Re-imagining Child Welfare as a Loving and Compassionate Place: Creating Empowering Organizations

Can child welfare be a place where children, families and even workers feel loved? What is the role of compassion in the administration of child welfare? Can child protection be “re-imagined” as a service that truly empowers others?

Child welfare has always been near and dear to my heart. Since I was 15, I wanted to work for an organization that helped children and their families have better lives. I was born in Peru, and even as a young child, I was witness to the many injustices endured by children. I now work for a child welfare agency, and for me it has been a dream come true. I am surrounded by truly loving and compassionate people, who got into the world of child welfare to help children and families. This commitment to the welfare of children and their families keeps workers engaged in the work especially when the work is the most challenging. The way child welfare is currently structured, though, I feel interferes with enabling workers to be truly compassionate and loving towards clients, to each other and even towards themselves. The system we have in Canada, nay the world, is one based on fear. Where fear reigns, love cannot flourish. This fear has arisen due to the way child deaths are managed by the media, the public, the ministry and even ourselves. What happens when we are in fear is that we contract, become afraid of doing the job, of being sued, of making a mistake, and we stop being willing to love and have faith in families in an open and transparent manner. We become controlling and afraid to share power. The Ontario Child Welfare system is based on ‘standards’ developed in order to measure the work as a form of accountability. On paper, it truly sounds good. Standard approaches for all people. However, child welfare is not the price club…if I was a client intersecting with child protection, I would want the work to be tailored to my own life circumstance. The structure we have in Ontario is based on the premise that as a worker my job is to “protect” children above all else, which is good but this is often where it stops. I remember having a conversation with someone from the Child Advocate’s office who said to me, “you know, in child welfare you spend all of your time bubble wrapping the kids until their 18 birthday…and then when they age out of care, you give them a bicycle and put them on the 401 and expect them to flourish”. This really stuck with me…because I had seen how the protection of children, at times, prevented children in care from truly living their lives. How sleepovers became a sudden potential for abuse, how ATVs were banned in case someone fell off. All of these “protections” were based on fear, not love. Love gives freedom to explore. Anyone who is familiar with the circle of security model understands that children need a secure base and the possibility to explore the world to build confidence in their own abilities to overcome adversity. The sponsoring thought of the “protection” approach is based on victim-hood. Children are “victims” that need to be protected from harmful parents instead of being regarded as resilient survivors. As stated in my interview with Erica Wright, (former youth in care) children in government care are often “pitied” for having experienced abuse (Podcast Episode 3: Creating Compassionate Places for Youth Pity is a dis-empowering emotion as it assumes the people do not have enough power to help themselves or know better. However, I have met many very strong, resilient and insightful children. When the victim mentality becomes a child’s whole identity, it prevents children from stepping into their full potential. Instead of having a child welfare system that focuses on youth’s empowerment and tapping into their resilience, we have a system that needs to “give” children and youth things in order for them to flourish. Of course it is important for us to meet the needs of the children…however, what are we doing to remind children that they have more power than they believe? That they are worthy of love and affection? How are we getting them to love and be compassionate to themselves? How are we getting them to feel inspired to achieve beyond their dreams? Additionally, do we do this for parents?

The work of child welfare should be early help. Coming to assist the family after an incident has already taken place may be too late. Our job, I feel, is to assist in the elimination of conditions that make child abuse and neglect possible. It starts with shifting the consciousness that allows poverty, income inequality, and domestic violence, to exist. What is going on for us that we continue to allow these experiences to exist? How do we benefit from them? What is going on for individuals who are hurtful towards others that they feel they have to hurt or take from others, whether money or power or otherwise? A truly empowered person does not need to disempower others. They know that true power comes from within. One of the best sayings I ever heard was that greed is the hoarding of money. Therefore, those who are greedy are lacking personal security when it comes to wealth. Helping those individuals feel more secure may assist the world in becoming a place where income equality exists.

I know it seems like a strange and challenging concept but I believe that the people that cause the most harm to children are the ones that need the most love. I have learnt from being a parent that love is taught. How you treat your children, is how they treat others. Children are good imitators. What must be going on for people who feel the need to hurt a helpless child? What anger, fear, despair, emptiness, drives someone to torture another being who only wants to be loved? What aspects of themselves are they rejecting? For some, this proposition may be ridiculous because we have been taught to hate others, reject them and punish them for their hurtful acts but this is the exact same thing, these people are doing to children. I do not believe that anger, fear, hate, is our natural state. Frankly, it does not make any biological sense. People who are narcissistic and who hurt or torture others are eventually separated from the community…from their peers. As seen in the events that have occurred during COVID, it is hard to survive on your own. I believe that the work that we must do as workers with families is to help them remember their own power, worth, resilience and to tap into their own self-love and compassion. Allowing families to face their own shame and the trauma they have experienced may help them become parents that are more loving. This is the hardest work to do. Facing a parent who has harmed a child, and seeing them with compassion and trying to understand what motivated the behaviour and believing that they can change, requires us to tap into our own love and compassion. Child welfare is often crisis driven, fear based and emotionally exhausting. To be able to hold the space for those who hurt children, workers themselves must be given the space to practice mindfulness, and compassion and love for themselves.

Here are a few ways that I think child welfare should change in order to make it a more compassionate and loving place for workers, children and families:

1-Allowing workers to practice self-love and compassion. A person cannot give from an empty cup. Workers must be supported in taking care of their own needs, and being able to hold the space for themselves. As a field, we need to be more active than passive in helping workers increase their ability to cope with the challenges of the work. My friends have seen many horrible things…things that stayed with them for a while. However, have they been given the opportunity to grieve? Grieve with their families? With their communities? I believe the practice of self-compassion would be very helpful to workers to enable to hold space for themselves and for others when the work gets hard. Self-compassion also requires boundaries so workers should be encouraged to be honest about what aspects of the work they can or cannot do. If a worker is triggered by domestic violence cases but can do cases of neglect that should be ok. Trauma-informed practices are necessary in child protection. Not only does trauma-informed practice enable workers to better understand the motivations behind their own behaviours and service user behaviours, it also enables workers to be more compassionate and understanding of each other’s behaviours and at times, trespasses.

2-Focusing on relationships: even though the quality of the relationship between workers and their clients is not a “standard”, this is something that should be examined. I feel relationships are the only thing that matter in whether the outcome of the interaction with families is successful or not. How we show up with those families and kids matters immensely. I have heard from youth in care that the smallest things that workers did often had a huge impact on them, both positively and negatively. Anyone who knows the story of Mother Theresa of Calcutta knows the power of loving presence. Being able to be with people in their darkest hour and show compassion towards them goes a long way in ensuring families trust workers enough to be truly honest when they are struggling. Workers must be willing to unconditionally love and accept the families as they are, without judgement and reservation and that is tough, especially when they cannot do so for themselves. Moreover, even though relationships do not cost anything, in order for workers to work with families in a compassionate way, the Ministry must relax the standards enough to enable workers to engage families in a therapeutic way. If the Ministry is truly invested in eradicating child deaths, and ensuring the well-being of children, they must allow workers to engage families in a therapeutic way for as long as it takes to help them remember their own power.

2-Slowing down- Child welfare agencies have to allow workers to slow down and be mindful. Child welfare is constantly on fast forward. It is constantly living in future fear. Workers must be allowed to practice mindfulness and self-care. Mindfulness enables us to work from present moment awareness and enables us to make better decisions that are not based on fear. Fear comes from either a past worry or future worry, and when we make decisions from a place of worry, decisions are often constricting. As seen in the evidence provided by Harvard University, as little as 20 minutes of mindfulness-based meditation can lead to a reduction of stress and anxiety. People who are less anxious tend to make better decisions. They are also more likely to collaborate as people who are in fear have a greater need to control outcomes.

3-Focus on Funding-We need to move away from the worry that there will never be enough funding. Focusing on funding keeps us focused on lack instead of reminding staff that what workers bring to the table is much more valuable that anything that money can offer….themselves. Yes, we need enough staff to do the work… but adding more workers or getting more money is not necessarily going to mean better service for clients. If child welfare agencies were allowed to divert the funds to support families in getting increased resources/knowledge and/or basic needs met and accessing programs to help them be more loving and compassionate to themselves, then I think we would truly see value for money. Families, children and youth would feel supported and workers would feel valued and empowered to provide assistance.

4-Allowing workers the flexibility to meet families to provide tailored approaches. Workers need the opportunity to work with families in creative ways. If workers make a mistake, then agencies and ministries should support them. Does this mean that no children will be apprehended? Maybe not. If children need to be temporarily rehomed, we should still work with parents. Many of those parents continue to have children even after their children become wards of the state. Abuse is intergenerational so continuing to work with families is truly important.

When a child death happens, we must mourn, and learn and continue to strive to create a better world for all children but this does not come from a place of fear. We should strive to be compassionate with workers and families instead of focusing on blame and shame.

5-Changing the mandate-moving the mandate away from protection to empowerment will help workers focus on the goal of not only ensuring children are safe, but also assisted them to tap into their own unlimited potential. Children and youth should be supported to have dreams, to achieve, to learn to love and be compassionate to themselves and others. Protection is only one small aspect of well being. Families also should be supported to become empowered. Addictions are often the result of individuals not wanting to face their own traumas and addictions often cause further and further shame. Practicing and teaching compassion to families to remember the love that exists within their own heart, may go a long way in influencing the level of abuse and neglect experienced in the world.

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