Entrance to San Pasqual Academy. Photo courtesy Google Street View

Personal responsibility is the undercurrent of our individualist value system in the United States. Here in San Diego, it is insidiously affecting public policy on social services, specifically child welfare services.

It is a matter of personal responsibility for a person to prove they deserve public assistance before they can get it, and they are seen as undeserving if they don’t meet the expectations for behavior.

San Diego’s child welfare services agencies are experiencing the unintended outcomes of a focus on personal responsibility with the impending closure of San Pasqual Academy, a residential facility for older teens who were removed from their parents’ or guardians’ homes. It is the only institution in San Diego that specifically serves young people who are at the brink of transitioning into legal adulthood, arguably one of the most critical periods in life.

For many of San Diego’s dedicated and hardworking professionals in child welfare services, the academy’s closure represents a step towards providing stability through family reunification programs, but its closure is also fraught with assumptions about personal responsibility.

Public discourse about the academy’s closing has two characteristics that are important for understanding these assumptions and important for understanding the intended and unintended outcomes of policy reform.

First, stakeholders ranging from elected leaders to social service administrators to nonprofit organizations all express ambivalence about the decision and agree that there will be a major hole to fill in how to properly care for these young people. This simply means that San Pasqual Academy is still needed by our county, despite the much cited decreasing enrollment.

Second, the policy argument being used to justify the academy’s closure is that the county is facing an imperative to divert funding to family reunification programs and services to immediate and extended families so they can house kids who would otherwise live at the academy.

That second one sounds good, right? What could be wrong with family reunification if that means getting kids back to their families? But there is a hidden institutional catch.

Due to an historical legacy of racism that is built into the structural fabric of the United States, Black and Brown families are more likely to experience adverse social conditions. Poverty, incarceration, police brutality and pay gaps all increase the likelihood these families will experience parenting challenges.

Parents and guardians who are Black and Brown and experience parenting struggles are also more likely to be reported to child welfare services than white people experiencing the same challenges. Consequently, these families are more likely to have their children placed in out-of-home care. Community leaders, nonprofits, and political stakeholders at the county and state level are addressing this form of institutional racism through policy advocacy for family reunification.

Family reunification policy is meant to redirect effort and resources towards providing wrap-around social services so that children do not need to be placed out-of-home at all. Funding is redirected towards services for children and parents who need addiction counseling, job assistance, mental health counseling, and other forms of care.

If you are reminded of the movement to divert funding away from police and towards social services, you are not alone, but there is a distinct difference in this policy shift we need to understand.

Providing more services to struggling parents and guardians is an important and necessary first step, but notice that family reunification policy has nothing to do with the social conditions that cause families to struggle in the first place. Family reunification policy has an unintended outcome: the weight and burden of social conditions like wage stagnation, housing shortages, racist criminal justice practices, and a global pandemic still remain the personal responsibility of struggling parents and guardians.

They have access to more services that will help with the symptoms they experience, but the cause of those symptoms hasn’t changed. If anything, because some of these services are provided by privately run businesses, like drug rehabilitation facilities that are making a killing off of the opioid crisis, this symptom-relief approach to addressing family separation supports social conditions causing family struggles in the first place.

State funding is being redirected towards family reunification based on this personal responsibility logic when it should be based on the logic of a universal right to care. Closing San Pasqual Academy when it is the only program providing essential services to older youth in foster care is evidence that we need to fix our logic.

As opposed to empowering struggling families when they face the prospect of separation, family reunification as a funding policy will result in moving the symptoms of a systemic problem from one home to another, or to making those structural barriers a little more invisible.

The “care economy” is garnering news attention lately because of the Biden administration’s push to build “human infrastructure.” People think this is a new concept, but sociologists who study care work have been calling attention to this for years.

“Care work provides the basis for our human infrastructure, and we need it to navigate through life as surely as we need our roads and bridges,” according to a research report published in 2009. But the heightened need for women’s unpaid care work during the pandemic is leading to a marked decrease in women returning to the labor force since the vaccine rolled out.

Workers in the paid and unpaid care economy don’t need government assistance, they need to have ownership of the value of their caring labor whether they are paid for it or not. This requires not only changing the types of production our political-economy rewards financially, it requires changing the very nature of what we think of as production.

Instead of offering social services to plug the hole in our family care deficit, we should re-evaluate a system that forces us to think of care as both a cost and a marketable commodity. The kids living at San Pasqual Academy now, and the kids who will need a place like it after it is closed, need us to do that reevaluation now.

Erin M. Evans is assistant professor of sociology at San Diego Mesa College and a volunteer court appointed special advocate at Voices for Children.

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