‘This is not a child safety crisis. It’s a poverty crisis, a racism crisis.’ – A social worker and former foster youth featured in HBO’s ‘Foster’ shares her vision of societal and system change

In the HBO documentary “Foster,” Jessica Chandler is a foster care social worker, a mother of two boys, and a former foster youth who speaks candidly about addressing the root causes of child welfare involvement—racism, historical trauma, poverty and family stress. Since age 18, Jessica has been an advocate “writing letters, sharing my story, and explaining to people that kids shouldn’t be penalized for the things we go through in poverty.” Jessica hopes the film can educate and mobilize viewers to invest in families. She shared her vision with Rise:

Q: What led you to work in the foster care system?

A: I am a former foster youth and I’ve been a social worker at the L.A. Department of Child and Family Services for 5 years. I entered foster care through probation, and I got into probation through survival. I was breaking the law for clothes and food. In foster care, I bounced around a lot. For the most part I was AWOL. I was in group homes but I stayed with family or friends. Anywhere but the system.

I had very few positive experiences or interactions with people in the system. Most of the negative things I internalized about myself I had heard from group home staff and professionals in the system. People don’t have very high hopes for you. They assume there is something about you that is probably bad. The system instills fear and pain.

When I got my master’s in social work, I came to the department to infiltrate. There’s a lot of criticisms of caseworkers—that they’re bad people, and they’re here for the money. I thought they kidnapped kids, so I wanted to find out.

I also wanted to be educated and to be able to articulate myself in ways that would be meaningful to people who have power. To do that, I am diving deeper, trying to understand my clients’ stories and what is really impacting them. Who is really failing families? What is bringing them to the department’s attention? 

Q: What have you learned in your work?

A: The foster care system doesn’t need to exist the way it does right now. This is not a child safety crisis, it’s a poverty crisis, a racism crisis. A lot of times I’m knocking on the door and the police are knocking on the next door. It’s the same problems, and someone either calls the police or calls the hotline. The majority of families I’ve worked with are really trying to figure it out. “How did I get here? How did this happen?” We need to be a lot more focused on the larger society issues we’re trying to address.

Recently a dad came to a team meeting and started sharing his story about losing his job, and what that means to him, to not be employed. He doesn’t feel confident. He’s internalized the idea of a man being a provider, and he is seeing himself as a failure. So treating the drugs and alcohol alone makes no sense. The solution has to come from the problem he’s having. He needs to address employment before he can address other issues in the family.

We have our formulas, our diagnoses—parenting class, drug programs. But a social worker isn’t supposed to be the one telling the family what the problem is. A family needs to discover their solutions for themselves.

It can be overwhelming for families to get to the root of their issues in this system, while the clock is ticking. It can be a lot to work through while the clock is ticking, and that discovery process and healing process is not going to be 6-12 months for some families. But the best thing for the child is that the system helps families make their own program, so they can get back together and the child doesn’t come back to the system’s door.  

Q: What do you think can make a difference for families?

A: To really change the system, you would have to change society. You would have to end poverty. You would have to get rid of violence. Mental health, substance abuse—these are symptoms. You would have to change how people have to cope and survive in their communities.

If we understand that families cannot immediately overcome all of those larger society issues, we can approach with more care and understanding. If we can’t join the family, the truth is the family is better off without us. Researchers have looked at the same population of children whether they entered care or stay home. Children in foster care are not more likely to be successful; kids who stay home have better outcomes. In their families, kids learn how to navigate their world to survive the poverty they’re born into. In foster care, children learn to navigate the system.

When the kids age out, they are still poor, still exposed to violence, and the majority of us go right back home. Unless children are going to leave foster care with a get-out-of-poverty free card, we’re better off putting the funding into the family so they have more of a chance to navigate within their real world. Take that foster care check and put it back in the family! My mom had six kids! When we went into foster care, how much money was that? We could’ve had someone coming every day to help my mom. 

I’ve seen that a very small percentage of human beings are not ever going to do well. We have some parents who have given up. There’s trauma and circumstances that they don’t feel the strength or capacity to overcome. Everyone else we need to have hope for and invest in. These people are champions. They are heroes for their children. If we invest money and time in these people, they can thrive.

Q: What have you learned from being a mother yourself?

A: When I turned 18, I aged out of foster care. That meant I became homeless overnight. A few months later, I found out I was pregnant. I didn’t want my baby taken away. I had just seen my nephew be detained and I was terrified. So I said yes to everything.

What actually helped me was Nurse-Family Partnership. When the visiting nurse came to my house, I thought she just wanted to tell me how to raise my child. But some of what she did was groundbreaking. She talked to me about my future, about what kind of man I wanted my son to be. I had never imagined my son becoming a man. For the first time, I had to think about my son becoming a leader, someone who is kind, caring, and a contributing member of society. This was a vision, and I had to be motivated.

Later, when I was potty training my son, I popped my son a couple of times. He wasn’t listening, and he definitely wasn’t using the potty. But I stopped and thought about how my mom used to hit me. I hated the way I was disciplined…and I was doing it. I remembered my nurse telling me, “Just put him in the crib. It’s OK to take a break and walk away.” At that moment, I was able to leave my son for 10 minutes. I gained my strength and told myself, “I’m a good mom.” I remembered my nurse’s reassurance that stable families go through things, too. I wasn’t abnormal, and it wasn’t because of how I was raised. After a few minutes, I felt a little kinder, stronger, and my son seemed ready, too.  

My visiting nurse was able to teach me things that I have been able to use throughout my parenting challenges because she gave me information. She taught me about brain development, timeframes, milestones. This was information I could use to advocate for and to protect myself.

I would love to expand home visitation programs. In other countries, they join families. I would love to explore a new public health model for what our country can do. 

We also can tailor supports to be more educational about the societal factors that affect families. We can talk about colonization, slavery, historical trauma. Parents are so surprised when I talk to them: “You are saying I didn’t choose to abuse my kids? That beating a child with an extension cord is like a switch off the tree, and that comes from slavery?” Generation after generation, we are doing a little better. Everyone has a story of doing better than their parent. What we need is the opportunity to educate each other about the things we do, where they come from, why they’re toxic and retrain each other.

Families and communities affected by the system have to have the power to influence how they’re helped. I was happy that Rise reached out to me because parents have to be one of the stakeholders saying how they want to be helped.

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