After 16 years as a foster parent on Long Island, Donna Lauracella isn’t surprised when parents react with anger and mistrust after their children are removed by child welfare workers. Whenever possible, she tries to ease the transition by sitting down with the parent so they can both get to know each other a bit better.
“When you can discuss their feelings and my feelings, you can try to defuse all of that anger so that we can work together and empower them,” said Lauracella. “The whole scenario is tender, and it feels a lot better when they have a little bit of a say in what’s going on with their child.”
But, across New York, foster care agencies typically don’t spend much time helping parents and foster parents learn how to work together. Often, all Lauracella can do is give the parent her number and hope they’ll reach out; if they do, they have to figure out their relationship largely on their own.
Now, one foster care agency in New York City aims to change that dynamic by piloting a new co-parenting program that they hope will spark wider change across the region.
Rising Ground recently hired a therapist to serve as the full-time facilitator for the new program, which aims to introduce parents and foster parents within a week of the child’s placement. The facilitator will then serve as a coach for both parties, helping them communicate and collaborate to meet the child’s needs. By supporting the co-parenting relationship, Rising Ground hopes to improve the child’s transition, reduce the parent’s stress, and accelerate family reunification.
“The idea is that our children will have the comfort of knowing that two adults care about them, that they’re working together and they’re on the same page,” said Amiee Abusch, who leads foster care services at Rising Ground. “For parents to know that their child is with a safe and loving co-parent will help not only the child’s anxiety, but also the parent’s anxiety.”
Jeannette Vega knows the difference a positive bond between a parent and foster parent can make. Two decades ago, when her eldest son was placed in foster care, she had a hard time trusting his first two foster parents. But things were different with the third foster parent, who listened to her concerns and invited her to spend more time with her son. Vega grew to trust the woman so much that they kept in touch and visited even after her son returned home.
“Co-parenting and sharing is a little complicated, but I do think it’s a good way to build relationships and move forward, because the foster parent can be a big support throughout the case,” said Vega, who now advocates for parents involved in the child welfare system. “I’m excited to hear Rising Ground hired a coach — they can show foster parents what language to use to engage parents and how to use active listening skills, and the same for parents.”
The co-parenting program, inspired by North Carolina’s statewide Shared Parenting policy, is a departure from standard operations in New York, where agency workers usually introduce parents and foster parents once but don’t provide extended coaching on working together. Rising Ground will begin working with its first parent pairs next month and hopes to serve at least 32 pairs throughout the two-year pilot — still just a fraction of all the parents and foster parents across the city.
The adults-only co-parenting sessions will be facilitated by Michele Favale, a licensed marriage and family therapist. Favale has also been conducting focus groups among current parents and foster parents to solicit feedback on making a co-parenting relationship work for both.
Rising Ground’s training for new foster parents has already been updated to include guidance on successful co-parenting and re-emphasize the important role foster parents can play in helping families reunify. Their response so far has been positive, according to Favale.
“[Foster parents] are on board because they feel like this is something that we should have been doing,” said Favale. “The training and guidance helps them place themselves in our parents shoes — what if this was you? What if this was your child that was removed from the home? When you start to explain it in that way, they really understand why it’s important.”
In order to create space for parents to share their feelings candidly, foster parents will need to differentiate themselves from the foster agency, says Jane Spinak, a Columbia law professor who specializes in child and family advocacy.
“Agencies have to understand their foster parents’ loyalties won’t be entirely with the agency anymore, otherwise the foster parent can’t gain the parent’s trust,” said Spinak. “They have to be clear about the foster parent’s role so the parent doesn’t feel like this is just another hoop to jump through. It’s very different for a parent to see the foster parent as an ally.”
Rising Ground’s pilot program is funded by a $200,000 grant from the Redlich Horwitz Foundation*, which focuses on improving the lives of youth in foster care. The foundation hopes the pilot will demonstrate the benefits of co-parenting to other foster care agencies.
“We are really hopeful that this will demonstrate a successful approach to expediting family reunification for the rest of the state,” said Sarah Chiles, who leads the foundation. “We have to change the system so that parents can remain highly engaged in the parenting of their children.”
*The Redlich Horwitz Foundation provides funding to The Chronicle of Social Change’s parent organization, Fostering Media Connections. See our editorial independence policy for more information.
Megan Conn is a reporter in New York for The Chronicle of Social Change, and can be reached at mconn@chronicleofsocialchange.