If asked, most of us in the human services field would likely suggest that we are optimists. It is hard to imagine any of us dedicating our professional careers to improving child and family outcomes if we thought the situation was hopeless.
But look deep inside and ask yourself if you really believe that lasting systemic change is possible. Do you face each day with a deep abiding certainty that we will succeed in our own lifetimes? Do you have a firm picture of what success looks like?
We don't have to look too far to see what success isn't. I think we all would agree that the current state of affairs for vulnerable children in America is not an acceptable vision of success. Based on current trends, if nothing changes by the year 2020 at least 14 million more of America's children will be confirmed as victims of abuse or neglect, 9 million more will experience foster care, and approximately 300,000 will age out of foster care.
Moreover, if nothing changes between now and the year 2020 approximately 22,500 children will die from abuse and neglect, most of them before they reach their fifth birthday. These deaths will occur right here in America, the greatest nation in the world, unless we do something to prevent them.
What can we do? What should we do? What must we do?
We can start by acknowledging and learning from what has already been done to improve the lives of children in this country. We can continue to acknowledge the daily and yearly contributions that are made by committed individuals across the nation. We must refrain from believing the often-told story that the entire child welfare system is broken and needs to be rebuilt or reformed from the ground up.
Casey Family Programs has made a commitment to significantly improve the outcomes and opportunities for vulnerable children in America by the year 2020. The success of our 2020 Strategy for stronger children, families, and communities depends on the engagement of families, communities, nonprofit agencies, state agencies, policy makers, corporate America, and others who share our discontent with the status quo.
Our commitment to this effort is not simply an exercise in optimism. It is a commitment that is deeply rooted in our forty-year history, during which time we have witnessed the successes of others and demonstrated successes of our own. We have all witnessed significant improvements in the three largest child welfare jurisdictions in America: Los Angeles County, New York City, and the state of Illinois.
But these three do not stand alone. Similar success can be found in Pennsylvania's Allegheny County, the state of Michigan, and in many other jurisdictions across the country. We must learn from these successes and commit our resources and energies to ensuring that every vulnerable child in America has the same opportunities and successes.
Our 2020 Strategy targets four major goals:
- Reduce the foster care population by 50 percent and convince state and federal lawmakers to reinvest the savings in building a stronger human services system.
- Ensure that children in foster care have at least the same high school and college graduation rates as their peers in the general population.
- Ensure that young adults aging out of the foster care system have at least the same employment opportunities and rate of employment as their peers in the general population.
- Ensure that young adults aging out of the foster care system are not impaired in their daily functioning by mental health issues related to family trauma and/or their stay in foster care.
Is this too much for a vulnerable child to ask from a nation that has been able to send people into outer space for more than forty years? Is this too much for a vulnerable child to ask from a nation that freely gives of its resources and talents to fight AIDS, hunger, and human rights violations around the world every single day? Is this too much for a vulnerable American child to ask?
There are those who will read this and immediately think that this is either impossible or unnecessary. There are others who will read this and say, "I'm all in." Those who are all in, remember the words of Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
Casey Family Programs will invest all its time, energy, talent, and resources in this 2020 Strategy for stronger, children, families, and communities in America. Optimism alone won't guarantee success. Success will only be realized through cooperation, intelligence, hard work, and a steadfast focus on solutions for vulnerable children and families.
There is no more time for pessimism, ego, or isolation. Our children's lives and their futures are at stake. Is this too much for a vulnerable child in America to ask?
William C. Bell is President and CEO of Casey Family Programs in Seattle, the largest national operating foundation dedicated solely to improving the lives of youth in foster care.