The Power of Apology

September 5, 2023 at 8:00 AM |
Posted by:
Laura Witham
Laura Witham


Alia convenes organizations on a regular basis to have conversations about the child welfare system, its impact on children and families, and how we can keep kids safely with their families. More and more, in all sectors, we are trying to prioritize the voices of those with lived experience. That they be at the table alongside those in decision-making positions to disrupt the power differential. One pillar of engaging lived experts that Alia is putting into practice is to “See and value the lived expert in their full humanity—and let go of the rest.” And, to “See the person’s inner value (first, often and actionably), rather than focusing on professionalism.” 

About a year ago, Alia led a Breakthrough Session with representatives from various child welfare related organizations—Public School, Juvenile Justice, Family Court, a Youth, and Relative Caregivers. We spent two days having discussions about their child welfare context. Team Alia then provided a vignette of a child in foster care and had small groups discuss the concerns they would have about Safety & Wellbeing, Permanency, and Belonging when planning for this youth. Participants were asked to discuss several questions related to context: “Does the social worker or system in this family’s case owe them an apology for harm done? Is there anything on your ‘working well’ or ‘worries’ list that might be informed by your own implicit bias? How might the historical trauma of the family impact your placement decision for the child?”

There were significant emotions expressed during the debrief of this exercise that culminated in a powerful moment. At “the table” was a Relative Caregiver whose children and grandchildren had experience in the child welfare system. This woman’s children had been removed at times and she was also the caregiver when her grandchildren had been removed. She told of the pain she and her family had experienced as a result of the system trying to keep children “safe.”  Then the County Child Welfare Director for a state Department of Health and Human Services stood up and looked into the eyes of this passionate grandmother and apologized for the harm done to her family by the system she represents. Afterwards, that grandmother, with tears in her eyes, said that she felt ten pounds lighter. The room felt the weight of the moment.

We get so wrapped up in the hierarchy, professionalism, what’s mine to own or not own. But what if we practiced seeing and valuing the lived expert in their full humanity? What if an apology is the start of a new way of leading your teams, and bringing healing to families?