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Holistic Approach Needed to Foster Care, Experts Say


William C. Bell says child welfare rules should be changed to minimize separations between children and parents.
Photo by Ken Levinson

A major shift in social work’s approach to child welfare is necessary to stave off a crisis in foster care, experts said on Feb. 25 at a colloquium to welcome the Graduate School of Services’ (GSS) newest endowed chair.

“We must choose to change our paradigm,” said William C. Bell, president and CEO of Casey Family Programs and former New York City commissioner of the Administration for Children’s Services. “Even today, as we have embarked upon the 21st century, we still have a system that far too frequently sees lengthy separations between children and their parents … as being the desired intervention.

“We must be willing to see children in the context of a family, to see families in the context of their community,” he said. “We cannot adequately intervene to resolve human suffering through silo-based intervention.”

Bell was the keynote speaker at the James R. Dumpson Colloquium, recognizing Brenda McGowan, D.S.W., the school’s newest Dumpson Chair in Child Welfare Studies, and celebrating the upcoming 100th birthday of the chair’s namesake.

James R. Dumpson, Ph.D., who served as GSS dean from 1967 to 1974 and is renowned for his pioneering work in child welfare, was on hand for the event. He will turn 100 on April 5.

“This appointment is a real honor for me,” McGowan told the audience of 150 faculty members and social workers. “When I moved to the city 40 years ago, his was one of the first names I heard as an important person in child welfare. I wasn’t sure I’d ever meet him … but I got lucky.”

Bell is head of one of the largest foundations working nationally to improve public policy and practices in the country’s foster care system, which serves some 500,000 children. If the nation doesn’t change its efforts in child welfare, he said, by 2020 about seven million more children will have gone through the foster care system.

Also speaking were Gladys Carrion Esq. (CBA ’73), commissioner of New York State’s Office of Children and Family Services; Gerald Mallon, D.S.W. (GSS ’80), director of the National Resource Center for Family Centered Practice and Permanency Planning; and Carol Wilson Spigner, D.S.W., Kenneth L.M. Pray Professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice.

Spigner said that the welfare of children is intricately tied to the issues of “gender, economics and race” in the nation, since almost all foster children come from groups that are systematically disadvantaged. Going back to the 19th century “era of the settlements,” she said, would set the right model by working not just for children, but for better job wages, health care and greater community-based decision-making.

Finally, Bell urged the social work community to learn how to broker power to help enable legislation on behalf of the poor and underrepresented.

“Power concedes nothing without a demand,” Bell said, quoting Frederick Douglas.
Read more about Brenda McGowan, D.S.W., the Dumpson Chair in Child Welfare Studies, “Newest Endowed Chair Works to Stabilize Child Welfare Staffing.”

– Janet Sassi


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