BOSTON (SHNS) – A single question from a judge shaped the course of Anthony Barrows’s life.
After being removed from his home at age 14 and placed into the Massachusetts foster care system, Barrows bounced around in group homes before finding himself in a courtroom for proceedings about his welfare.
The judge, Barrows recalled, paused debate and asked the teenager a direct question: where do you want to go? Barrows replied that he did not care as long as he could continue to attend Boston Latin School, and just like that, lawyers agreed to keep him in the city.
“When you acknowledge that people understand their lives better than you could and give them some power to use their voice and ask for what they need, and then importantly, to act on it once they tell you, that can be really transformational,” Barrows said this week. “If I had been moved out to Brockton or Worcester and lost not just the opportunities attached to a school like Boston Latin, but also the social foundation, who knows how life could have gone differently?”
Decades later, Barrows is now based in New York City as a managing partner at Project Evident, where he founded and leads a center that aims to synthesize research evidence and community feedback to improve social programs.
He’ll be one of the industry leaders honored this weekend at a national conference hosted by the Easthampton-based Treehouse Foundation, where attendees will cover a range of topics about improving child welfare.
Barrows and fellow honoree Takkeem Morgan both represent one of the primary themes organizers want to highlight: the value of involving people who have been through foster care in decisions about reshaping the system.
Like Barrows, Morgan was in the Massachusetts foster care system himself as a teenager until he aged out. They offered a similar assessment that to make the most impact, policymakers and providers need to shift from a punitive model to a more proactive approach.
Child welfare often slips into operating as a sort of “family policing system,” according to Morgan, who currently works in Indiana as founder of the Mosaic ParentHub. Families, especially lower-income families in communities of color, fall under a “surveillance structure” more equipped to punish than to erect supports, he said.
Morgan described a cruel “irony” at play. When a child is removed from their home and placed into foster care, states make a long list of supports available to the foster home, including access to social workers and health care. Those same services are much harder to access — if they are available at all — to a struggling family in the first place, Morgan said.
“The strange thing is that even if that mother was to call and say, ‘You know what, I love my family, I love my child. If I could get these wraparound supports, I’d probably be fine for the next two years or so,’ there’s no system that’s available for that,” he said. “That’s the irony of the foster care and child welfare system, that the support for a child that’s given to a foster parent is not there for the family themselves.”
Morgan recalled watching state workers knock on his own door and substantiate a “neglect claim” that arose from his mother leaving her children in the house alone.
“They didn’t consider the fact that my mother was a young mother, the fact that she was in an impoverished community, the fact that the community has a long-standing line of mental health [issues], of depressed education, depressed health care, all of these things,” he said. “They picked out the fact that she had left her kids in the house by themselves as a reason to separate — I mean, completely destroy — the entire family. For me, that’s very short-sighted.”
The pair of foster-children-turned-industry-leaders voiced optimism about the outlook for the future of care. Barrows said a pivot toward preventing problems in the first place, rather than simply reacting to neglect and abuse, has “really picked up pace in the last five to 10 years,” and he said there’s a growing sense that taking children out of their homes is “not the thing that leads to childhood family well-being.”
But to keep up the progress, the system needs more resources, he said.
“We’re going to need to bring in other parts of government entities. If we’re going to do prevention right, we need to think about food and housing and transportation and education, and we’re just not set up to have those systems collaborate effectively right now,” Barrows said. “Frankly, we aren’t allocating enough resources across all of them, nevermind in any one of them, to effectively ensure the well-being of young people.”
He pointed to the federal government’s pandemic-era expansion of child tax credits. In 2021, with the more generous benefits in place, the rate of child poverty in the United States was 5.2 percent, according to CNBC. A year later, once the credits had expired, the child poverty rate more than doubled to 12.4 percent.
Beacon Hill has significantly increased state funding for the Department of Children and Families in recent years. The fiscal 2021 state budget allocated about $1.08 billion to the agency, while the most recent fiscal 2024 budget appropriates nearly $1.37 billion, a jump of more than 25 percent.
So what else could state government do better? For Treehouse Foundation Founder Judy Cockerton, a former foster parent who now leads the advocacy organization in the Bay State, the answer is simple: “Ensure that lived experience leaders are sitting at the table.”
Cockerton said she hopes the Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America national conference her group will host Friday and Saturday at the Kennedy Institute in Dorchester will serve as a pitch to Gov. Maura Healey, who has yet to appoint a permanent DCF leader after former Commissioner Linda Spears departed in September.
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if she looked at this amazing cohort as a pool of candidates for this job, and we had a lived experience leader in the commissioner’s seat?” Cockerton said. “That would be outstanding, and Massachusetts could lead the country forward.”
Secretary of Health and Human Services Kate Walsh in September appointed Staverne Miller as acting DCF commissioner. Spears held the commissioner’s post for eight years before leaving to work as president and CEO of the Child Welfare League of America.