Bridging Political Divides: United Family Advocates leverages shared values to make progress in Child Welfare Reform
Political polarization is increasingly stalling the progress toward solving America’s most pressing challenges. It can be difficult for advocates and policymakers to focus on shared values and common goals, rather than points of disagreement. However, those who lean into collaboration across political divides are often the ones finding the most effective solutions.
United Family Advocates (UFA), a grantee of Stand Together Trust, embodies this approach. As a bipartisan coalition of child and family advocates, they are working toward a more compassionate and just child welfare system, focusing on support rather than separation. Despite a broad political spectrum among its advocates, UFA is united by a shared vision of a future where children and families benefit from “community investment rather than government intervention.”
The ways they have structured and scaled their organization serves as an example to anyone seeking to bridge divides to find common ground solutions. UFA doesn’t currently operate with full-time employees. Instead, it’s a dynamic coalition of lawyers, advocates, professors, executive directors, and founders of various community organizations, with some members having personal experience of foster care, all advocating for better conditions for children and families. Their strength comes from hands-on experience with the child welfare system, and deep local knowledge, allowing them to identify and address issues often unknown or overlooked in bureaucratic processes.
The valuable insights UFA members gain in their local communities uniquely inform the policies they craft. Additionally, whether educating legislators on their policies, or advocating for them in media outlets and communities, UFA members can cite tangible examples of how a proposed solution can work, or is already at work, in their jurisdictions.
The dedication and passion of UFA’s members have resulted in significant achievements. For example, UFA worked to educate the public and lawmakers about the importance of disentangling poverty from neglect, which resonated with Rep. Gwen Moore, who in 2019 proposed the Family Poverty is Not Child Neglect Act (HR 6233). The legislation would prevent agencies from separating families for conditions relating to poverty, instead requiring that families be provided material assistance to stay together. This language was incorporated into the pending Stronger Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (HR 485 of 2021).
To shed light on their model and future plans, Stand Together Trust interviewed two members of UFA’s Steering Committee: Andrew Brown, Associate Vice President of Policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), and Kathleen Creamer, Managing Attorney at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia.
Stand Together Trust: A lot of the big issues in the field right now seem to involve right sizing or clarifying the appropriate role for the government and child and family well-being. Could you talk a little bit about how UFA thinks about that?
Creamer: It’s something we think about a lot. One thing that draws a lot of us together across the political spectrum is a sense that the child welfare system has fundamentally gotten it wrong. To me, words like right sizing or correcting really don’t get to the point that I think all of us feel passionate about, which is that the edifice of this system is deeply flawed. The idea that you keep kids safe by separating them from everything and everyone they know and love is false. That’s a false premise that unfortunately, today’s child welfare system is built upon, and it’s been built in a very bipartisan way.
Republicans and Democrats alike share responsibility for a lot of the federal laws and policies that undergird this really faulty edifice. What I really love about working with UFA is we disagree about so much, but we all agree that the edifice, the core values that built our child welfare system, are faulty. We believe strongly that we have to focus on family first — family matters. You can’t help children outside of the context of their own families without risking significant damage to their well-being. There is a really flawed structural design in the system, today, and that’s why I feel so grateful to be working with UFA.
Society incentivizes taking extreme either-or positions and that’s at odds with the reality of what’s needed in advancing child and family well-being. Could you talk a little bit about how you navigate that?
Brown: I was having this conversation recently with colleagues about some polling that we did at Texas Public Policy Foundation. One of the questions that came up was about media bias and that the bias that we see in the media is not necessarily a left-right bias. The bias is towards conflict.
The way our discourse is presented through the news media, the premium is on conflict. Reports often say, “Look at all this conflict.” However, when you actually look more closely or are doing the work yourself, yes there are certain issues where things are very black and white, the lines are really clear. However, I’ve found in most areas it really isn’t this either-or thing that we see on social media or in the traditional news media, because what we’re being fed is distorted through the lens of the conflict because that’s what gets the clicks. But it doesn’t necessarily reflect the reality on the ground of how people are actually interacting with each other and working to solve these problems.
Creamer: It’s funny because anyone who knows me knows I’m a passionate person. I think that passion is what drives all of us at UFA to do this work, and I’ll never stop being passionate about the work that I do. But I do think there is a difference between passion and hostility.
I can bring my perspective, which I do with a lot of passion, but I recognize that bringing hostility or contempt to a conversation is actually going to make it harder to move issues forward that my clients really care about. So, I try to bring the passion and hold back on the hostility and contempt as much as possible. It’s hard, you know, we’re all human beings and we get drawn into that kind of polarization easily. It might still be there, but at the end of the day, I feel like I have an obligation to get results for the people that I serve. My negativity towards people that I’m trying to persuade is just not effective at getting results.
Brown: Following up on what Kathleen said, I think relationship is key. It’s really hard to have contempt for somebody that you genuinely like as a human being, right? This is one of those things that goes back to — how do we cultivate bipartisanship? In UFA, we try to physically get together, hopefully once a year, but you know, get our members together. Whether it’s a trip to D.C. or somewhere where we can spend a couple days working on strategic planning or doing educational visits with lawmakers. Just getting to know each other on that personal level makes our work together much easier and it really blunts the tendency towards viewing it as a battle with the other side.
How does UFA make progress toward solutions in an increasingly polarized field and society?
Creamer: We approach our work from a perspective of shared values. UFA members disagree strongly about various things, but we have built a community of folks who agree about the direction that child welfare needs to go.
We really spend our time focusing on that and thinking about how to bring that energy around our agreement across political lines. There are going be places where we disagree, but really, that first piece that UFA does is try to pull together people and figure out where do we agree and where do we see places that we could push forward.
Brown: When we’re looking at new issues to pursue, we hash them out in very open discussions and we figure out, “Where is the solution that both sides can agree on?” Because you know, even if we agree that this is a problem that we want to solve, even in the how we solve there are differences of opinions, difference of approaches.
We won’t ever put the UFA name on anything that hasn’t gone through that process and have that full stamp of approval where we can say, the left and the right both agree that this is not only of the right problem to solve, but this is the right way to solve that problem.
UFA contributed to guidance on Hidden Foster Care, to the Children’s Bureau. Could you talk about that guidance and also explain for those who might not know what Hidden Foster Care is like, what it is and why it’s so important?
Brown: Let’s start with what it is. Hidden Foster Care is a way that state child protective agencies can get involved in the lives of a family and can restrict their liberties. The vast majority of people think any child who enters the formal foster care system is there by a court order. They think there was a hearing and that a judge had to have said, based on the evidence, this kid needs to be in foster care and needs to be separated from their family.
The Hidden Foster Care system does an end run around that process by using what they call safety plan placements. There’s a variety of terms, but essentially what it amounts to is a voluntary agreement that the family enters into with the child protection agency. This agreement can be submitting to supervision, submitting to services, agreeing to place your child with relatives or friends — somebody outside the home for a period of time. But because it’s a voluntary agreement, it’s not subject to court oversight.
So, the dirty little secret about this is that there is a lot of coercion that’s involved in these agreements. For example, in the Texas form it’s even written on the paper itself that if a parent doesn’t do certain things to the state’s satisfaction, the state will go to court and have your child put in foster care. There’s no time limit. A parent is going be under this agreement for as long as the department says you’re under it, and they’re going to do everything that they tell you to do under this threat that if they don’t— if they say, “OK, enough is enough. I don’t want to be in this agreement anymore” — they’re going to go the court and put your child in foster care and potentially try to terminate your parental rights. Obviously, there are a whole lot of problems with it.
We call it Hidden Foster Care because there’s really not a lot of data because the federal government doesn’t require states to report on these arrangements. We have to piecemeal together what this system looks like based on the bits and pieces of data that we get from the states.
We’ve been able to estimate that this Hidden Foster Care system is roughly equivalent in size to the traditional foster care system. So, whenever you see there’s 20,000 kids in foster care in your state, really assume there’s about 40,000 kids in foster care in your state because of this Hidden Foster Care system that exists in the shadows.
Creamer: One thing we’ve tried to do is raise a lot of awareness about Hidden Foster Care.
Some of our strategy has been a media strategy, but we’ve also done the policy-making strategy. We’ve done outreach to the Children’s Bureau to try to gain their consensus that this is a problem, that the field needs guidance. The field needs direction to understand that family separation should never be coercive without a court order and we really must put guardrails around the agencies’ ability to do this.
We’ve had a couple of meetings with the Children’s Bureau Commissioner who’s been enthusiastic about our cause and the need to do something. We’ve offered suggestions for guidance and we’re optimistic because the Commissioner has told us that she is working on guidance, that we can expect it.
Brown: We’re not just waiting on the federal government to act on this. There’s a state level strategy that’s going on. UFA has convened and is part of a working group that with others that are not part of you UFA on how to develop model legislation that states can work to implement.
The work of UFA has been instructive to the work of the Texas Public Policy Foundation as we seek state-based solutions to this problem as well. In Texas, the Governor just signed legislation TPPF was instrumental in crafting that restricts Hidden Foster Care and addresses many of the problems we’ve discussed. That new law will go into effect on September 1 of this year.
That’s another thing that we’re trying to add to the toolbox — learning from models that can start getting passed at the state level to start raising awareness.
UFA spent time learning about Principles Based Management (PMB) through Stand Together. Can you tell us what you found most valuable about those conversations? How will it inform your work at UFA and your work in field?
Brown: You know from a 30,000 foot level, it’s embedded in the way we approach solving the problem. Ownership that exists within PBM is something that we want to be rooted in child welfare policy in general, for so long in one of the structural problems is that child welfare has been very government centric — the government intervenes, the government removes the child from their family and government comes into help. It’s the family that struggles.
One of the things we talked a lot about in UFA and our circles, is this really needs to be solved in community. Child welfare shouldn’t be the state involving themselves with families who might need some support. We need to move away from family policing toward family support. The best way to do that is through these natural community connections and community resources.
This support can come in in a non-threatening way because they don’t have the power to disrupt these families. If there is a family that is in need of support, the community can give them that support, and that family never ends up even on the radar of the child protection system.
On a different note, Stand Together has really helped UFA to take the next steps to scale our influence. Throughout UFA’s history, we’ve been just this scrappy, informal group of people who communicate on email and Zoom calls and work together. That’s a part of our culture that we want sustained and maintained.
At the same time, we also realize our influence has grown to the point where we do need a little bit more structure, because we’re all volunteers. We work with UFA because we’re passionate about it, not because any of us are getting paid to do it. We all have day jobs that create conflicts with how much we’re able to be involved. I don’t know how many emails I’ve had to send to Kathleen saying, “we’re in the middle of session right now, I’ve got 12-hours’ worth of hearings today and I’m not going to be able to be on the governing board call today.”
We all bear with each other patiently during absences, but we also know that there’s a ceiling that we’re running up against. If we’re going to scale further, if we’re going continue to build on this momentum that we’ve been able to generate as scrappy volunteers, we need to formalize.
So, we’re in the process of incorporating and hopefully bringing on some full-time staff that can help run the day-to-day that allows our volunteers to continue to do the work at a much broader scale.
This is something Stand Together has been really helpful with. Your management consulting teams over the last year have walked us through that strategic process of how to determine what structure works for us. They’ve really challenged our thinking — forcing us to set a long-term vision for what UFA can become. There are exciting things coming in the future of UFA and a lot of it is due to the help of Stand Together.
End of interview
When it comes to addressing the problems our country is facing today, there is often a feeling that solutions are difficult to achieve because of political discord or lack of influence at a national level. UFA’s work challenges those assumptions. Instead of holding back because of disagreements, they’ve shown what’s possible when you lean in where you can — whether by starting local, focusing on shared values instead of differing ones, or channeling passion toward innovative solutions. It’s clear UFA’s focus to do what they can where they are and with what they have has been a key to their success in implementing real solutions for children and their families.