Building Childhood Relational Health

Protecting the Sanctity of Family Connection and Belonging

The concept of relational health, defined as a state of well-being and connectedness focused on a person’s ability to develop and maintain nurturing individual and social relationships, is surfacing among child advocates with increased frequency.

Congregate care creates a situation where youth constantly live in survival mode, even after they leave care. It distances them more from their families and communities. It takes away their ability to have healthy relationships and creates a cycle of violence and isolation. Youth need to feel supported with meaningful connections.

Jonathan DeJesus, Advisory Committee Member

When children encounter a traumatic event—often identified as Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs—like being separated from their families and placed in the foster system, they experience a unique type of stress known as toxic stress, altering their brain development, creating several other negative health consequences, and dramatically reducing life expectancy by up to 20 years. But ACEs are preventable. Establishing and maintaining safe, stable, and nurturing relationships and environments for children is essential to their development, health, and well-being.

Earlier this year, Children’s Rights published the report Are You Listening? in which impacted youth shared their powerful accounts of experiencing isolation and inconsistent, harmful relationships in congregate settings.

In July, the Imprint published an article, The Need to Prioritize Relational Health, written by David Kelly and Jerry Milner, former advisor and associate commissioner at the United States Children’s Bureau and current co-directors of the Family Justice Group (FJG), following the publication of their journal, The Harm of Disconnection. In the article, they discuss how the child welfare industry—more accurately called the family policing industry—negatively impacts the relational health of children and families.

Society, including the family policing system, must stop perpetuating racist ideologies and myths about Black fathers that minimize their contributions to the family unit, for they too are integral to relational health. I know how sacred my, and my siblings’, relationship is with my father, and, his with us, and how our well-being is connected to this bond.

Shereen A. White, Director of Advocacy & Policy

Most recently, the FJG’s Family Justice Journal published a Special Fall Issue of visual essays focused on family connection and bonding. Several child advocates, including Shereen A. White, Children’s Rights Director of Advocacy & Policy, were asked to reflect on the role of relational health and imagine how to better center methods that value and encourage critical family relationships.

In her essay, Shereen highlights the crucial role of Black fatherhood through the lens of her personal experience as the daughter of a man who was taken into New Jersey’s foster system, separated from his mother, father, and sisters, in his early years and aged-out at 18 years old. Shereen emphasizes the need for society to stop perpetuating racist misconceptions of Black fathers and the importance of protecting the connection and sense of belonging for all families.

Bolstering family bonds can help stop the cycles that perpetuate generational trauma and ensure that every child realizes their fullest potential. Our current structures and practices too often sever children’s connection to their families and culture, destroying families and denying communities the benefits of the contributions they could have made. We must commit ourselves to protecting the sanctity of family bonds.