Lakisha had an idea: “Why don’t they give us a handbook?”
Lindsay added: “Yeah, why am I finding out about my rights here? Now?”
Both were parents with children in foster care who had joined a weekly writing group I ran at a child welfare services agency called Graham Windham. For 15 years, the New York City nonprofit I founded, Rise, has been training parents to write, publish and speak about their experiences with the child welfare system and become advocates for reform. Over four months of meals and drafts, this group shared their stories — and ideas for how the foster care system could improve its work with parents.
The common theme across their stories was discouragement. Facing even small setbacks in their cases, like cancelling scheduled visits with their children, parents often felt intensely fearful and deflated, unsure that they could ever reunite with their children. Their stories documented the roots of these reactions: the losses and terrors they’d survived in childhood. Most had grown up in foster care themselves. They saw few reasons to believe in themselves or trust in others.
The group envisioned a handbook to be an anchor of hope that would inform parents about their rights, service options, agency supports and how other parents have achieved success. Most importantly, it would communicate the agency’s commitment to reunification and include their stories to lift up families.
As Lakisha put it, “I want Graham to use my story to motivate families — to assure them that things will get better and let them know that there are levels to this but the family will lead once again.”
More broadly, parents in the group wanted their expertise to be valued. As one mom said, “Our collective group has lots of wisdom of how to be successful in the child welfare system.”
Now, Rise has published a collection of parents’ recommendations for improving frontline practice with parents so that children in foster care are more likely to quickly and safety return home. “Power and Partnership: A Guide to Improving Frontline Practice with Parents” draws on the expertise of hundreds of parents who have worked with Rise, as well as Rise’s partnerships with child welfare agencies and deep knowledge of trauma and toxic stress.
The solutions in the guide focus on building parents’ power. Parents so often feel helpless facing the power of the state to separate families, and dynamics inherent in child welfare can be reminders of past victimization and powerlessness. Yet parents must quickly take control of their lives and of their cases to get their children home. As Rise’s parent leaders have written:
“To regain our children, we need to find the power inside of us. The child welfare process can make us feel more powerless and at the mercy of more powerful people, or it can support parents in becoming powerful enough to overcome our obstacles.”
“Power and Partnership” offers two dozen practical steps that organizations can take so that frontline staff, attorneys and court personnel can more intentionally counteract powerlessness and build parents’ power.
The first set of recommendations focuses on establishing parents’ safety. The loss of a child to foster care is unimaginable — an experience of grief, terror, disorientation, shame and loss of identity. It’s even more frightening for the many parents who grew up in foster care themselves, especially if they experienced harm in care.
As one writer in the group, Latoya, put it:
“My fear built rapidly because of not having my daughter in my care. I wondered, ‘Is someone touching her? Is she being taken care of?’ At the same time, I didn’t even want to visit my daughter. I was too ashamed. I totally shut down.”
Strategies to promote parents’ safety include the simple act of communicating positive intentions from the first meeting, beginning casework by addressing parents’ basic needs like food and shelter, or providing peer support and educating parents about common emotional reactions that they or their children might experience.
Another focus is voice. Building knowledge and opportunities for choice are key to voice. Parents cannot exercise self-determination in planning for their families if they don’t understand how the child welfare system works or have support to negotiate in charged situations.
Rise trains child welfare agencies in New York City to provide a “parent toolkit” soon after intake. That can include a handbook introducing the agency, staff and services; a contact sheet for important people on their case, a copy of Rise’s magazine for peer support, a calendar for appointments, and a flyer for a parent support group.
Parent voice can also be cultivated to strengthen agency decision-making. Through surveys on parents’ experiences and roundtables where parents can meet with senior staff to work together on solving problems, agency leadership can develop feedback loops to improve program design.
So often, parents succeed in reunification because of a relationship with someone who believes in them. Feeling “held in mind” and valued is powerful. Transformational relationships are more likely to thrive when agencies intentionally support relationship-building through supervision where signs of relationship growth are recognized, staff have the opportunity to work in teams, and milestones — including reunification — are recognized. The last section of Rise’s report focuses on tools to nurture these skills.
Rise is working with child welfare agencies to operationalize these recommendations. This work began at Graham Windham, when participants in the writing group decided to share their suggestions in a letter to the agency’s leadership. To their surprise, both Rise and the agency took their ideas seriously and their words led to change.
Now, four years later, Graham has a parent handbook. Its waiting room walls are covered in the informational posters and handouts, developed by Rise parent leaders, that explain parents’ rights and roles in visits. A parent advocate reviews both of these tools one-on-one with parents soon after their children are placed in foster care. These changes have contributed to the agency achieving top reunification outcomes in New York City.
Rise has also developed a new approach to preparing parents for family visits, when parents spend time with their children in foster care. The TIPS approach now used at seven foster care agencies in New York City is a set of tools and training to orient both frontline staff and parents to visits and has shown results. As one case planner put it, “I would describe the TIPS as stepping stones to move in the right direction and build a positive relationship.” In June, we will kick off a two-year collaborative with six foster care agencies to improve reunification outcomes.
Our hope in sharing “Power and Partnership” is that more child welfare agencies will address powerlessness and prioritize the solutions that parents themselves believe in.
Building parents’ power is essential to families’ long-term success. The issues parents face are not going to be completely solved when children go home. Families hit crises. Parents are going to have to use their voices to solve family problems. The more child welfare can support parents using their voices during their case, the better equipped they’ll be to solve problems down the road.
Nora McCarthy is the director of Rise.
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