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Privilege By Another Name

Privilege By Another Name

Never would I have thought I would have to contend with the abuser for ownership of my scars.

That may sound like an interesting sentence and let me assure you it is. The scars I speak of are not the visible and slightly raised or discolored marks on my skin from various scrapes I’ve incurred on this journey of life. Though invisible, my physical scars are still very present for me. Instead, I am speaking of the hidden yet very pronounced invisible scars. These acquired scars speak to the battles I have fought and those I have won. They speak of the hard times, the quiet tears and the painful places I emerged from. They speak of incidents that have worked together for my good. They are mine. They come with stories, feelings and reactions. They come with graphic and sad words, joyful and motivating moments, even good and evil. It is because of these scars that the need for a system to protect children makes sense to me. 

I accept the child welfare system as it stands…it is a necessary evil. Being a former caseworker I completely understand that. Heck, being a former foster youth I understand the need for the child welfare system. What is surprising to me are the elements I didn't expect to contend with in this space. Looking back I shouldn't be surprised. Reading this your mind may be venturing into the realm of possibilities this post can venture into. I will cut to the chase and name the realm applicable here- Privilege. 

This word is becoming depreciated, used as an evaluation point in some conversations, and a lightning rod in others. The child welfare system, like many in this nation, is steeped in the superiority that protects this privilege. Because of this, I believe there is an implicit bias and even some level of jealousy around the moniker of “lived experience”. 

I want to acknowledge from the jump this will be a particularly contentious piece for some. Contentious because of those whose values, identities, and options are attached to the idea of Lived Experience. 

The conversations I'm hearing and having around this topic lately have been stirring in my spirit. I feel so frustrated I couldn't do anything else but write. When you consider the harm done by the child welfare system one would think that is not something one would want to align themselves with. To my surprise lately I'm seeing that alignment more and more. I believe the reason I'm seeing this alignment is there are those who wish to share in the title of someone with “lived experience”.

It's not exclusionary because we want it to be. it's exclusionary because there is exclusion there. Let me explain. Any other time when we talk about Lived Experience we were talking about people who have to bear the deep and pervasive scars of a battle with the child welfare system. FOR LIFE. Originally, the term Lived Experience was designated for the people who carry the impact of involuntary systemic involvement. Now, we have people who fully intend to step into the place of Lived Experience, speaking through their lens and experience of their consenting alignment with the system via their job and it makes no sense. 

To do this is to disregard the fact that you are a part of the system meteing out the involuntary harm. The harm you do not have to carry. The harm I have to involuntarily carry. One of us volunteered for this experience. One of us did not. One of us still has issues sleeping after “aging out” 25 years ago and one of us does not.

The professionals who conflate these two perspectives do not see the distinction. I will expound on the distinction as I see it. One type of “experience” came as the result of outside voices and forces setting parameters that my family and I had to live into based on biased and limited metrics. We couldn’t speak to the type of worker we’d have, the skills the child welfare leaders should possess or the cultural knowledge that could aid any agent of the system when engaging with us. The other “experience” is the expertise gained from an alignment WITH the system, to do the work OF the system. 

See the distinction? 

I have seen professionals operating under that moniker because of their work experience. That is a facet of privilege.  For you to come and stand in the dark place… the sunken place… the in need of Healing place solely to equate your voice for your comfort while ascribing that moniker is tantamount to gaslighting. 

There is a knowledge that comes from doing this work. That work doesn’t equate to what children, youth, and families have to endure as a result of surviving the child welfare system. It is a privileged thought that says, “I don’t like that being left out of the expertise taking up space on this subject. Let me insert myself”. It is a privileged thought that says, “I don’t want to slow down my work or pre-plan for their voices to be consistently present”. It is privilege that says, “my degrees and my opinion hold just as much weight as your feedback about your experience”. An unshared experience.

It’s the gall for me. 

There is a place and space for your expertise. It is not as a person with lived experience. There is already a space for you and your perspective at the table! That is WHY lived experience came to be. The perspective of the burden bearer needs to be heard. The degrees cannot inform the system of the impact of the system. 

There are many facets of lived experience, kin and adoptive perspectives for example. Those voices and perspectives belong at the table. Absolutely.

If we allow the perspectives to speak as they have lived the impact of the system this would likely be an easy fix. That’s not what I am seeing. 

I am seeing those at the top of the power structures feeling left out, grappling over a slight and very temporary power shift around this topic.

I am seeing those who want to tout the efficacy of their program or model without accounting for any impact on those who endure them. 

It is very frustrating to have those false fields of equivalency erected so that everyone fits in, standing side by side. This is not done any other time, especially to the benefit of families, at the expense of the dominant power culture. 

We don’t do it when it’s time to decide on policy or procedure. 

We don’t do that when it’s time to be accountable for the poor outcomes for families in care. 

We don’t do that when it’s time to flat-out look at intentional and systemic harm being done… So why is it being done to suck the air out of the room when the fires of the lived experience voices remotely begin to kindle? 


There is an example that I use often when talking about this topic. If you’ve heard this before, indulge me. 

Pretend you and I were both released from the hospital ER. After our respective interactions, we receive a survey to talk about our experiences. By mistake, one of those surveys was sent to a person along for the ride with another attendee to this hospital room. 

I was kicked in the shin. There was a bruise, I went to the ER. I received aspirin and I was discharged from the ER within 2 hours. 

You were shot in the shin. There was a broken bone. You went to the ER. Surgery was required. You were given medication and discharged from the ER to the main hospital. You were there for the prescribed amount of time before being released to continue your care at home. 

The extra attendee who came to the ER with you was also in the ER. They left having no impact on that interaction. 

Without adding information regarding any other layers associated with your surgery, in-hospital stay, aftercare treatment, or follow-ups I’d think you can see a difference regarding the impact. Should the extra attendee, or myself, speak to your surgery experience? 

The impact is NOT the same.

When we try to make the impact the same we lose the depth and breadth of the person who had to carry out the multifaceted impact of that interaction. It is diminishing and disrespectful. 

It’s time that we call out power and privilege, shining a light on the areas that continue to perpetuate harm and silence the survivors of this system. 

That is why this matters to me. Language is important. It carries values, establishes boundaries, and grants freedoms. This is not a place I sought to be in; a survivor of the child welfare system. It is a place that I will protect. When there is ambiguity it ALWAYS favors those in power. The families are not the ones in power. It is up to the privileged to cede that power in exchange for the change they purport they want to see. 

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