What is the child welfare parent advocacy movement?
In countries worldwide, child protective agencies have the power to separate families based on abuse and neglect allegations with little due process protections, despite a lack of evidence that child protective investigations make children safer and in the face of research showing that many children do far worse in foster care than at home even with families facing significant challenges. Over the past decade, child protective investigations have grown by roughly 20% in the United States, 40% in Australia, 75% in Canada and have more than doubled in England. Child welfare systems disproportionately impact families and communities of racial and ethnic groups with long histories of oppression and low-income families of all backgrounds. When children are removed from their homes, often relationships are broken not just between parents and children but between siblings, while the ties of kinship networks are lost, and children are torn from their cultural roots.
While the cost of child protection globally continues to rise, it is affected families who carry the true cost with them, often generationally. And it is affected families and communities who best understand why and how child welfare needs to change. The parent advocacy movement seeks to build the power of parents who have been impacted by the child welfare system to reform or dismantle it, to support other families going through it, to raise up solutions that exist outside it, and to improve children’s lives. The parent advocacy movement believes that children want to be with their parents and families, parents want to be what their children need, and that the best way to help children is to help their families and support their communities. The ultimate goal of the parent advocacy movement is for children to remain in their families and communities where they are safe and loved and where their cultures are valued, and to ensure that families and communities are well supported to care for their children.
Over the past 20 years, parent advocacy and activism have played a powerful and critically important role in reforming child welfare and in raising up solutions that exist outside of it. Parents and grandparents affected by child welfare systems across the United States, England, Canada, Norway, Finland, Australia, New Zealand, Scotland and in other countries have organized to support other parents who are facing a child welfare investigation or working to reunify with their children. They have partnered with professionals to improve frontline practice with parents. They have worked to reform child welfare through legislative and policy advocacy. They have organized and protested to expose injustices and demand change. Recently, they have provided and fought for support for families during the global pandemic. Moving away from child welfare system involvement, punishment and surveillance, parent advocates continue to work toward supporting families to address harm in transformative ways that strengthen families and bring communities closer together.
Who are parent advocates?
Parent Advocates Working in Systems
Some child welfare agencies and legal agencies representing parents have created Parent Advocate roles. In these agencies, a Parent Advocate is a person who, in their role as a parent, has been impacted by the child welfare system, and has been hired and trained to provide peer support to parents currently involved with the child welfare system. Many parents who choose to become Parent Advocates do so due to the harm the child welfare system has caused to their families and communities. They may be motivated to support families and create change so that other parents don’t have similar experiences or don’t have to navigate the child welfare system alone. Like Credible Messengers, because of their combination of training, expertise and lived experience, Parent Advocates often have a sense of urgency and are able to understand child welfare system-impacted parents’ perspectives and connect, build trust, and form supportive relationships with impacted parents in ways that other professionals often cannot.
More broadly, parent advocates work to transform, dismantle and/or reduce the harm of child welfare systems through advocacy organizations formed by impacted parents and/or allies. Their work can include advocating for parent advocate roles in systems or community and legal organizations so that parents have peer support to prevent or navigate system involvement. It can also involve envisioning, developing and implementing community-led approaches to meeting families’ needs and supporting safe and thriving communities without the involvement of harmful, punitive systems.
Family and Community Advocacy
Child welfare systems impact whole families and communities, yet families and communities are often ignored or shut out of solutions. Grandparents, extended family members and community and tribal leaders advocate to keep children within their families, communities and tribes when child welfare systems determine that they cannot remain with their parents. Recognition that families and communities are part of the solution is especially important to those who have faced systematic efforts to intentionally separate whole groups of children from their culture and origins with disregard for or intent to destroy their family, community and cultural connections.
At times, parents and family members can experience conflict over child custody and systems pit family members against each other. Still, extended families and communities play an important role in the advocacy movement in child welfare.
How can the Toolkit for Transformation support my work?
This online resource was created for parent advocates and their allies working within and outside child welfare systems, as well as for anyone wishing to start a parent-led movement for change. Our goal for this toolkit is to provide a structure through which parent advocates and their allies can: learn from the experiences of other parent advocates and programs and access resources that other organizations and advocates have created. Above all, we envision the online toolkit as a way to create an accessible resource collection so that we can learn from each other’s experiences as an international community building the power of parent advocates. The toolkit is just a start, as our goal is to build not only resources that highlight the work of all parent advocates globally but a network of connection and learning as our movement grows.