Lessons on Reimagining State Systems

I had the opportunity to join my colleagues at this year’s National Association of Counsel for Children’s (NACC) conference, From Crisis to Innovation: Toward a Family-Centered Justice System, in Denver, Colorado on August 13. Traveling to Denver during the pandemic was a new experience. But being surrounded by experts in the child welfare, juvenile justice, and criminal legal systems was powerful with some rightfully uncomfortable and honest conversations. The event brought together people who are passionate about changing systems to engage in conversations about how we can reimagine and redefine the ways we advocate for children and families. The conference included the active participation of two members of the Children’s Rights leadership team: Samantha Bartosz, deputy director of litigation strategy, in the first plenary session, and Shereen A. White, director of advocacy and policy, in the final plenary session. 

Opening session: Families Over Facilities: Ending the Use of Harmful and Unnecessary Institutions and Other Group Facilities in Child Welfare Systems

In the kickoff plenary, led by John Kelly, senior editor of The Imprint News, Samantha joined Vannessa Dorantes, Commissioner of the State of Connecticut Department of Children and Families, and Jordan Thompson, Racial Justice Organizer at ACLU of New Hampshire. In light of a long-overdue national reckoning on racial injustice, the ongoing dangers of COVID-19, new federal legislation, and continued reports of shocking conditions demanding action, there is increased urgency to end the unnecessary institutionalization of children in our child welfare systems.

Almost a quarter of young people experience an institution as their first placement in foster care—42% of them are Black youth. And thousands of children are sent out of state instead of receiving community support while living with their family or kin. The panel discussion highlighted the numerous harms, economic costs, and legal rights violated by the unnecessary use of congregate care and dove into the experiences of living in institutions along with practical solutions for change. These solutions are reflected in the recommendations found in Children’s Rights’ 2021 publication Families over Facilities — the tenets of which have been endorsed by Vanessa Dorantes, the NACC and over twenty national child welfare advocacy organizations and thought leaders.