members in advocating for prevention, through the above approaches and others.
A pair of sessions on child welfare placements also engaged SPARC members in discussions of how to move from traditional practices and beliefs to transformative change:
- SPARC members from California shared how policy changes and services in their state, including the FURS mobile response program, help prevent out-of-home placements and placement disruptions;
- Speakers from Wayfinder Family Services discussed how they successfully engage in family finding and support for older youth, including those who have already experienced multiple placements;
- An expert from the Catalyst Center discussed California’s Enhanced Care Programs, which can offer higher levels of care to youth with significant unmet needs in family/home-like settings, allowing them to avoid congregate or institutional placements; and
- Lived Experience Leaders from FosterClub and the National Foster Care Youth & Alumni Policy Council discussed how youths’ experiences in placement can drive them into the youth justice system and shared recommendations from their work on decriminalizing foster care.
Throughout the convening, the Partnership’s Executive Director, Marquita Little NuMan, encouraged advocates to engage in self-care, given the deep discussions of what is “tough and tireless” work. The agenda provided several opportunities for members to share their advocacy wins, ask others for information or examples, and connect informally; we heard from many members that these moments helped them stay energized to tackle the difficult but essential work of creating better futures for children and youth in each of our states.
For those unable to join us in December, the PowerPoints, handouts, and speaker info for the convening are available at https://www.sparcforchildren.org/2023-convening. To learn more about SPARC in general, visit https://www.sparcforchildren.org/.