Improving Child Welfare to Help Kids Heal and Thrive in Early Education Years

By Fatima Killebrew

As I recently walked the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, each step carried the weight of purpose and possibility. I was nervous about meeting with members of Congress, who hold the power to act on issues that affect my family and many others. I worried: What if I stumbled over my words? What if I failed to convey the sense of urgency and the depth of my passion for family reunification?

But as I walked to my first meeting, those doubts faded. Nerves were overpowered by determination as I remembered my mission — advocating for babies and toddlers, who don’t have a voice in the child welfare system. I focused on my message: We must ensure they have the nurturing relationships, stable homes, and access to mental health services they need to thrive socially, emotionally, mentally, physically, and academically as they grow and develop. I was at the Capitol with families from all 50 states and Washington, D.C., as part of the annual Strolling Thunder™ event, an initiative of ZERO TO THREE to create a national movement urging policymakers to prioritize the needs of infants, toddlers, and their families. We met with lawmakers to discuss investing in childcare; expanding Early Head Start; investing in infant and early childhood mental health; establishing a national permanent paid family and medical leave program; permanently reinstating the enhanced, fully refundable child tax credit; and my focus, improving the child welfare system.

We urged them to enact legislation that supports good health, strong families, and positive early learning experiences. As a foster and adoptive parent, I know that when babies and toddlers are separated from their families, they carry that trauma into their early education years and beyond. That is why I am particularly concerned that early childhood educators are equipped with information and training about infant and early childhood mental health, so they are better able to support all children — and particularly my children — in early learning settings. Strolling Thunder was an opportunity for ordinary people like me to advocate for extraordinary, long-overdue change. I learned about it through the Memphis Parent Leadership Training Institute, which provided 20 weeks of classes that taught me about community advocacy — and helped me find my calling in advocating for siblings in foster care.

Fatima Killebrew and her family visited the office of Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn as part of a national movement urging policymakers to prioritize the needs of infants, toddlers, and their families.

Fatima Killebrew and her family visited the office of Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn as part of a national movement urging policymakers to prioritize the needs of infants, toddlers, and their families.

The Capitol Hill meetings were a testament to the potential for change through dialogue and affirmed the power of personal connection. Each interaction felt like a step toward progress, from talking with staff members for Tennessee Senators Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty to meeting with Rep. Steve Cohen of Memphis and his team. I felt especially seen and heard during a meeting with U.S. Department of Health and Human Services staffers. As we shared personal stories to make the case for mental health services and child welfare system improvements, the staffers’ expressions conveyed genuine concern for families like mine. As a wife, mother, social worker, and foster care advocate in Memphis, Tennessee, I have experienced the complexities and challenges families face. My own blended family of nine has navigated foster care, striving to keep siblings together and connected with their families.

Children under age 3 enter the child welfare system at higher rates than any other age demographic; and in my home state, Black children are removed from their homes more often than children in any other racial group.

In my family’s foster care experience, I have seen my daughter Remy’s joy in knowing she has a baby brother, and her disappointment at hearing he can’t come home. Remy was initially separated from her parents and siblings. I made it a mission to reunite her with her biological siblings, Amir and Khai. Despite obstacles due to outdated policies and understaffing, we reunited Remy and Amir, thanks to the support of their biological family. But our journey continues to reunite all three siblings. We won’t stop pushing so they can heal together and be with relatives who share their values, culture, and medical history. And in the meantime, my children need support from an early care system that responds to their social and emotional needs. In D.C., I called on legislators to support the Strengthening America’s Families Act. We must prioritize reunification, invest in preventive measures, and provide comprehensive mental health support to children and families. My family is proof there are alternatives. We shouldn’t have to fight so hard to keep siblings together.

As I left Capitol Hill with my son Amir, I felt hopeful that Congress could enact meaningful changes. Our collective voice can pave the way for a more compassionate and effective child welfare system that prioritizes child well-being and reunification, as well as a childcare system that centers on social and emotional development. As I see my children interact, I know that keeping these siblings together will only strengthen their potential to thrive throughout their early education years and beyond.

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