For Sarah Verbiest, every day begins with a question: How do we ensure people have the support they need to be parents? What more can we do to help people be healthy? How do we make sure they have access to mental health services? What’s needed to ensure individuals build strong and healthy relationships, and what do families need to have economic stability?
With more than 20 years of expertise grounded in research in women, maternal, child, and family well-being, Verbiest understands that such challenging questions cannot be solved in silos. That’s why as director of the Jordan Institute for Families at UNC School of Social Work, she often seeks ways to connect Jordan Institute’s research and initiatives with other public, private and academic partners who are also focused on strengthening practices that support all families.
As Verbiest sees it, the Jordan Institute is the conduit for bridging research, evidence-based practice and data with the policies and programs needed to ensure families thrive at every stage of life. These efforts have been particularly visible over the past year through Jordan Institute partnerships with the Wicked Problems Institute and the N.C. Child Fatality Task Force.
The Children’s Home Society, UNC School of Social Work and Jordan Institute originally launched the Wicked Problems Institute in 2012 with the goals of building a shared understanding of the wicked problems of child welfare (problems that defy ordinary solutions), solidifying a shared commitment to test promising solutions, and working with public and private child welfare agencies to implement proven solutions.
Over the years, much of the conversation has centered on the impact of child abuse and neglect and the state of foster care in our country. However, Verbiest is committed to shifting this discussion toward better understanding the pressures that families are facing and how further support and resources on the front end might help prevent children from entering foster care in the first place.
She spoke in depth of the need for this paradigm shift at this year’s Wicked Problems Institute convening “Prevention in Action: Building Equitable Pathways to Child and Family Well-Being.” The conference, which the Jordan Institute co-sponsored, was hosted at The Duke Endowment: The Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans Conference Center in Charlotte, N.C.
“The Jordan Institute is really trying to help partners dig into how these issues are evolving from that line of thinking that ‘Parents are neglectful’ to ‘Parents are overloaded,’” Verbiest explained. “All families have bumps and challenges, but some families have more resources and support to help them overcome the bumps. But others don’t have this support, and so when they face challenges finding affordable housing or affordable childcare or family stress, they become overloaded, and it’s a lot harder for them to cope and manage.”
Research has shown that overloaded and overwhelmed parents may then struggle to provide for and parent their children, she said.
“There’s a thin line between a family neglecting a child and society neglecting a family,” Verbiest said. “We need to think more about why families may be neglecting kids, such as fatigue, pre-existing mental health or substance use issues, loss of identity as a new parent, or difficult choices because they must work, all of which can cause additional stress. Instead of allowing these families to get to the point where they’re overloaded and to the point where we use punitive policies to take their kids away or tell them they need parent education, we need to reduce that overload and provide the support they need, including substance use recovery support and services, affordable childcare, and transportation,” Verbiest added. “As long as we’re ignoring the overload and not providing supportive services, we’re going to keep this channel of kids coming into foster care and continuing this cycle.”
For Black mothers, this lack of support coupled with the trauma of racism, can be particularly damaging to their well-being and the health of their children. Currently, Black women continue to have the highest maternal mortality rate in the United States – 69.9 per 100,000 live births for 2021, or almost three times the rate for white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
“The U.S. is still the most dangerous place in the world for Black women to give birth,” Verbiest said. “We have to have a more specific focus on listening, supporting and investing in Black mothers and families.”
Change is largely dependent on changes in policy, and for nearly 30 years, the Jordan Institute has provided technical assistance, education and training to ensure that research findings from social work and other disciplines are reflected in policy recommendations, in professional practice, and in the ways that families interact with human service systems in their communities.
“Supporting families is good economic policy but that means changing your funding focus to help families stay together,” Verbiest said, “because separating children from their mothers has far more devastating consequences.”
Verbiest navigates many of these same issues and shares similar messages through her work as co-chair of the Perinatal Health Committee of the N.C. Child Fatality Task Force. A member of the task force since 2001, she leans heavily on her expertise in public and maternal child health to advise the task force and state lawmakers on policies to reduce child death and support the health and well-being of children.
Last spring, Verbiest and the Jordan Institute partnered with the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services to organize a larger discussion around strategies for preventing child death and promoting child well-being with the North Carolina Child Fatality Prevention System Summit. Hosted at The Friday Center in Chapel Hill, the summit offered participants a chance to hear from experts on current data trends and learn more about secondary trauma reduction strategies, prevention initiatives for youth suicide and more.
From this summit, the Child Fatality Task Force also discussed solutions, including the importance of increasing paid family leave for parents. Recommendations for this particular benefit reached the N.C. General Assembly this year and landed in a bill that state lawmakers approved over the summer giving all state employees up to eight weeks of paid leave following the birth of a child and up to four weeks after adopting or becoming a foster parent. Prior to the new law, paid parental leave was limited only to about 56,000 state employees who worked in offices under the direct oversite of Gov. Roy Cooper, who used an executive order to implement the initial policy.
Although happy more North Carolina parents can take time off to care for their children, too many others still lack that luxury, Verbiest added.
“I’m pretty insistent that we’re going to continue discussing paid family leave because it goes to these structural supports that we’ve said are needed for all families,” she said.
In the coming year, the Jordan Institute and their partners will explore other ways to increase public support for families, especially new parents, she said. Verbiest is also determined the Jordan Institute will continue to lead and help to advance additional policies and best practices that ensure all families thrive.
“Where it’s appropriate, we lean in to say we can help with this,” she said. “My passion continues to be in the space where we can shine a spotlight on families in whatever configuration that is and where we are currently woefully as a society not supporting them and where we’re not helping them start off their lives as a family in the best way possible. How do we make that shift? Those are the conversations we must continue having.”