One of the most common criticisms of America’s child welfare system is that it too often ensnares impoverished parents, accusing them of neglect when the true issue is just the circumstances of poverty. When families earn less than $15,000 per year, authorities are seven times more likely to identify their children as neglected, according to a 2010 study.
New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) is spending $30 million over the next three years on a new mentoring program that aims to prevent foster care placements by helping families improve their financial stability.
The approach, Mobility Mentoring, was developed 12 years ago by the Boston-based social service nonprofit Economic Mobility Pathways (EMPath). The organization’s caseworkers realized its clients — primarily low-income mothers — remained stuck in poverty even after receiving shelter and education services. EMPath developed a new model where a mentor coaches parents on pursuing long-term goals in family stability, well-being, financial management, education and training, and employment and career.
Over the last few years, the Mobility Mentoring approach has been adopted by dozens of organizations across the country — from Head Start programs to family shelters to tribal agencies — but New York City will be the first to try using it to prevent child maltreatment and avoid the need to remove children to foster care.
Lashaunda Watson, a 39-year-old single mother of four, joined EMPath’s Boston mentoring program in 2016 after hearing about it from her sister, who was also a participant.
“I had a full time job, but I was just scraping by — I was always in the red and I didn’t have access to a bank account or credit card, so I was relying on check cashing services,” said Watson. “I was really overextended and I just felt like my life was so disorganized. I was kind of chasing my tail, in a sense, working really hard but getting nowhere.”
With the help of her mentor, Watson has made significant strides: she re-opened her bank account, created a budget and bill schedule, landed a higher-paying job, and established her own savings. She also benefited from financial incentives — ranging from $25 to $500 — that EMPath uses as recognition for participants when they meet their goals.
So far, though, such rewards are not part of ACS’s budget for the program in New York, according to local organizations as well as Jennifer Lowe, who leads the EMPath’s global member network for Mobility Mentoring. Though Lowe has seen that financial incentives have been “quite effective over time” in its own Boston program, she says the majority of organizations using its approach don’t include these, primarily due to budget restrictions.
“Any mobility mentoring-informed program is a strong program if it has a recognition piece to it, but it doesn’t have to be a financial incentive, it could be a celebration as goals are completed or a congratulatory note” said Lowe. “An incentive is tied to your goal-setting process and helps create a positive sense of self — it might be external motivation at first, but it very quickly turns into that internal intrinsic motivation.”
When asked for research that supports the model’s use in child welfare cases, ACS did not provide any. Leaders at EMPath say they look forward to the opportunity to learn how to best adapt their approach to suit families involved in child welfare.
“Working with ACS and thinking about prevention of abuse and neglect using a family support model, that’s fairly new for us, and so we’re excited to see what we can learn from these seven providers,” said Lowe. Though the contract with ACS has not been finalized, she expects it will include a structure to support mutual learning among the seven New York providers, including two quarterly group calls focused on sharing best practices and assessing results.
“There might be something we might want to tweak or do a little differently to really impact the population that we’re serving [in New York],” said Lowe. “We don’t want them to do it exactly the way we do it here in Boston, but there’s a real set of guiding principles and a whole certification model so that organizations can align and strengthen to those guidelines.”
One recent evaluation of Mobility Mentoring comes from Washington state, which introduced the approach in 2015 as a support for families enrolled in an early childhood assistance program. Nearly 10,000 families participated in mentoring for the 2018-2019 school year, with an average of around three mentoring visits per family, and most participate for one or two years. State funds cannot be used for financial incentives in Washington, so providers instead used rewards such as handwritten cards, phone calls or certificates, according Karin Ganz, who administers the program.
Roughly 30 percent of participating Washington families reported that they improved their parenting skills, and one-quarter said they decreased family conflict. More than 92 percent of families surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that they were treated with respect by child welfare providers, compared to 77 percent of families who did not participate.
“Mobility Mentoring prompts people to practice long-term goal-setting, prioritizing, juggling multiple things — all of what we call our executive functioning skills that are so important in helping people navigate their way out of poverty, but that we know are challenged by being really stressed out by poverty,” said Nicki Ruiz, the director of institutional advancement at EMPath, who previously led mentoring for multi-generational families in Boston.
While the approach hasn’t been previously used in child welfare, research suggests that improving families’ finances can improve child well-being. A 2017 study found that a $1 increase in a state’s minimum wage resulted in a 9.6 percent drop in neglect reports — the most common type of child maltreatment, affecting three-quarters of all child victims.
“We know the biggest determiner of outcomes for children is their parents’ income, and we can make an impact on income,” said Ruiz. “A lot of times, it’s really the poverty people are facing that is causing the referral to child protective services.”
At the Center for Family Life in Sunset Park — one of the seven New York agencies that will adopt Mobility Mentoring — Co-Director Julia Francois says Mobility Mentoring fits with their approach to supporting families and that caseworkers are excited to get trained.
“[The program] really responds to the categories of human experience that we thought were relevant to why people end up in child welfare services,” said Francois. “It also gives you the latitude to tailor the tools and data collection to the community. Because this is an immigrant neighborhood, we anticipate there’s going to have to be some tailoring to ensure that the tools are appropriate for families that are new immigrants from China or from Ecuador.”
The seven local nonprofits awarded contracts from ACS will begin training their staff on Mobility Mentoring in July and have committed to following the approach for two years.
Note: This article was updated on Monday, March 9.
Megan Conn is a reporter in New York for The Chronicle of Social Change, and can be reached at mconn@chronicleofsocialchange.