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A Call to Action to Support our Kids-in-community

By Lino Peña-Martinez

No national data exists on the amount of kids who cross over from the juvenile justice system to the child welfare system and vice versa. There essentially is no way to track, define, or monitor involvement across both systems. The black box — a child’s private health information — is what is protected. We demand more transparency in knowing whether or not a child is involved within one system before they enter the other. We can’t expect these systems to do that work. We have to.

We have to be honest with ourselves. The child welfare system is overburdened and underfunded, and social workers are spread too thin. On the other side of things, the juvenile justice system is rooted in punitive justice, not rehabilitation or reintegration, and, therefore, is not fit to provide for our youth. Prison or juvenile justice facilities cannot ever be a pipeline endpoint for any child from the child welfare system. We need systems of integration and invitation, not systems of isolation and stagnation. So, some systems need to be restructured to represent those values of community and connection, especially the systems that deal with children who are deemed a “ward of the state” and carry too much weight on their shoulders.

To be a “ward of the state” is to belong to no one and everyone at the same time. It’s easy to see a child as a number when they are kept isolated from their community, from the world, and from the people that will inevitably have to take part in their development as social beings. That child is many degrees removed from the people who actually make decisions for their lives, and that’s a big part of the problem. We have to go beyond our traditional understanding of “family” as we try to wrap around the “anything-but-normal” lives of our “kids-in-community” in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. It comes down to the simple premise that genuine and permanent connections will create the most meaning for our kiddos and will nurture the most fierce fleet of advocates in its wake. So, we need to create more opportunities to connect our youth with permanent, family-like figures in a stress-free and supportive environment. Our system has to provide opportunities for connections that last lifetimes.

Systemically, we need more empathy. We’ve begun to see that in the shockwaves of trauma-informed practices being employed around the country. Considering that it sometimes takes an eternity to mobilize our entire system, and that solutions at that scale are often incremental, we have to focus on what we can do today. We can create advocates, identify potential supporters, and give our kiddos quality permanent connections. We all understand the value that these connections have. They have the potential to affect recidivism rates and offer psychosocial development and support for our youth most at risk. It’s not about stepping up to be the only support. It’s about stepping up as a continual lifelong supporter of these efforts. I, too, have come to the realization that I can’t help everyone. It’s about taking one step at a time every day and every moment going forward, and living out your values in every waking second.

For about a year and change, I’ve been tenaciously pushing permanency efforts around the country with the help of a trailblazing technology called the “Family Connections Tool,” offered by the non-profit Connect Our Kids (COK). Imagine Google Search that has a private investigator,, a genogram, and a note-taking and tracking software. It’s a permanency-based software that can be used to identify potential connections by using publicly available information. It can also be adapted to any organization’s HIPAA-compliant measures and practices. I’ve had the opportunity to train volunteers, social workers, agencies, organizations and people all around the country on how to use this software. I really wish I had access to this kind of permanency software when I was going through the system. This is an accessible solution for anyone looking to help identify permanent relationships for our youth in the community.

I’m done with waiting for change. Do something now. Open your web browser, go to, and check out the software. Anyone can sign up for a free training. From there, spread the word to at least one other person. Follow up or flag it for your local child welfare organizations and agencies. It only takes one person to make all the difference in another’s life. Be that person that makes the difference. This is a tangible way that only takes a few moments to enable yourself and others in our mutual efforts to support our most vulnerable youth around the country.

We risk letting people slide through the cracks to be forgotten as numbers in a data set. We let them become an unfortunate statistic rather than a global community member with a proactive thirst for the well-being of our communities, environments, and relationships. It’s up to us to pick up after the systems we endorse to support our kids-in-community. It’s up to us to learn how to help, to spread the word, and to build the momentum of a movement where we act as facilitators of permanent connection. And that time for action starts now.