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Primary Prevention is Key to Solving Problems Within Child Welfare

Working at a child welfare agency as a teenager changed his life forever.

Jerry Milner, Director of the Family Integrity and Justice Works (FIJW) at Public Knowledge® and former head of the Children’s Bureau at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, appeared on the “One in Ten” podcast hosted by NCA Executive Director Teresa Huizar. From how he got started working in child welfare to his views on primary prevention being the first line of defense, they cover it all.

Jerry’s Background

Surprisingly enough, Jerry didn’t start out with making strides in the child welfare sector as his goal. It all began about 47 years ago with a summer job at a child welfare agency while in law school. Instead of returning to school, he continued to work there—but got his degree in social work three years later.

When asked what drew him to this work:

“It really was the vulnerability of the children that I came into contact with and their families; I had very little background or preparation for the kinds of circumstances that so many of our families in child welfare experience every day of their life. I was getting an education while that was happening.”

Jerry Milner, Director of Family Integrity and Justice Works at Public Knowledge®

Primary Prevention is the Key to Success

Jerry shared how hardships early on in life caused him to become independent at a young age. Child welfare services could have been called by anyone observing this—but why didn’t they? He had hands-on support from family, friends, neighbors, and members of his church.


At the time he didn’t view this as primary prevention, it was people caring about him.


His personal experience of a strong-knit community coming together to support him is unfortunately not the norm for families facing hardship, causing the isolation of these families. This approach results in child welfare agencies turning families away trying to get assistance before a child is in harm’s way.

The solution? Reaching families before children are at risk of harm.


The vision, Jerry explains, is turning the focus to strengthening families, being proactive instead of reactive to help them get what they need. Flexibility in spending is the key.

“I want to see a system that is truly turned upside down. Where foster care and adoption are on the narrow end of the spectrum of the services we provide. Where primary prevention and family support and family preservation are primary preventions.”

Jerry Milner, Director of Family Integrity and Justice Works at Public Knowledge®

What Hinders Progress?

The biggest barrier on the road to change is our own values, according to Jerry. The child welfare system came into existence on a child-rescue philosophy; this rescue mentality has maintained itself over the years.

It’s easy to have everyone support the idea of protecting children. However, it’s a much more difficult leap of getting the support and understanding the value of investing in families. Particularly, according to Jerry, families that haven’t always made the best decisions or who raise their children in different cultural patterns.

These negative views of families cause resistance to creating and funding programs that give the support that’s needed.

Shocking Statistics

  • Black children are twice as likely to be in foster care.
  • Indigenous children are three times as likely to be in the foster care system.
  • Over 60 percent of children who come into foster care aren’t there because of abuse, but because of neglect only.
  • Two-thirds of the neglect cases are directly tied to poverty.

Millions of Dollars Spent Treating Trauma Resulting from the Child Welfare System

For a fraction of the cost, we could invest in family preservation, community-run services that could prevent this trauma from occurring in the first place.

“We need to turn the tables and at least strive for balance in our quest for evidence around primary prevention, secondary prevention, and after-the-fact treatment of trauma.”

Jerry Milner, Director of Family Integrity and Justice Works at Public Knowledge®

It’s a serious situation to sever children from their families, meaning this should be a last resort, not the first line of defense.

“We don’t always understand exactly what we are protecting children from. We may protect them from physical danger, but we do a far less good job of protecting their emotional and psychosocial wellbeing over time.”

Jerry Milner, Director of Family Integrity and Justice Works at Public Knowledge®

What’s Next?

The road to child welfare reform may be a long one, but there are tangible steps we can take along the way to give families the help they deserve. According to Jerry, the next steps towards this goal are:

  • Legal representation
    • When moving towards a primary prevention system, we need to make sure parents have that representation for the issues that put them at risk for separation.
  • Flexibility of federal funding
    • Giving communities the flexibility needed with federal funding to serve families in a more proactively.
  • Family First Prevention Services Act
    • This will be implemented nationwide by October 1, 2021, which focuses on primary prevention. This brings us closer to solving recurring issues

Dedicated to Change

Public Knowledge® wants to do our part in the goal of radical child welfare replacement. Jerry and our team at FIJW are here to assist you in providing ways you can make a difference in your district. Get in touch with us today to schedule a consultation or learn by listening to the podcast.

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We are ready to solve your tough problems.