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Latest News: Executive Director Messages

2020 Conference Opening Remarks

Thursday, September 3, 2020  
Posted by: Kayley Nagle
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Opening Remarks by Executive Director Kim Dvorchak


Welcome all to the 43rd National Child Welfare Law Conference, an event held by the National Association of Counsel for Children every year since our founding in 1977.

 

As members of our Emeritus Board can tell you, back then our conference materials were Xeroxed,  hole punched, and distributed in three-ring binders by hand.  

 

Who could have imagined then, that we would convene in the cloud  -- each of us sitting in our own home or office, connected by hyperlinks, streaming services, and apps on our smartphones?

 

And who could have imagined this would also be how we practice law?

 

Although this was not the conference NACC had planned at the start of this year it might be one of the most important, because we need to come together at this moment in time. We need to come together to face the challenges of practicing in a pandemic, and to keep our eyes on big child welfare reform opportunities, such as the Family First Prevention Services Act.

 

But we also need to come together as a profession, to seriously reckon with our role and our responsibilities in a child welfare system that negatively and disproportionately impacts youth, parents, and families of color. We come into this work to help, with the best intentions, but we have to actively do better.

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed child welfare professionals  to a small yet potent dose  of the disruption, separation, and uncertainty that the children and parents we serve experience every day, and often for years. It is unconscionable, six months into this pandemic, that children still have not had in-person contact with their parents or siblings, and that we would continue to keep young people in dangerous group care settings.    

 

Last August, when I welcomed you to our conference in sunny Southern California , I shared the Hippocratic oath: First, do no harm.  Looking back on the last 12 months, have we fulfilled that pledge?  

Have we stayed focused on the primacy of relationships, and the family and human connections necessary for healthy development?   Have we rallied against isolation and separation?

Have we taken care of ourselves while increasing our capacity for empathy and compassion? And have we responded with sufficient urgency to the calls for racial justice in the child welfare system?   

 

The killings of George Floyd, Cornelius Fredricks, and other Black men, women, and children must result in a renewed pledge to act differently.

 

Sixteen-year-old Cornelius Fredricks was placed in the care of the child welfare system . He was later transferred to a residential behavioral health care center. One day this May, Cornelius threw a sandwich at another boy - twice.  His consequence? Cornelius was violently thrown to the ground , physically restrained, and laid on by 7 men.  Boys watched during those twelve minutes of restraint, hearing Cornelius scream “I can’t breathe” before his body went limp.  Cornelius never regained consciousness and he died two days later. 

 

How many Cornelius’s have we placed in facilities like this because we thought congregate would better meet their needs, when what they really needed was for the system to resource a family to care for them? Let’s not stop at ending restraint methods, or better training, let’s make conscious decisions to support families and choose family-like settings.

   

The hippocratic oath recognizes that with incredible power comes with equal responsibility,  which we must face with great humility, and an awareness of our own shortcomings. We speak for child well-being, rights, and opportunity, but our systems, our practices, and our actions have perpetuated racial disproportionality and disparity at nearly every decision point.

 

To create a more equitable child welfare system, we must lean into discomfort, begin to grapple with uncomfortable truths, and make critical choices that disrupt the status quo and do what works.  

 

We must invest in prevention and early intervention. We must share power and co-design solutions with young people, parents, and kin.

 

NACC recognizes our own history in this and the responsibility to do so much more. We are on this journey with you, listening, learning, striving to improve, inevitably making mistakes but coming back 

the next day to listen again and act better accordingly.

 

This virtual conference is designed to equip and support you as a practitioner, but also, to encourage  and to empower you to dismantle the well-worn systemic pathways that leave indelible marks on the children and families we serve.  

 

We hope you will spend this conference learning from our expert faculty, connecting with your colleagues, and recommitting yourself to the challenging work ahead.

 

In a year from now, when we meet in sunny Denver, Colorado, let us remember 2020 as a turning point in our field, and hold ourselves accountable to a more just and equitable child welfare system.

 

Thank you.


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