Advice About Understanding the Child’s Perspective

Marvin VentrellMarvin Ventrell, Executive Director, The Juvenile Law Society

Summary: The author describes the importance of family to a child and highlights the many benefits of placing children removed from the care of their parents with relative caregivers.


It has not been my experience that children crave out-of-home placement with strangers. This is not to say that such placements are not sometimes necessary, or that such placements never serve a child’s interests. It is, however, undeniable that removal from a child’s home and placement of children outside the family unit is typically an unnatural, traumatic, and unwanted event in a child’s life. And that reality should influence our decision making.

It is imperative that professionals working in the child welfare system recognize the importance of family to a child. It is easy enough to discount the value of parents and family to a child when those parents and family members do not look much like we think they ought to. Yet those conditions, as perceived by the system professional, do not render the family any less a family from the perspective of the child. And human beings need family. Family grounds us and gives us identity; family gives us a sense of self and our place in the world.

So it is perspective that we need: the child’s perspective. I was not trained with that perspective. I “came up” as a child’s lawyer in an early 1980’s child welfare system that deemphasized family and emphasized placement in “better environments.” Yet we frequently failed to value at what cost these “better environments” came. When considering relative placements, I was taught that the apple does not fall far from the tree. We were well intentioned but fell, I’m afraid, into the “child-saver” mentality that has been part of our child welfare ideology since the American House of Refuge movement of the 1800s. That ideology is grounded in the notion that middle class America should save children from the effects of lower middle class and poor family environments, and that by doing so, such children will be healthier people and better citizens. 

While that view is still part of our child welfare system, the system has evolved and there is far greater understanding and emphasis on the value of family now. Our national policy, as expressed through the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), emphasizes family preservation, reunification and relative care, while still making safety the threshold concern. With this as a guidepost, professionals in the system can better serve children by working toward a deeper understanding of the child’s perspective on family and the benefits to meaningful family participation in the system.

I am reminded of a case in the Denver juvenile court some years ago where a 13-year-old girl made the following statement to her physician: “It’s not the sex I mind so much; I just don’t want to be moved.” This statement raises many issues, and by telling it I do not suggest a child should be left victim to continued sexual abuse. But that fact that the child emphasized the pain of family displacement over the pain of sexual abuse speaks powerfully to the importance of home to a child. It is this kind of window into a child’s perspective that can improve our decision making.

On the occasions when children cannot remain in their home, it is imperative that we work to involve their relatives to the greatest extent possible. Research demonstrates that children thrive at least as well in relative care as in foster care, and studies continue to show that a policy of “relative preference” is sound.[1] The benefits to children in relative care include the following.[2]

  • Children in relative foster care tend to be just as safe as or safer than children placed with non-relative foster families. Data indicate that foster children living with relatives experience abuse or neglect at lower rates than children with unrelated foster families.
  • Relative foster placements tend to be more stable than placements with unrelated foster families. Children placed with relatives generally have fewer moves while in foster care.
  • Siblings are less likely to be separated when placed in relative foster care. Siblings are more likely to remain together while in foster care when placed with relatives than children placed with non-relatives.
  • Children in relative foster care maintain community connections. Children placed with relatives are more likely to remain within their own neighborhoods and continue in their original schools than children who are placed with unrelated foster families.
  • Relatives are frequently willing to adopt or become permanent guardians when reunification is not possible. Experience across the country has demonstrated that many relatives are, in fact, willing to adopt or become permanent guardians to their kin when not forced to give up critical financial assistance in order to do so.

In addition to the foregoing broad system benefits, researchers have identified important psychological and child developmental benefits to relative placement including the following.[3]

  • Placement with relatives will generally be less traumatic than placement in an unfamiliar home because children will be living with someone they know.
  • Relative placement affirms the value of family connections.
  • Placement with relatives supports the transmission of a child’s family identity, culture and ethnicity.
  • Placement with relatives eliminates the unfortunate stigma that many foster children experience.
  • Placement with relatives reinforces the child’s sense of identity and self-esteem, which flow from knowing their family history and culture.
  • The child placed with relatives knows his or her own family, sees family resemblances and understands how he or she fits into it. Many foster and adopted children search for their families—often spending a lifetime trying to find them.

These benefits illustrate the importance of family to a child. When we make contact with a child in the system, it is important to recognize that we find that child, not in some kind of vacuum, but rather existing in the context of a family, a family that gives the child a sense of belonging and a sense of self.    

Editor's note: Marvin Ventrell is the executive director of The Juvenile Law Society, He has been a child’s attorney since 1985. He is the author of numerous articles and book chapters on child welfare law. His book, “Trial Skills for the Child Welfare Lawyer: Telling the Story of the Family,” was published this year, He is a recipient of the ABA Child Advocacy Award and Kempe Award.  

[1] Edwards, L., "Relative Placement in Child Protection Cases," Juvenile and Family Court Journal, Vol. 61, No. 2, 2010, at p. 10.

[2] Time for Reform: Support Relatives in Providing Foster Care and Permanent Families for Children.

[3] Edwards, L., "Relative Placement in Child Protection Cases," Juvenile and Family Court Journal, Vol. 61, No. 2, 2010, at pp. 10-13.

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