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A Neutral Playing Field for America’s Families?

Lisa Merkel-Holguin, Director, National Center on Family Group Decision Making, American Humane Association

Summary: The author offers the Super Bowl as a model for the level of fairness that should be aspired to when dealing with children in the foster care system.


Each season signals new beginnings. In the fall, children return to the classroom, family life intensifies with the juggling of numerous activities, summer movie blockbusters dissipate, and in America, we begin to see a transition in professional sports, with millions of Americans craving their weekend dosage of professional football. It signifies that the most anticipated and highly celebrated annual sporting event in the US—the Super Bowl—is approximately five months away.

Many Americans are obsessed with sports, which is deeply knitted into the everyday fabric of daily life, from youth sports leagues to hundreds of radio and television channels airing sporting events from around the world. Perhaps the sporting culture and the Super Bowl represent an opportunity to reflect differently on one of the social issues plaguing this great nation—child maltreatment and foster care. What can we learn from sports that could be applied to creating solutions for the most vulnerable children and families? Does seeing these issues through a different lens or from a sports vantage point inspire new thinking or different solutions to a deeply rooted problem facing America’s communities?

The 2010 Academy Award winning movie The Blindside, which portrayed the life of Baltimore Raven’s player Michael Oher, riveted the nation, showcasing his real-life experiences of growing up neglected. While there are other retired and current NFL players who have suffered maltreatment and lived in foster care, including Dante Culpepper (retired, Minnesota Vikings); Keith Bulluck (Tennessee Titans); Michael Lehan (retired Miami Dolphins, Cleveland Browns); Ricky Watters (retired San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles, and Seattle Seahawks); Anthony Hargrove (New Orleans Saints); and Justin Tuck (NY Giants); they represent a minuscule fraction of those who have experienced foster care.[i] We can learn from these players’ experiences. Collectively, their stories demonstrate the resilience of the human spirit; the importance of families and caring adults in supporting the growth and development of children; the pain of separation, attachment and loss that many children experience; and the need of every human being to have forever connections and support.

As our society becomes more mobile, geography can create distance and minimize connectedness within families. The location of kin (which is defined to include paternal, maternal, extended family or others who are deemed by the family as having a close supportive, personal relationship), becomes essential to the physical and emotional well-being of children. That being said, the engagement of families who have children in the foster care system is often lacking, especially the engagement and involvement of non-resident fathers and paternal kin. 

So, what if child welfare systems took a lesson from the NFL’s playbook? The most important, culminating game of the year—the Super Bowl—occurs on a neutral field, one that supposedly gives no advantage to either team. There is no home team. Why is this important? Because research shows that across all major sports, the home team wins 75% of the time, giving it a distinct advantage to win its matches, games or competitions. The visitors must overcome crowd noise, energy and momentum, climate changes, jet lag and an array of other factors to win. Neutral fields represent a fair opportunity for each team to secure the coveted victory.

So, given our desire for a fair match in the Super Bowl, shouldn’t America’s families have the same opportunity for a fair playing field when it comes to our nation’s child welfare policies? Currently, child welfare agencies are advantaged when children come to their attention. The professionals know the game because the agencies have constructed the rules, agendas and processes, and they are paid to play it. But for parents and for extended family members (if the child welfare agency invests the energy to find them), it is likely a very confusing and intimidating experience. Often these parents, extended family and community members are relegated to the sidelines. And, while on the sidelines, they aren’t reviewing the secret playbook or still pictures of the previous plays, or wearing technologically advanced headsets to listen to advice from their coaches. They sit on the sidelines looking dejected, confused and isolated. They have little chance of winning or even participating in the game, because they do not understand the game. They are the visiting team in a very important life-altering event about their children.

But there is a demonstrated, effective and innovative way to level the playing field in child welfare. It’s called family group decision making (FGDM). In more than 20 nations, champions and leaders are recognizing the power, wisdom and expertise of family groups and inviting them to partner in decision making about their children, and the outcomes are positive and frequently documented in the literature (see A home team is assembled for each child, with moms, dads, grandmas, grandpas, aunts, uncles, cousins, community members, neighbors, friends and others with connections to the family, in partnership with various professionals, gathering together to create plans to keep the children safe and stable. The playing field is leveled, giving families a voice in what happens to their children. Families are on the field, suited up, the rules and regulations are explained, and impartial umpires are deployed to ensure that the decisions protect children. If we were keeping score, given the collective results of FGDM around the globe, many victories in the win column would be adding up for children, families, agencies and community.

At the American Humane Association – the nation’s voice for the protection of children and animals—we figure that if a level playing field is essential for a football game, then it should be an absolute requirement for our social policies.

Editor's Note: Readers should refer to Lisa Merkel-Holguin's article in the July 2011 issue of The Judges' Page, "Family Group Decision Making: An Innovation in Need of Court Partnership?", for a complete explanation of the family group decision making protocol and tips for Courts and CASA volunteers."


[i] Annually, in America, there are approximately 400,000 children and youth who live in foster care at any point in time, hundreds of thousands who are maltreated, and an increasing number who live in poverty.

The US Department of Justice has supported CASA advocacy since 1985 through its Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
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