Written by Executive Director Claire Louge

One of the most inspiring professional stories I’ve ever heard came from a former child welfare investigator. I met her through a statewide systems-change project, and she shared this story when she introduced herself at a leadership meeting. She explained that at the beginning of her career, she had a very ‘black and white’ view of what it meant to keep kids safe. She considered parents as either good or bad, and made it her mission to ensure bad ones couldn’t be parents. She recounted a time when she had chosen to separate a newborn from his substance-using parents and vowed to herself that the parents would never have custody of the baby again.

That was wrong, she said.

Her mindset had led her to cause harm to children and families through the decisions she made in her position of power. She had been well-intentioned, in that she wanted to protect children, but she had caused harm. She was now dedicating her career to steering the child protection system toward meeting the needs of families, because she realized that strengthening families is what’s best for child well-being.

It was a powerful story, because in that story is something unfortunately rare: a leader who admitted they were wrong, reckoned with the harm they caused, and committed to doing better.

We don’t see enough of this kind of leadership.

Why is it so hard to admit we were wrong? Probably because being wrong hurts. Being the bad guy when we were trying to be the good guy feels awful. We want to think that our good intentions are enough, and that if our actions were well-meant, then we aren’t accountable for the harm we might have caused. But you and I know that’s not true.

Reckoning with the harm we’ve caused is hard.

Sometimes, when people realize they’ve caused harm, they get stuck in shame. They can give up trying to do better. But giving up doesn’t help. Others are so afraid of being wrong that they armor up to defend their actions, and double down on their choices so they can preserve their sense of rightness. We see that a lot, don’t we? That’s not getting us anywhere better.

The truth is, we’ve all caused harm. Harm doesn’t need to be intentional to have happened. And instead of being swallowed by shame or doubling down in defensiveness, there’s a third, most powerful way. And that’s admitting that we were wrong, reckoning with the harm we’ve caused, and committing to doing better, humbly.

That’s the way we move forward and do what we’re all trying to do. That’s the only way we can work together to do what’s best for kids.

We need leaders that can do this. Those leaders are the most vulnerable, and therefore the most courageous and powerful catalysts of positive change.

We can be those leaders. Children need us to be.