By Noah Dzuba
On June 12th, child welfare advocates from across the San Francisco Bay Area gathered at the First Five conference center in Alameda to hear from author David Tobis and participate in a panel discussion about increasing parental participation in the child welfare system.
Tobis’ book, From Pariah’s to Partners, focuses on the creation of a parent advocacy movement in New York City, where parents who had been involved with child protective services banded together in an effort to improve the system. Most notably, parents were recruited to serve as peer-mentors to other parents in an effort to prevent children from entering the system and speeding up re-unifications. These parent advocates have become a fixed part of the NYC child welfare system, with advocates sitting on the Administration of Child Services (ACS) board and participating in ACS dependency hearings. Tobis, a recent transplant to Oakland, now hopes to foster the already burgeoning parent advocacy movement in the Bay.
Tobis spoke for about 45 minutes about the transformation of NYC’s foster care system, much of which he attributed to parent advocates. He cited the drop in children in foster care, from 50,000 in 1992 to under 13,000 today, as evidence of an improving system. He also noted that parents now have much better legal representation and can get preventative services before children are removed from the home.
The panel discussion included a diverse range of participants, including Alameda based parent advocates, parent advocates in other fields, organizers and agency directors and a foster youth advocate. The panel all agreed that the continued growth of parental input into the child welfare system was necessary and would be beneficial.
“There’s much more creative and engaging planning being done when parents are involved in decision making,” said panelist Jimmy Pete, program director of the Parent Engagement Program at the organization, A Better Way.
There was also a lot of discussion about what the Parent Advocacy movement could learn from other local empowerment movements. Latrenda Leslie, a youth advocate at West Coast Children’s Clinic, pointed out how closely aligned the fledging parent advocacy movement was with the bay area’s flourishing foster youth advocacy movement.
“We don’t…advocate for parents,” Leslie said, “but we do advocate for them by advocating for their children.”
Janet Knipe, founding executive director of the powerful foster youth advocacy group, California Youth Connection, and current executive director of the National Foster Youth Action Network, also said that the parent advocacy movement could benefit from what the area’s youth advocate groups have learned throughout their growth to political significance and suggested that the two movements should band together as natural allies.
The crowd, full of representatives from the bay areas youth programs, was engaged throughout the proceedings and asked questions regarding how they could support foster parent advocacy with their own organizations or in their particular locals.
In closing his speech, Tobis cited an allegory saying, “Until lions have historians, the tale of the hunt will glorify the hunter.” Going on to say that with parent advocacy, “parents are now their own spokes people”, and can now have their voice heard throughout the child welfare system.
Noah Dzuba is a Journalism for Social Change Fellow and graduate student in Social Welfare at UC Berkeley.