CFCC 2023 Symposium Blog Series – Keynote Recap

CFCC Executive Director Aubrey Edwards-Luce and Think of Us CEO and Founder Sixto Cancel pose standing in dark clothing in a room with yellow walls after their keynote discussion.

CFCC Executive Director Aubrey Edwards-Luce and Think of Us CEO and Founder Sixto Cancel

On Wednesday, September 27, 2023, CFCC hosted an important day-long symposium focused on The Harm of Removal to Children, Parents, and Communities at the University of Baltimore School of Law. This blog is one in a series of four posts about the CFCC 2023 Symposium. 

On Tuesday, September 26, 2023, CFCC Faculty Director Shanta Trivedi hosted a pre-symposium book talk with Sandy White Hawk, Jane Spinak, and Alan Dettlaff.  You can view the recording of the event and read CFCC Executive Director Aubrey Edwards-Luce’s live thread of the Pre-Symposium Book Talk here.

Photo Description: CFCC Executive Director Aubrey Edwards-Luce and Think of Us CEO and Founder Sixto Cancel pose standing in dark clothing in a room with yellow walls after their keynote discussion.  

Sixto Cancel’s keynote conversation with CFCC Executive Director Aubrey Edwards-Luce masterfully wove together individual stories and statistics to make the case for increased supports to families and kin. Cancel shared from personal experience of growing up in the foster care system, emphasizing the importance of data-driven transformation and involving people with lived experience in problem-solving. Sixto Cancel is the founder and CEO of Think of Us, which was awarded $47.5 million by TED to support the organization in reaching its $100 million goal to create a system that invests in parents and families, particularly focusing on kinship care. Think of Us aims to allocate $1.4 billion over the next four years to enable kin to be compensated like foster parents and establish a kin-specific process. 

Cancel provided a foundation to understand how children are separated from their parents and families in the family regulation system. First, when a community member calls the child abuse and neglect hotline, the child protective agency decides how to respond to the allegation(s). If the agency elects to investigate the allegation(s), investigators in the child protection services (CPS) unit will question the child(ren) and parents (usually without an attorney present) and search through the family’s household for evidence of abuse or neglect. The agency then decides whether it is safe for the child(ren) to remain in their household or not. CPS can frequently bypass the need for a court order to separate the child(ren) from their families, if it determines that remaining in their home poses an imminent risk of harm to the child(ren).  

Throughout the investigative process, racial disparities persist. Cancel shared that approximately 7 million children are the subject of a child abuse report every year – nearly 10% of all children in the country! Less than 1 million reports are investigated every year because the other 6 million reports do not sufficiently allege child abuse or neglect. Racial disproportionality is evident at the investigation stage (as it is at every stage of child welfare cases), as 53% of Black youth will experience a CPS investigation—more than 1.5 times the general rate.  

Cancel highlighted the variation in CPS practice across the country. Shockingly, 67 counties in 11 states account for approximately 40% of the roughly 200,000 children who are removed into foster care yearly. The concentration of these removals indicate that these 67 counties are having a drastically different experience than the rest of the country. Further research and exploration are warranted to see how removal decisions are made in these 67 counties. Cancel espoused a response to abuse and neglect allegations that centers around support instead of investigations. Cancel also explained that the data suggests that CPS reform efforts should also include a focus on suburban and rural settings because the majority of children in foster care are living in counties with less than 1,000 CPS investigations a year.  

Think of Us is investing its money and expertise in the development of a system of support for families. Cancel raised concerns about the current allocation of funds and resources within the child welfare system. For example, Cancel reported that the federal government gives state agencies $200 million in federal reimbursement for using outdated software. Instead, Cancel maintained these funds could be better allocated to increase support for older foster youth, increase support for prevention programs (especially those led by people of color), and/or assist kin who are keeping children out of foster care with strangers. 

Cancel underscored how poor families are disproportionately impacted by the harm of removal. Eighty percent of children in foster care are removed from families making less than $50k/yr. Thirty-seven percent of families that have experienced removal make less than half the federal poverty rate, which equates to $13,875 for a family of four in 2022. Efforts to decrease removals and develop ways to mitigate the harm of removal must address poverty’s role in CPS investigations. When reunification happens, many children return to families with limited financial resources. And in the 47 states that have child abuse and neglect registries, parents who have experienced removal are often banned from taking jobs in certain sectors. Cancel stressed the need for research to analyze how child abuse and neglect registries are impacting Black parents’ ability to find work and thrive. 

Cancel also called for more investment into kinship and expansive prevention services to prevent children from experiencing the harm of removal. Greater philanthropic and government investments are needed to support organizations that don’t turn away families with high needs. These types of organizations have developed a continuum of services for families with high needs that others should replicate. To reduce the number of children harmed by removal, communities need greater investments in in-home prevention services that go beyond the Family First Prevention Services Act’s funding for parenting skills, mental health, and substance use treatment. 

In his closing remarks, Cancel charged listeners to approach lived experts as co-designers of solutions. Too often, we limit the role of lived experts to the identification of problems. Instead, we should also collaborate with lived experts as solution finders.  In his final charge, Cancel noted that there are multiple ways to make change and called for unity among those working to re-design the child welfare system. Divisiveness offers us nothing, but by working together we can develop the changes needed to address the harm of removal.

Watch the recording here.

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