We believe Nebraska’s child welfare system can do better. It must stop the vicious cycles of poverty and racism it creates, perpetuates, and upholds, and learn to truly strengthen families.
In the near future, there are real, concrete, and possible actions that can be taken to begin that journey. Below are just some of those actions, thought of and advocated for by many incredible Black, Native, and other advocates, along with youth, scholars, and individuals of color:
1. Acknowledge & Name the Harm
The child welfare system cannot completely and effectively do better until it wholeheartedly acknowledges the racist and classist ideals it was founded upon, and the real and true harm it has inflicted at the expense of low income individuals, youth, and families of color. To understand what changes must be made, understanding and affirmatively calling out this harm is imperative, and all changes must be undertaken with this lens.
2. Shift Your Language
Relatedly, to acknowledge and call out this harm means changing the way we speak about the system. It is thought of and discussed as a benevolent and caring parental arm of the state, necessarily rescuing children from abusive homes and putting them into better, safer, and healthier spaces.
But we know this is not reality. This view of the child welfare system has protected it, and the public, from the reality check it so desperately needs, and has real consequences. Legally, because the system is viewed as primarily protecting children, courts and law makers give an incredible amount of discretion and power to child protection agencies and law enforcement to expediently rescue and care for the child, at the expense of familial constitutional protections, legal procedures, representation, and oversight. Equally as important, this language is dismissive of the actual harms the system causes when it unjustifiably separates and terminates familial relationships, and punishes poverty, gaslighting families to make them believe they are being helped. Moreover, the system doesn’t just affect the child’s welfare; it touches and scrutinizes the entire family, with much of the burden falling on parents.
Altering how we think and speak about the child welfare system is necessary. When we more accurately name and discuss the system, it gives less grace to system leaders, judges, and lawmakers to treat it so kindly. Here are some language shifts suggested by other advocates to better reflect reality, be less dismissive, and/or have a more holistic view of what the child welfare system’s goals should be:
- Instead of “Child Welfare System” → Try saying “Family Well-Being System,” “Family Preservation System,” “Family Regulation System,” or “Family Policing System”
- Instead of saying the system is “rehabilitative” and “protective” → Acknowledge the system’s punishment, harm, and separation of families
- Instead of discussing the system as rescuing youth needing protection and highlighting extreme and rare foster care cases of intense physical abuse or neglect → Describe the actual population of youth in care as those suffering from the effects of poverty, systemic racism, and the over-policing of families.
3. Policy Changes
There are several changes lawmakers can implement to reduce the number of individuals that ever have to interact with the system. Below are changes that were recently introduced in the Nebraska Legislature but were unsuccessful, that we believe could be helpful:
- Narrow Definition of Child “Neglect” – Nebraska’s broad definition of neglect is interpreted to include poverty, as well as other parental actions that do not justify state involvement. LB 1000, introduced last session by Senator Ben Hansen, narrows this definition. A similar bill in the future could reduce the number of youth and families having to enter the system and be punished for being low-income.
- Remove Universal Mandatory Reporting – Because Nebraska is a universal mandatory reporting state, all individuals are responsible for reporting suspected child abuse or neglect, or risk criminal penalities. This increases the number of reports, puts the responsibility to judge parenting and families on untrained lay persons, and effectively increases the number of Black and Brown families being reported in Nebraska. This should be reduced to mandatory reporting for only professionals regularly interacting with children. And while we are at it, there should be an increase of cultural and income inequality competency training for such professionals and those responsible for assessing reports. There should also be a race and/or bias assessment questionnaire for assessments of child abuse and neglect reports, affirmatively asking “Is this racism or true abuse and neglect?”
- Reduce Authority of Law Enforcement & Increase Legal Protections & Representation for Parents – The power of law enforcement and child protection workers to investigate, separate, and monitor families in child welfare cases with little legal protections and processes is astounding compared to the level of intrusion and consequences for families. We must add more checks and balances to the beginning stages of a child welfare case, including parental rights notifications, legal representation for parents, and less freedom for law enforcement to investigate and remove children based on their own beliefs, without court approval. L.R. 404, recently introduced by Senator McKinney, is an interim study to examine law enforcement’s role in the child welfare system, how it contributes to the racial and ethnic disproportionality in the child welfare system, and to propose solutions regarding their involvement.
- Universal Basic Income (“UBI”) – Guaranteed, direct cash assistance has been proven to assist families and reduce system involvement. Providing this guaranteed income, without restrictions or requirements will help to reduce the effects and cycles of poverty by ensuring sustainable income for families and individuals, without subjecting them to monitoring by the system. LB 1113, introduced by Senator McKinney during the 2022 legislative session would’ve provided guaranteed income to former foster youth after they age out of the child welfare system. We hope to see similar legislation in the future.
- Greater Public Assistance and Benefits – Like UBI, we should be providing more families in need with more assistance. Families should not have to enter the child welfare system to get help. More direct cash payments, TANF/ADC, SNAP, and Medicaid effectively and directly help families get basic necessities, helping to prevent child welfare system involvement for poverty. This is especially important near the end of a pandemic that had a disproportionate impact on low income individuals and communities of color.
- More Liveable, Affordable Housing – Lastly, we need more affordable and liveable housing. Lack of appropriate housing subjects families to child welfare system involvement and justifies familial separation frequently. More affordable housing means more youth and families are able to be safely housed without resorting to child welfare system involvement. But this must be accompanied by enforcement of landlord obligations to keep property liveable, as to not subject families to punishment and system involvement for unlivable living conditions of which they are not at fault for.
4. Being Mindful About Carceral System Conversations
Important conversations have continued regarding the reduction of carceral systems, including prison reform, defunding the police, and an overall reduction of law enforcement’s role and authority in our communities. In having these conversations, it is important to include the child welfare system. Many child welfare advocates rightfully describe the system as carceral, pointing to ways it mimics more traditional carceral systems. And, as previously cited to scholar Dorothy Roberts warns in conversations about defunding the police and diverting law enforcement resources to other community resources, we must be careful to not inappropriately shift these resources to social workers or other child protection workers, as to wrongfully push people from one racist and harmful system to another.
5. Uphold and Enforce ICWA
The Indian Child Welfare Act (“ICWA”) was enacted in the 1970s as an acknowledgement of the incredibly high rates of separation and dismantling of Native and Indigenous families by the child welfare system. ICWA adds protections and procedures to child welfare proceedings involving an “Indian child,” prioritizing keeping the child within their tribe. Nebraska has a state version of ICWA, updated in 2012 to be the most robust in the country. Despite ICWA’s clear directives, compliance is notoriously inconsistent, Native youth are still disproportionately represented in the child welfare system, and the U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering a case that would strike down ICWA. ICWA and Nebraska’s ICWA must be upheld, enforced, and respected as to continue to protect native and indigenous youth’s familial and cultural relations.
6. Listen to Black & Native Women, Mothers, Advocates, And Young People
Above all else, we must listen to, learn from, and follow the lead of Black and Native women, mothers, advocates, scholars, and young people who have been leading these conversations and ideas for so long. In previous posts, we have cited to and suggested readings from some of these incredible leaders, whom we all must defer to and uplift.
The above suggested solutions are great starts but we know that bigger changes are needed. It is hard to imagine how a system built on racist and classist power can undo itself to instead equitably strengthen and preserve all families. In acknowledging this, some advocates push for the abolition of the child welfare system, diverting its resources to community based supports and services.
For now, we know there is so much more work, education, thought, and action to be done. As we move past Foster Care Awareness Month, Nebraska Appleseed will continue to educate ourselves and work to improve Nebraska’s child welfare system for all youth and families interacting with it. Stay tuned for future conversations to be hosted by Appleseed this summer and fall regarding these topics, potential future changes, and language shifts. In the meantime, we invite you to continue learning by taking in the resources cited to, or shared, in our first three blogs, and advocate for the above suggested changes.
If you feel compelled to share your personal experiences, thoughts on the child welfare system, or ways it can improve, please reach out to Schalisha Walker at firstname.lastname@example.org or reply to this blog. We would really love to hear and learn from you.