Opinion: The political trap of personal responsibility in social services

Entrance to San Pasqual Academy
Entrance to the San Pasqual Academy. Photo courtesy of Google Street View

Personal responsibility is the underlying foundation of our individualistic value system in the United States. Here in San Diego, it insidiously affects public policy on social services, especially child welfare services.

It is a matter of personal responsibility for a person to prove that they deserve public help before they can get it, and they are seen as unworthy if they do not meet behavioral expectations.

San Diego Child Protective Services agencies suffer unintended consequences of focus on personal accountability with impending closure of San Pasqual Academy, a residential facility for older adolescents who have been removed from the home of their parents or guardians. It is the only institution in San Diego that specifically serves young people who are on the cusp of legal adulthood, arguably one of the most critical periods in life.

For many dedicated and hard-working child welfare professionals in San Diego, the academy’s closure represents a step towards stability through family reunification programs, but its closure is also full of speculation about the future. personal responsibility.

The public discourse on the academy’s closure exhibits two characteristics that are important to understanding these assumptions and important to understanding the intended and unintended outcomes of policy reform.

First, stakeholders ranging from elected leaders to social service administrators to nonprofits all express ambivalence about the decision and agree that there will be a major gap to be filled in the way it is taken. care for these young people. It just means that the San Pasqual Academy is still needed in our county, despite the much-cited decline in enrollment.

Second, the political argument used to justify shutting down the academy is that the county faces an imperative to divert funding for family reunification programs and services to immediate and extended families so that they can house children who otherwise would live at the academy.

That second sound sounds good, right? What is wrong with family reunification if it means children are going back to their families? But there is a hidden institutional trap.

Due to a historical legacy of racism that is part of the structural fabric of the United States, black and brown families are more likely to experience adverse social conditions. Poverty, incarceration, police brutality and wage gaps all increase the likelihood that these families will experience parenting difficulties.

Parents and guardians who are black and brown and have parenting difficulties are also more likely to be reported to child welfare services than whites facing the same challenges. As a result, these families are more likely to have their children placed outside the family home. Community leaders, nonprofits, and political actors at the county and state levels are addressing this form of institutional racism through political advocacy for family reunification.

The family reunification policy aims to redirect efforts and resources towards the provision of comprehensive social services so that children do not need to be placed away from home at all. Funding is redirected to children’s services and parents who need addiction counseling, employment assistance, mental health counseling and other forms of care.

If you are reminded of the movement to divert funds from police to social services, you are not alone, but there is a clear difference in this policy shift that we need to understand.

Providing more services to struggling parents and guardians is an important and necessary first step, but note that the family reunification policy has nothing to do with the social conditions that cause families to struggle in the first place. The family reunification policy has an unexpected result: the weight and burden of social conditions such as stagnant wages, housing shortages, racist criminal justice practices and a global pandemic remain the personal responsibility of struggling parents and guardians. .

They have access to more services that will help them alleviate the symptoms they are experiencing, but the cause of these symptoms has not changed. In fact, as some of these services are provided by private companies, such as drug addiction treatment centers that destroy the opioid crisis, this symptom relief approach to addressing family separation supports the social conditions that cause family struggles. in the first place.

State funding is being redirected towards family reunification on the basis of this logic of personal responsibility whereas it should be based on the logic of a universal right to care. The closure of the San Pasqual Academy when it is the only program providing essential services to older youth in foster care is proof that we must correct our logic.

Unlike empowering struggling families when faced with the prospect of separation, family reunification as a funding policy will effectively shift the symptoms of a systemic problem from one household to another or another. to make these structural barriers a little more invisible.

The “care economy” has gained media attention in recent times due to the Biden administration’s desire to build a “human infrastructure.” People think this is a new concept, but sociologists who study nursing work have been calling attention to this concept for years.

“Care work provides the basis of our human infrastructure, and we need it to navigate life as safely as we need our roads and bridges,” according to a research report published in 2009. But the need is increased unpaid care work of women during the pandemic has led to a marked decrease in the return of women to the workforce since the introduction of the vaccine.

Workers in the paid and unpaid care economy do not need government assistance, they must own the value of their workforce, whether paid or unpaid. This requires not only changing the types of production that our political economy financially rewards, but also changing the very nature of what we see as production.

Instead of offering social services to fill the gap in our family care deficit, we should re-evaluate a system that forces us to view care both as a cost and as a marketable commodity. The kids who now live at San Pasqual Academy, and the kids who will need a place like this after it closes, need us to do this reassessment now.

Erin M. Evans is an assistant professor of sociology at San Diego Mesa College and a volunteer tribunal appointed special advocate at Voices for children.

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