From Child Welfare to Child Well-Being: Dr. Jerry Milner Shares the Power of Prevention

Imagine a world where we rush to sweep up the debris any time a building collapses, rather than creating buildings that can withstand natural disasters. Imagine suffering from an incurable disease, then taking over-the-counter painkillers for it, rather than working to prevent diseases in the first place. Imagine living a childhood where, due to unforeseen circumstances and often through no fault of their own, your family may not have the financial resources to meet your basic needs. Finally, imagine being separated from them, unable to continue to enjoy your parents as a part of your life.

According to Dr. Jerry Milner, unfortunately, this scenario is all too familiar. On the one hand, families struggling to meet their basic needs may feel fear or shame in seeking help. On the other hand, our approach to these situations remains reactive as a nation.

“We can be a lot more proactive in our work,” he said. “Child welfare has always been a reactive system. We wait until a call comes into the hotline, then we go to fix it up. Trauma is [commonly] experienced in families who are often in crisis. We’re missing opportunities to be more proactive.”

Naturally, as an organization that has long dedicated itself to creating positive change, we lead a statewide prevention partnership, Bring Up Nebraska, to ensure that families can obtain the supports and services they need without spiraling into crisis. We wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Milner that families can remain together and thrive by preventing problems before they happen.

Moreover, we’re honored that Dr. Milner will be our keynote speaker for Changemakers 2022 on Tuesday, October 25, from 11:30 am CST – 1 pm CST. Changemakers is our yearly celebration of people who enact positive change for children and families. You can get tickets here.

Dr. Milner has undoubtedly worked hard to accomplish this goal. He led the US Children’s Bureau from 2017-2021. Most of that time, his role was Acting Commissioner of Administration for Children and Families. Currently, he’s the Director of The Family Justice Group.

As a social worker, Dr. Milner experienced the child welfare system firsthand. He also held the position of child welfare director in Alabama.

Dr. Milner said that one misperception that society perpetuates is misunderstanding poverty.

“All too often, poverty is mistaken for neglect,” he said. “As a result, children may be wrenched away from their family of origin and placed in the foster care system, where separation-based trauma ensues.”

The good news is Dr. Milner works tirelessly to remove the stigma from the term “child welfare” and define it as “child well-being.”

“What we can do is redefine our roles in families and communities and move much more toward a prevention-oriented system versus the family separation system,” said Dr. Milner.

He said that to shift toward a prevention model, we must reprioritize funding, especially at the federal level.

“We must direct our financial and community resources and efforts in helping families stay strong and together before we call [it] child abuse and neglect,” said Dr. Milner.

Dr. Milner added that there are many more misunderstandings about the causes for reporting families to the hotline.

“Most calls don’t involve abuse,” he said. “Most rings come in about whatever we call neglect, which is subjective across states and almost always involves families’ poverty.”

From there, Dr. Milner said that unchecked effects could lead to concerned parties calling a child abuse and neglect hotline.

Aside from reallocating funds, Dr. Milner said that as a community, we need to view families through a nonjudgmental lens.

He said, “One of the things in my ideal world that wouldn’t involve a ton of money, except through messaging, is a shift in how we view and respond to families, so we don’t regard families who are in trouble or made bad decisions as less than ourselves,” he said.

We’re incredibly honored that, in addition to driving home the message that preventing problems helps families thrive, Dr. Milner has long been a proponent of Bring Up Nebraska.

Fueled by hardworking individuals, businesses, organizations, and schools, Bring Up Nebraska is comprised of community collaboratives that all work together to strengthen families. These efforts range from providing affordable mental health services, quality childcare, cutting-edge afterschool programs, and healthy early childhood relationships.

“I love Bring Up Nebraska’s consistency in leadership, approach, values, shared beliefs, and getting people together to meet [families’] needs,” said Dr. Milner.

Moreover, as we witness other communities with statewide prevention programs, we concur with Dr. Milner: the results are palpable.

Dr. Milner said, “In Nebraska, there’s been a steady reduction in children in the [foster care] system. Bring Up Nebraska opens the door to us to say there is [successful] evidence that prevention and support work,” he said. “We can document [those results] by showing how our efforts actually keep families together and reduce trauma.”

From there, the results increase tenfold.

Dr. Milner said, “By doing that, we can shift thinking among funders and policymakers who see something to this early prevention work and begin to take those efforts seriously when policy and funding come to the forefront,” he said.

Dr. Milner said that ideally, he’d like to see fewer children placed in foster care.

To be sure, he said, some rare circumstances occur where children can’t remain safely with parents, but in 99 percent of those cases, children should be placed with family and people they’re close to who care about them.

According to Dr. Milner, in a perfect world, not only would children remain with loved ones, but most of the funding would also go to family preservation and helping them meet their basic needs.

“I would have ‘neglect’ as a category for reporting to child welfare be a narrowly defined concept because sometimes, parents are simply poor and should be supported to remain together,” said Dr. Milner.

And in this perfect world, he said, these family support systems would begin in the community.

“I would change child welfare to child and family well-being,” said Dr. Milner. “When families can go into community organizations and seek the help they need in their communities, there’s a greater chance that they will receive support before the crisis. Right now, expressing need in a child welfare environment is a threatening environment,” he said.

According to Dr. Milner, not many families go to the child welfare agency due to fear that their kids will be taken away, and they often are.

Another common misconception about children in foster care is that they are often in unsafe situations. The actuality is that many, if not most, of these children, aren’t actually in dangerous situations, said Dr. Milner. However, if they are, then, of course, foster care placement may be necessary.

Overall, Dr. Milner envisions a less traumatic separation process for those children who are separated from their families. There have been alternative models to traditional foster care, in which children can regularly interact with their parents.

“There’s no reason not to [integrate children’s parents in their lives] unless it’s an unsafe situation, of which there aren’t many,” said Dr. Milner.

“Integrating parents into their children’s foster care experiences is my idea for strengthening foster care when it’s absolutely necessary. I’ve seen that work,” he said.

In ideal scenarios, parents can be closely integrated into their children’s lives, even when separated by placements!

Dr. Milner said, “[Parents] can still come into that home and parent their children, help walk [their children] to school, and help them go to bed at night. Rather than substituting those roles with someone else, [birth families] can be supported to take them on and continue their parenting relationship with their children.”

We agree with Dr. Milner and other child welfare experts. We have a lot of work left to do—we couldn’t be more excited to host him as our Changemakers keynote speaker, where he can elaborate more on the importance of strengthening families.

If you enjoyed this interview, there’s a lot more to come. We hope to see you at our yearly celebration on Tuesday, October 25, at 11:30 am. You’ll also receive firsthand updates about some of the incredible work we’re glad to play a role in throughout the state.

Get tickets to Changemakers today.

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Nebraska Children and Families Foundation supports children, young adults and families at risk with the overall goal of giving our state's kids what they need to reach their full potential. We do this by building strong communities that support families so their children can grow up to be thriving, productive adults.

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