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Tell Your Story or Someone Else Will: Child Welfare’s PR Problem

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Ones’ opinion regarding the field of child welfare is largely influenced by what they have read or viewed in the media. Less often, it is influenced by their interactions or experiences with ‘the system’.  In either case, it is generally the testimony of the more vocal dissatisfied observer that draws attention. In child welfare, case workers are often perceived as child-snatchers or uncaring public employees whose inexcusable failures result in child injuries or deaths. Foster parents are often accused of ‘being in it for the money’. Administrators may be characterized as over-paid paper shufflers who rarely do any ‘real’ work, and advocates are perceived as whiners who want more money to fund this dysfunctional system. This is not far off from the general impression one gets from reading news reports about child welfare.

This was the advice of a marketing professional during a chat on Twitter: tell your story or someone else will. So who is telling the child welfare story and what story are they telling? Using the key words ‘child welfare’ and ‘foster care’, a search of Google News yielded the following stories:storybook

Former Foster Kids Protest RI Funding Cuts

Cases Highlight What Many Consider a Broken Child Welfare System

Arizona CPS’ struggles mount as abuse, neglect reports rise

Minnesota’s child-protection system is inconsistent and underfunded

Oregon’s $40 million child welfare computer upgrade has glitches, some serious

Now, Russians protest against Norway’s child services

Death of Dominic James led to changes in foster-care system

These are just a few of the thousands of suggested pages. They were all in the top 15 matches.  What I did not find were stories about successful reunifications, adoptions, guardianships. I’m sure that if I had worked my way through pages of links using my search words, I would have found some. I know they exist. I follow several incredible foster and adoptive parents on Twitter who are living proof that they exist. And I have been fortunate to have worked with hundreds of dedicated foster and adoptive parents as well as committed, hard-working case workers, administrators, and advocates over the years. So why do their stories not show up on the first pages of an Google search?

I believe it is because child welfare, as a field, has been content to let other people tell their story. There are many reasons for doing so, including what is probably at the top of the list: confidentiality.  Yes, there are laws and restrictions regarding making public information about children and families involved in the child welfare system. However, there are ways to address this issue. Obtaining releases of information, de-identifying information, redacting or ‘sanitizing’ reports, or changing minor details to protect the confidentiality of individuals or families are possible solutions. These are all approaches that have been used when the press covers a story that includes sensitive information. They are used by the health profession in conducting medical research and in dozens of other fields dealing with sensitive issues. So why is it that the field of child welfare does not employ these strategies more often?

I suspect that the second reason or excuse is time and/or resources. People who work in this field generally are overworked, underpaid, and their programs under-resourced.  This usually is not a line-item in child welfare budgets. Maybe it should be. Maybe there should be a concerted effort to improve the image of the field in the media. Other fields have figured this out when addressing anything from environmental issues to employee satisfaction. If one thinks about various professions, it is easy to find good and not-so-good examples.

The railroad industry has successfully improved public perception through advertisements highlighting their essential role in the economy and energy-efficient transportation of valuable resources. At the other end of the spectrum, we all are familiar with the expression ‘going postal’ which describes a public perception that working for the postal service somehow is associated with unpredictable and sometimes violent behaviors. However, many people believe this statement holds some validity, and it pains me to even repeat these sentiments.

The child welfare stories we should be sharing are successful reunifications, adoptions, guardianships. We should be sharing outcomes for children forming attachments when it was thought impossible. What about sharing the success of newly created families with siblings, loyal friends and protectors, or youth finding the guidance needed to prepare for adulthood through college or a career? Should we not help share the stories of adult children who overcome child abuse and neglect with the support and love from their foster parents? Until we make it a priority to tell these stories, the press about Child Welfare will continue to be dominated by stories told by someone else using their lens.

Connie Hayek is a walking repository of data and information about child welfare. She is passionate about data, especially data regarding children, youth, and families. Experienced in child welfare, early childhood, education, trauma-informed care, and workforce challenges, she is particularly interested in promoting cross-systems collaboration and innovation to improve outcomes for children and families.

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