According to Children’s Rights, more than 672,000 children spent time in foster care in 2019, and on any given day, more than 400,000 children in the U.S. are living in foster care. Due to workforce and placement shortages, the child welfare system is struggling to meet the needs of children and families. Child welfare veteran and social entrepreneur Dr. Amelia Franck Meyer believes that providing children with an “uninterrupted sense of belonging” is key to children’s thriving. She founded Alia Innovations, a national “do-tank” that supports child welfare leaders to partner with parents and young people to transform child welfare/foster care. Ashoka’s Manmeet Mehta spoke with Dr. Franck Meyer about what an evolved system would look like, how we get there, and the cost and long-term savings of reform.
Manmeet Mehta: Amelia, why is belonging so important in childhood?
Amelia Franck Meyer: Because children are vulnerable, and they know it, safety comes from having a consistent, nurturing protector who can provide an interrupted sense of belonging. Children fare 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 being moved from home to home. But research overwhelmingly shows that moving kids between caregivers has predictive long-term negative effects on children. If parents are unable to keep a child safe, we help systems to 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?
Franck Meyer: Neglect accounts for upwards of 80% of children entering care, which is often linked to issues of parental substance abuse, poverty, and other issues that disproportionately impact communities of color due to the impacts of systemic racism. Once in the system, Black, Brown, and Indigenous children are separated from their families at disproportionately higher rates when compared with White children. Black children in America have a 53% chance of being investigated as potential victims of child maltreatment by the time they turn 18 years old. That’s 16% higher than for all children combined.
Mehta: What cultural assumptions are shaping this system?
Franck Meyer: As a society, we tend to punish people who harm or neglect children by taking the children away. But it’s actually the children who are punished by this. We need to interrogate this cultural need to punish, and the idea that children can be redistributed to unrelated persons or institutional settings without consequences. We also need to challenge the assumption that the quality of parenting is not connected to personal circumstances that may result in conditions such as poverty or substance use. In other words, we need to consider “what happened” to parents, rather than “what’s wrong” with them.
Mehta: What is your vision for orienting the foster care system around belonging?
Franck Meyer: The current system perpetuates intergenerational trauma. When parents are punished, their children are left disconnected and vulnerable to perpetuating the cycle. To prevent this, we need to ensure not only that children are safe, but that their parents have what they need to parent safely. That means rethinking the provision of family support, because currently funding is made available only after the child is separated from their parents. The goal is to shift resources towards supporting families, and to have that support come from community-based systems rather than the government that has removal authority if a family is struggling.
Mehta: To change the system, you must have to work closely with the system…
Franck Meyer: Yes. At Alia, we partner with innovators and early adopters who know things need to change, but need help to make that change happen. Using tools co-designed with folks with lived expertise, Alia prepares system leaders to be trusted partners so they can co-design new ways of working with parents, young people, and others without causing further harm. In order to shift mindsets, redirect resources, and transform practice, it’s crucial that leaders do their own work first to be able to share power and partner more deeply with those with lived expertise.
Mehta: So you invite those within the system to participate as changemakers?
Franck Meyer: Yes, we can do better to meet the needs of children and families, if we work in partnership with impacted parents, families, young people, and communities. However, trust is very thin between the system and the communities it’s supposed to help, which means that system leaders have work to do to become more trustworthy partners, including learning how to share power, cultivate empathy and interrogate any unexamined biases they may have. To assist in this process, we’ve co-designed Dear Leaders, a tool that prompts the self-examination and reflection necessary to work alongside families to build more equitable and supportive ways of helping them stay safely together.
Mehta: What are the implications of recent abortion bans across the country? Many of the affected state and county foster care systems are already overwhelmed.
Franck Meyer: The implications cannot be overstated. Child welfare systems nationwide are already collapsing under existing workforce and placement shortages. Many are chronically understaffed. Some counties actually have zero child welfare workers and a chronic shortage of foster families. It is not uncommon for kids to be sleeping in child welfare offices and eating fast food for every meal. The idea that the current, beleaguered system could handle an additional influx of children in need of protection is ludicrous.
Mehta: What is currently inhibiting change?
Franck Meyer: This is a $29 billion dollar industry and there’s a lot of pressure to keep things as they are. The system was built on false assumptions that also inhibit change; for example, that children of color would fare better with White families, or poor children with wealthier families. We know this is simply not true.
Mehta: Do you think public health organizations should develop parenting education as a kind of primary prevention?
Franck Meyer: I don’t think parenting education is the answer. In general, folks know how to parent, but they’re unable to because of childhood trauma, substance abuse, poverty, and other challenges. We need to focus on supporting the healing of those underlying issues.
Mehta: You’ve shown that investing in families first, before foster placements are considered, requires a cultural shift. How are you working on this?
Franck Meyer: We already know how to get 70-80% of children living in foster homes back with their families. We know that it can be done, yet most systems are not investing in making that happen. We don’t need to build an entirely new system, we need to engage in approaches that center voices with lived expertise and voices of color as we shift the system towards a new mindset. At Alia, we call this new way of work an “UnSystem.” Our recent Social Return on Investment study shows that keeping children within their extended family not only reduces trauma but is more cost-effective. If you’re reading this and are interested in learning more, visit our resource page for many free resources, including studies showing how family separation causes harm and case studies of successful efforts that have dramatically reduced the number of children separated from their families or living outside the home.
Mehta: Amelia, for 30 years, you’ve worked to support children and families—first from inside the child welfare system, and more recently as a social entrepreneur. At this juncture, how optimistic are you?
Franck Meyer: Very! It wasn’t long ago that I used to be asked regularly to make the case for transforming the child welfare system. Since then, we’ve accumulated a lot of evidence showing that change needs to happen for the well-being of children. In addition, our Social Return on Investment study showed that in the current foster care system, the best case scenario, we lose up to $9.55 for every dollar we invest, resulting in billions of losses. Now, 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 condensed for length and clarity. Amelia Franck Meyer has been an Ashoka Fellow since 2015. She founded and leads Alia Innovations.