Child welfare: Problems and solutions

By Esther Omolola

For the summer, I’ve been working as an intern in the mental health department at the New York Foundling, a non profit company that specializes in child welfare. NYF is an organization that provides support and extra resources for families that may enter the child welfare system by offering a whole-life and whole- person approach to care.  

Throughout my time here, I’ve had the pleasure of having Carly Johnson as my mentor/supervisor. Carly is a Community Psychiatric Support and Treatment (CPST) provider in  the Mental Health department. She says there are many problems within the child welfare system in New York State and around the country. According to Johnson, the child welfare system is another “incarceration space” like the school to prison pipeline.  BIPOC children are often targeted and misdiagnosed with behavioral issues that aren’t accurate. Given that the system is often run by white people, BIPOC youth who make up a bulk of the children in the child welfare system are not getting the cultural responsiveness they need to emerge. She also criticizes the child welfare system system as a whole by saying that there needs to be more of a focus on helping and keeping biological families together rather than breaking families apart, which causes more stress on all participating parties of the foster care process. 

Johnson is a mixed-race, queer woman, who has been at the New York foundling for five years. She is intent on helping to create change within the child welfare system. She graduated from St. John’s University with a bachelor’s in psychology and began working in Brooklyn as a socio-therapist in family foster care. After two years, she transferred to the mental health sector, where she is now the model supervisor and recruits new CPST Providers to expand the program.

I sat down with Carly to get insight on the child welfare system in NYC, and understand how the Community Psychiatric Support and Treatment program works to transform it. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length

Esther: What made you want to work within the Child Welfare field? 

Carly: I got into this work to uplift and empower people and connect us to our natural communities. And because the state is not meant to be family for people. But back in the day when I was getting into the work, it was just because I wanted to work with kids and families in a meaningful capacity and it felt pretty meaningful to be a support where people were feeling deeply disconnected and a lot of grief. I see people as really inherently worthy and full of value and always capable of change. Being in a home where you are understood and uplifted is very necessary in the formative years of black children. Especially when we live in a society that tells us we are less than and undeserving. Basically, I believe  advocacy and general social change is an integral element to promoting positive mental health for all and addressing health disparities that impact some.

Esther: Can you think of a time where you questioned your role in the child welfare industry? 

Carly: Every day, because I don’t see people the way this child welfare system in the United States typically sees people. The system divides us. I see child welfare as another school to prison pipeline. I see it as kind of another incarceration space. And that’s perpetuated on the daily by the way programming is built when it doesn’t engage people with cultural competency, with cultural humility, with person-centered things. What would happen if we the people were more empowered within our spaces? That’s how I stay within  a space that challenges me, my heart, and my belief system.

Esther: You said you see the child welfare system as another school to prison pipeline and/or another mass incarceration system, what makes you say that? 

Carly: There’s a big field called “Decarcerating Care,” particularly within mental health, social work, child welfare, and psychology. You constantly have to be doing “continuing education.”  You’re always needing to learn more. I’m finding all of these other alternative areas where we’re talking about and addressing the realities of our systems. When we look at the history of the United States, you can see how policy, law, and social structures have supported white hegemonic supremacy. We can see how these structures have  impacted people and communities historically within the United States. Welfare began after slavery during the Reconstruction Era. This was also when the police as an institution evolved. Police initially were to keep slaves on plantations. The child welfare system is also one that polices brown and black bodies, but not as explicitly. On one hand, we definitely need support for families and kids but how that support is offered  is where we can see the intention behind the system. Also, when you look within the system, we have predominantly black, brown, immigrant migrant families. If this system was here to help, do we think that we would see consistently the same people within it? Probably not because all communities deal with difficult issues like poverty, substance abuse, mental health issues etc.  I believe many issues that plague BIPOC communities have been intentionally placed there by the system, so the system can only do so much to actually help. hen our financial legacy is challenged over time,  when  we don’t have equal and safe access to health and wellness care When we don’t have adequate representation in government and our main structures of leadership are white and don’t look like us, then how can these structures by helpful and supportive? 

Esther: What other problems do  you see in the child welfare sector?

Carly: I see the lack of attention in care. Often, kids are diagnosed with things like ADHD and Oppositional Defiance Disorder or other pathologies and given medications or treatments when more connection with families and communities is the right approach. When you disconnect kids from their families, like the child welfare system does, all of a sudden you got all these kids without their advocate. And what you see a lot is our medical and mental health systems saying “we know better than parents.”.  Child welfare services can get a medical override to make all kinds of decisions for a child without their parents’ consent. That’s wild, right? Who does that happen to? Our black and brown families. That doesn’t happen often to our white families, except some poor white families. I think it’s a huge problem. Sometimes it’s necessary. Sometimes some parents and families  do not have the capacity; they might be really dealing with some shit. 

But a lot of the time, I feel the system is too impulsive with medication therapy.  In many ways it’s like forced assimilation, as I’m going to call it.  It’s like saying, “this kid isn’t acting in a way that I want them to” so they need treatment.  What they really need is systemic support for their families. 

A kid told me a story about how he was 13 and put into a psychiatric hospital  because he was aggressed against by an adult and he protected himself. . We have five year old little black and brown babies, who might not even speak the same language as the provider, being forced to take psychotropic medication, not Advil, not Tylenol, but stuff that really changes things for you. I’ve seen a lot of teens weaning themselves off medication. I work with bio parents now, and our primary space of pain and advocacy is forced medication for their child. 

Esther: What role does CPST play in combating and improving areas in the child welfare system? 

Carly: I think CPST has a lot of potential. 

I’m trying to see more black, brown and immigrant people  involved in child welfare, but specifically within mental health. My goal is to advocate for more people with actual lived experience to become child welfare system providers.   People who have  been through the foster care system who had medical treatment that didn’t work for them and who have a deep interest in justice and equity and who see themselves as change makers. ,

Esther: What hopes do you have for the welfare system? 

Carly: I want it to see where it’s enabling and perpetuating discriminatory, racist and other kinds of damaging practices and change it.  

I hope that child welfare becomes a lot more centered around restorative justice. Having children and families together working together. If we’re going to have child welfare, what if we changed or allotted our financial resources away from paying foster families and we put all that money into our bio families? 

What if, instead of having a whole entity within our state government that takes children away from their families, there were respite facilities for families in their communities where there’s a whole comprehensive plan? These things are being done, but it’s not being translated to child welfare.  I think it’s time for the child welfare system to grow and evolve and really support the communities we serve.