More than 672,000 children spent time in foster care in 2019, according to Children’s Rights, and on any given day, more than 400,000 children in the US are living in foster care. Due to labor shortages and placements, the child welfare system struggles to meet the needs of children and families. dr. Amelia Franck Meyer, a child welfare veteran and social entrepreneur, believes that providing children with an “uninterrupted sense of belonging” is key to children’s prosperity. She founded Alia Innovations, a national “do-tank” that supports child welfare leaders to work with parents and young people to transform child welfare/foster care. Manmeet Mehta from Ashoka spoke to Dr. Franck Meyer on what an evolved system would look like, how we get there, and the costs and long-term savings of reforms.
Manmeet Mehta: Amelia, why is belonging so important in childhood?
Amelia Franck Meyer: Because children are vulnerable, and they know it, security comes from having a consistent, nurturing protector who can provide an interrupted sense of belonging. Children do better when their protector is someone they know, trust and love. For decades, we’ve assumed that physical safety is more important than belonging, even if it means moving from house to house. But research overwhelmingly shows that moving children between caregivers has long-term predictive negative effects on children. If parents are unable to protect a child, we help systems identify someone in their family or an already trusted adult.
Mehta: Let’s take a step back: how does the foster care system work? How do children enter and move through the system?
Frank Meijer: Neglect accounts for more than 80% of children entering shelters, often linked to substance abuse and parental poverty issues and other issues that disproportionately affect communities of color due to the effects of systemic racism. Once in the system, black, brown, and indigenous children are separated from their families at a disproportionate rate compared to white children. Black children in America have a 53% chance of being screened as potential victims of child abuse by the time they turn 18. That is 16% higher than for all children combined.
Mehta: What cultural assumptions make up this system?
Frank Meijer: As a society, we tend to punish people who hurt or neglect children by taking the children away. But it is actually the children who are being punished by this. We need to question this cultural need to punish, and the idea that children can be redistributed to unrelated persons or institutional institutions without consequence. We must also challenge the assumption that the quality of parenting is not related to personal circumstances that can lead to conditions such as poverty or substance use. In other words, we need to think about ‘what happened to the parents’, rather than ‘what’s wrong’ with them.
Mehta: What is your vision for orienting the foster care system towards belonging?
Frank Meijer: The current system perpetuates intergenerational traumas. When parents are punished, their children become disconnected and vulnerable to perpetuating the cycle. To prevent this, we must not only make sure that children are safe, but that their parents get what they need to raise them safely. That means we need to rethink the provision of family support, as only funding is currently being made available after the child is separated from his parents. The goal is to shift resources toward supporting families, and to have that support come from community-based systems rather than the government having removal powers when a family is struggling.
Mehta: To change the system, you have to work closely with the system…
Frank Meijer: Yes. At Alia, we work with innovators and early adopters who know things need to change, but who need help to make that change happen. Using tools designed together with people with experience, Alia prepares system leaders to be trusted partners so they can co-design new ways of working with parents, youth and others without causing further harm. To change mindsets, refocus resources, and transform practices, it’s critical that leaders do their own work first to share power and collaborate more deeply with people with lived expertise.
Mehta: So you invite those within the system to participate as changemakers?
Frank Meijer: Yes, we can better meet the needs of children and families when we work with affected parents, families, youth and communities. However, trust between the system and the communities it is supposed to help is very thin, meaning that system leaders have work to do to become more trustworthy partners, including learning how to share power, cultivate empathy, and avoid any unexamined biases. that they were able to interrogate. To support this process, we co-designed Dear leadersa resource that encourages self-examination and reflection needed to work with families to build more equitable and supportive ways to help families stay safe together.
Mehta: What are the implications of recent abortion bans across the country? Many of the affected state and county foster care systems have already been overwhelmed.
Frank Meijer: The implications cannot be overstated. National child welfare systems are already collapsing under existing staffing and placement shortages. Many are chronically understaffed. Some provinces don’t even have child welfare workers and a chronic shortage of foster families. It is not uncommon for children to sleep in child welfare offices and eat fast food at every meal. The idea that the current beleaguered system could accommodate an additional influx of children in need of protection is ludicrous.
Mehta: What is currently inhibiting change?
Frank Meijer: This is a $29 billion industry and there is a lot of pressure to leave things as they are. The system was based on false assumptions that also stand in the way of change; for example, that children of color would do better with white families, or poor children with richer families. We know this just isn’t true.
Mehta: Do you think public health organizations should develop parenting education as a form of primary prevention?
Frank Meijer: I don’t think parenting is the answer. In general, people know how to parent but cannot because of childhood trauma, substance abuse, poverty, and other challenges. We need to focus on supporting the healing of those underlying issues.
Mehta: You showed that investing in families first, before considering foster care, requires a cultural shift. How do you work on this?
Frank Meijer: We already know how to get 70-80% of children in foster care back to their families. We know it’s possible, but most systems don’t invest to make it possible. We don’t need to build a whole new system, we need to engage in approaches that center voices with lived expertise and voices of color as we shift the system to a new mindset. At Alia we call this new way of working an “UnSystem”. Our recent Social return on investment research shows that keeping children within their extended family not only reduces trauma, but is also more cost-effective. If you’re reading this and want to learn more, visit our source page for many free resources, including studies showing how family separation causes harm and helpful case studies of successful efforts that have dramatically reduced the number of children separated from their families or living outside the home.
Mehta: Amelia, you have worked for children and families for 30 years – first from the child welfare system, and more recently as a social entrepreneur. How optimistic are you right now?
Frank Meijer: Terribly! It wasn’t that long ago that I was regularly asked to advocate for the transformation of the child welfare system. Since then, we’ve accumulated a lot of evidence that shows the need for change for the well-being of children. In addition, our Social Return on Investment study showed that in the current foster care system, we lose, at best, up to $9.55 for every dollar we invest, resulting in billions in losses. The calls we get are, “We know it needs to change. Where do we start?” We know better, know it’s time to do better!
This interview has been shortened for length and clarity. Amelia Franck Meyer has been an Ashoka Fellow since 2015. She founded and leads Alia Innovations.