The Foster Care Trinity: A New Theory

We owe it to disadvantaged children everywhere to get foster care right.

Jamie Schwandt November 09, 2017
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Famous Prussian military thinker Carl von Clausewitz is universally accepted as one of the most influential strategic thinkers of all time. In his famous, yet dense, book On War, he provides a discussion of a theory he calls the trinity. Expert in all things Clausewitz, Christopher Bassford stated in a discussion of the trinity, that it is “an interactive set of three forces that collectively and interactively drive the events of war in the real world – represents the capstone of Clausewitzian theory.”

As a U.S. Army officer and former foster child, I have held a thought in my mind for the past three years. What if the trinity, theorized by Clausewitz, somehow applied not just to war, but to other areas as well? Could it possibly be used as a framework for understanding foster care? My answer is yes. This led me to a new theory describing the interaction of elements within foster care. By understanding this theory, we can improve the foster care system.

Executive Summary

Here is what you can expect to find in this discussion.

  • Clausewitz Trinity
  • Schwandt’s Foster Care Trinity
  • Elements of the Foster Care Trinity
  • Application of the Foster Care Trinity

Clausewitz Trinity

“War is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.” – Carl von Clausewitz

Clausewitz’s trinity comprises of three elements.

  1. Primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force. Typically, this element is associated with emotion.
  2. The play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam. This element is typically associated with chance.
  3. Subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason. This element is associated with reason and policy.

In On War, Clausewitz remarked, “These three tendencies are like three different codes of law, deep-rooted in their subject and yet variable in their relationship to one another. A theory that ignores any one of them or seeks to fix an arbitrary relationship among them would conflict with reality to such an extent that for this reason alone it would be totally useless.”

Schwandt’s Foster Care Trinity

“The task, therefore, is to keep our theory floating among these three tendencies, as among three points of attraction.” – Carl von Clausewitz

Pay close attention to the quote above as this applies to the Foster Care Trinity. Think of three specific elements inside of a triangle. Now think of a magnetic pendulum oscillating between the three elements. These elements are important and have to be viewed holistically, not separate.

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Visualize a magnetic force being influenced or pulled by three different elements or magnets. The magnetic force is influenced or pulled by each element and the interaction between each element. The pull will be determined by the initial conditions within the elements and the starting position of the magnetic force.

The importance of policy in Clausewitz theory cannot be understated. Just as war is subordinate to policy, foster care is subordinate to policy as well. Policy drives the foster care system and it is essential that effective policy is put into place. Here, I am reminded of chaos theory. In chaos theory we find that small changes in the starting position of a chaotic system, such as foster care, make an extremely large difference after the pendulum starts swinging. The main idea within chaos theory posits that the initial conditions of a system bring about major changes as time progresses. This is why the initial conditions represented in policy drive the conditions as time progresses in the foster care system.

Moreover, Clausewitz discusses what he calls “military genius.” He states, “Any complex activity, if it is to be carried on with any degree of virtuosity, calls for appropriate gifts of the intellect and temperament.” Here Clausewitz is not referring to the military commander as a literal genius in the form of Einstein, yet a genius in mental aptitude for a particular occupation. The foster care system brings about potential “system geniuses.” These system geniuses are subordinate to policy, yet must become intelligent and courageous. In foster care, a system genius is indispensable.

Clausewitz provides one additional concept that I apply to the Foster Care Trinity – friction. He stated, “Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war.” Friction is the concept that is present in reality. Here, friction is present in the element of the family. A child is born into his or her biological family. This is where friction exists. It is the true reality a child and his or her family live within, not statistics discussed in the system.

Elements of the Foster Care Trinity

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“If the mind is to emerge unscathed from this relentless struggle with the unforeseen, two qualities are indispensable: first, an intellect that, even in the darkest hour, retains some glimmerings of the inner light which leads to truth; and second, the courage to follow this faint light wherever it may lead.” – Carl von Clausewitz

The three elements that comprise Schwandt’s Foster Care Trinity are as follows:

  1. Policy. The foster care system is subordinate to policy. Good or bad policy contributes to an effective or dysfunctional foster care system. Here, the interaction of each branch of the government drives policy.
  2. System. The geniuses working within the foster care system are indispensable. This is where chance, courage, and determination live. Social workers, foster parents, contractors, child protective service workers, Guardians Ad Litem, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), etc. must become empowered change agents and critical thinkers. These people must be courageous in the face of danger and be ready to accept ownership of success or failure.
  3. Family. Intervention must become the cornerstone of the foster care system. System geniuses must intervene in a child’s life prior to abuse or neglect taking place. This element primarily consists of biological parents, grandparents, and other members of the biological family.

Application of the Foster Care Trinity

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“By influencing policy, creating intelligent system geniuses, and intervening prior to abuse in the family, we will find a window of opportunity to improve the chances of success for a disadvantaged child.” – Dr. Jamie Schwandt

The duo of Derek and Laura Cabrera, both of which are professors at Cornell University, have developed a framework for improving organizations. They call this framework Vision, Mission, Culture & Capacity, and Learning (VMCL). Using the VMCL framework, let me demonstrate this within the Foster Care Trinity. I call it i3 or i-cubed.

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The Mission of i3 is as follows: influence, intelligence, and intervention (i3).

The Vision of i3 is as follows: influence Policy, create System geniuses by improving intelligence, and intervene prior to abuse in the Family.

Bringing it all together.

  1. (influence) Influence Policy through the interaction of each branch of the government leading to policy that is in the best interest of the child, supports continuous improvement, and serves as the voice of the voiceless.
  2. (intelligence) Create System geniuses working with foster children through courageous and empowered critical thinkers who are not afraid to make decisions.
  3. (intervention) Intervene in the Family prior to abuse or neglect. System geniuses must intervene prior to the abuse of a child. Additionally, they must intervene within the family by promoting and teaching family and parenting skills, while constantly looking for warning signs.

So, why should we understand this theory?

We owe it to disadvantaged children everywhere to get this right. Think of a foster child, they may not have a family who knows how to or is capable of providing them a life of opportunity.

Who do these children turn to?

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Jamie Schwandt

Dr. Jamie Schwandt (Ed.D.) is an author and former foster child. He is a TV show host, motivational speaker, lean six sigma master black belt, statistics professor, and a major in the U.S. Army. Dr. Schwandt is the author of the books Finding Your Hero (2015) and Succeeding as a Foster Child (2014). He is the host of the inspiring TV show Dreaming Big and is a fitness expert with a unique mindset for positive growth. You can find his published work here, his website, Facebook, and Twitter.


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