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April 07, 2022

Child welfare advocates urged to look for the strengths in families

Using his own story as a foster child and experience as a kinship care provider to a niece and nephew, Adrian McLemore urged attendees at the Center on Children and the Law’s spring conference to “look at families from a strengths-based approach,” and set aside assumptions that certain races are more prone to violence or less likely to take care of their kids. 

McLemore, a policy analyst, national strategic consultant, program officer and child welfare expert, gave the opening plenary at the meeting, held in Tysons Corner, Virginia. The conference had two parts: the  National Conference on Access to Justice for Children and Families, held on April 5-6, and the National Conference on Parent Representation, held on April 7-8.

The gathering of lawyers, judges, social workers and advocates explored developments in the children’s law field, particularly the impact and implications of COVID-19 for children and families and racial equity in child welfare cases. McLemore’s presentation was one example of how the meeting aimed to share power with people with lived experience in the child welfare system. 

McLemore recalled how he daydreamed about his ideal family as a child, including fantasy grandparents whose words he keeps front and center in his life: Nelson Mandela (“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”) and Maya Angelou (“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”)

He stressed the importance of seeing the humanity in parents even when they’re accused of mistreating their children, and to define them by their aspirations and contributions rather than their challenges. One way to “flip the narrative,” McLemore said, is to look at ways in which the child welfare system is punitive and to replace those with opportunities for families to show their strengths.

He described three strategies for this:

Just do it. Take a family-centered, strengths-based approach to establishing and maintaining a relationship with families and accomplishing change together. Set goals and make joint decisions with the children as well as adult family kin.

Do it well. Empower families by engaging, involving and lifting up their voices throughout the process. That way, McLemore said, they will be more motivated to make needed changes and buy into the plan to achieve reunification.

Do it often. Keep including family and kin as key stakeholders — and advisers. Too often, he said, the child welfare system dictates change to families: “Do X, Y, Z and you’ll get your kids back.” When kin decline to take in family, it is because they fear being unsuccessful at it. So let them tell you what’s possible and work with that, he said.  McLemore also reminded those at the meeting that they each have been given more than one chance; they should allow those in the child welfare system more than one chance, too.

Other speakers at the conferences included Kimberly Waller, associate commissioner for the Family and Youth Services Bureau at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and Andrea Elliott, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of “Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City.”

The conference provided training and networking opportunities for child law professionals who advocate for children, parents, agencies and kin in child welfare proceedings. Judges, Court Improvement Program directors, court administrators and attorneys who handle cases that intersect with child welfare, such as in immigration, education, housing and family law, also participated.