Saturday, August 30, 2014

Lesson in McDonald's?!

I'm the first to admit that, while I love being a mom, it can be challenging, to say the least. I've learned, however, to take joy in the small things, and kids are the greatest at this.

Today, I reluctantly agreed to take my youngest to McDonald's for his chicken nugget fix. He insisted on getting my Diet Coke for me, and then led us to the table where he wanted us to sit. Now, my instinct is always to head to the quietest, least crowded corner, but Ben headed to a small table right next to a father and son who were eating their McFeast and chatting together.

Ben was immediately engaged in devouring his food, and so I sipped my drink and eavesdropped on the table next door. 

The boy, maybe 11 years old, was telling his dad all about the dance he had gone to the night before, and the dad was commenting back about how glad he was that the boy had had fun. Then dad shared that he had been excited for his son and was thinking about him all evening. The kid wondered why, and dad told him that attending his first dance was a big deal and went on to talk about all the other firsts that he was imagining for his son...first day of high school, first time driving a car, first day of college. He joked with his son that when he got older the boy would start ignoring his dad and only talk to him when he needed some cash. They both laughed about that, and I was smiling along with them.

Who knew I would get to overhear this lovely conversation while sitting in one of my least favorite places (albeit with one of my most favorite people)? My work in child welfare can be so sad and so discouraging, but I'm heartened when I witness these simple moments. Great parenting, an obviously beloved kid, and a wonderful reminder that you cannot love your children too much. There is no way that speaking truth about love to your child can be anything other than good. That boy was so engaged with his dad, and it was obviously a familiar conversation, which has resulted in a confident, happy kid.

Way to go, dad, and thanks. I wish I had taken your picture and shaken your hand. The little things are the big things. And thank you, sweet Ben, for insisting that we sit in the middle of the hubbub, instead of my usual quiet corner. You're a great kid.

Friday, August 29, 2014

My recent book relationship history

After I finished reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, I went through kind of a dry spell.  Four books in a row, I opened and then closed without finishing.  I won't name names because I really think it was me and not them.  Really, they seemed like great books, but I just wasn't that into them.

I loved Americanah so much, so when it was over, I just needed a little time.

Finally, I dallied with a little something that didn't require a lot of investment. I had a fling with the easily read and then set aside Firebird by Susanna Kearsley.  I loved Kearsley's Winter Sea, and so returning to a little history, a little romance, and a lovely Scottish background was just what I needed. Kind of like fooling around with your ex--you know it's not really going to satisfy, but it's a comforting and perhaps necessary distraction.

Fortunately, the next two books I read were the real deal.  Whether you loved or didn't Kathryn Stockett's the Help, you would probably be interested to read both House Girl by Tara Conklin and Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd (of Secret Life of Bees fame--one of my faves).

The lawyer in me enjoyed House Girl, as the book is the story of a present day lawyer working on a reparations case, and in her research, discovering the story of Josephine.  Josephine was a slave and also an artist whose art was wrongly attributed to her owner, a much less talented artist.  Interesting, readable, thought-provoking.

I then turned to Invention of Wings, which was similar in that it was told from two voices, though in this case, both were from the same time period: Hetty "Handful" Grimke, a slave, who tells the story of her life and that of her mother, both of whom are excellent seamstresses and love quilting, which they use for warmth, story-telling, and all sorts of other things; and Sarah Grimke, who is given Handful as a gift for her birthday and who goes on to become one of the first pioneers for abolition and women's rights.  The story is historically based, as Sarah and Angelina Grimke were actual prominent figures in the abolition and women's rights movements, though not particularly well-remembered.  And there is even a historical record of Hetty being one of the slaves in the Grimke home, though in reality she died fairly young, and the story about her imagined in this book is almost entirely invented.

I didn't really set out to read two books in a row that delve into the awful history of slavery in this county, but I think they were exactly what I needed after Americanah, which contains such profound commentary on race through an author and main character who are born in Nigeria, move to the U.S. as young adults, and then return to Nigeria with a perspective altered by time and experience.

The other aspect of Americanah that I loved was that the main character, Ifemelu, is a blogger.  I'd been seriously thinking about starting my blog, and reading this novel was one of the final pushes I needed to go ahead and get started.

I am officially a Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi fan, and I've just started reading her first novel, Purple Hibiscus.  So far, so good.  I'll let you know how it turns out.  But I'm pretty sure it's true love.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Getting to Normal (Partnership for Strong Families, Partnering Connections, October-December 2012)

As I mentioned in my last post, I work in child welfare and have been in this field in some capacity for more than sixteen years.  I love my work, and I especially love weeks like this one.  I'm in Denver for the Daniel National Independent Living Conference.  This afternoon, some colleagues and I will be offering a presentation on the value of "permanence" and creative ways to achieve legal permanence (reunification, adoption, legal guardianship) for older youth.  The child welfare system has a dismal history of allowing kids to linger in the system and age out of care without a real connection to family.  Over the last six or so years, I've been fortunate to work with Partnership for Strong Families and Casey Family Programs to make progress in these areas, and it's been incredibly rewarding.

Initially, I thought I would take this opportunity to re-post an article that I wrote for PSF's Partnering Connections newsletter that talks more about the idea of permanence, but when I read through them, I realized they weren't really getting at what is on my mind today as I watch the hundreds of kids attending this conference, who are in foster care or who aged out of foster care, walking around the Sheraton here in downtown Denver. 

So, I decided to share a different article instead (also written for Partnering Connections back in the fall of 2012).  I often come back to the notion of "normalcy."  Another term we throw around a lot in the child welfare world.  What always resonates with me are the things we take for granted in our own lives.  We all give lip service to the concept of treating kids in the system like our own kids, but we so often miss the simplest ways of doing this.

Getting to Normal
The new school year has begun, and with that, our family has shifted back into high gear after the somewhat slower pace of summer.  For us, this means lots of homework, all manner of school activity, seemingly constant scouting events, karate classes twice a week, myriad holidays, a few family birthdays…you get the picture.  These are the sorts of things that seem so ordinary, and I know that in our family we pretty much take them for granted.  But the truth is these seemingly small and simple moments are actually everything—the funny things we laugh about together, the unexpected joys we remember fondly, the small achievements and heart-breaking disappointments, our interests and values taking shape and developing, the traditions and times together that we will sorely miss when they come to an end.

In the child welfare world, we realize how important these normal daily activities are for the children we serve.  Sometimes, however, we are so focused on whether we followed the law, abided by the policy, complied with the performance metric, and met the deadline, that the concept of regular life can be all but forgotten.  A couple of years ago, we got a memo from our statewide leadership giving us some practical guidance on the concept of “normalcy” for youth in the dependency system.  My favorite part was the quote from a child who said, “Stop calling us foster kids!  We’re just kids.”

You, as partner families and caregivers for children in the child welfare system, probably don’t need this reminder.  You are more likely looking for practical support, less red tape, better communication, and additional resources.

One of the exciting ways that we hope to make progress in this area is through the QualityParenting Initiative (QPI).  In Florida, QPI started as a pilot project in 2008 and has now spread to almost every county in the state.  We are kicking off our involvement in QPI in October 2012 with a meeting that will be led by Carole Shauffer, who has been instrumental in the success of this initiative.  Shauffer and QPI have made great strides in re-branding the foster care system in a positive light and transforming the culture and working relationships within the child welfare system.

According to QPI Florida’s “No Place Like Home” report, Hillsborough County has seen the number of foster parents willing to act as mentors for birth families increase from 63% to 81%.  They also had an uptick in families willing to foster siblings, from 50% to 90%.  They also reported significant improvements in communication between case managers and caregivers.  The community based care (CBC) organization, Big Bend, reported a reduction from 20% to 10% of children in out-of-home care who lived in three or more placements during their first year of care.  They also saw a 56% reduction in the number of children who remained in foster care more than twelve months.

These sorts of tangible results mean to me that we would be crazy not to get on board with this movement.  Children and caregivers are the center of the child welfare system, and we need to work with each other rather than around each other.  The beauty of the QPI approach is that if focuses on common sense and practical solutions that are identified and implemented locally.  The positive and immediate impact on the quality of life for children and caregivers is tangible.  From the legal standpoint, cases are greatly strengthened when we have meaningful involvement of youth and caregivers.  Our courts can make better decisions with more information and a clearer idea of how their orders will impact the lives of the people at the heart of the matter.

I always approach the new school year with a sense of renewed optimism and hope for what is possible for my three boys, so the timing of our QPI kick off seems perfect from my perspective.  Just like I have great hopes and high expectations for my own children and am reminded of how precious the regular daily moments are, I am convinced that we are well-poised to continue on the positive path we are on in the child welfare system in our area.  QPI is the next logical step, and it holds such promise for our relationships and for our combined ability to provide great outcomes and opportunities for all of our children.
Kelsey Burnette is the Managing Attorney for Children’s Legal Services, the division of the Department of Children and Families that represents the State of Florida on behalf of the best interests of children in dependency cases.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Calculus of Child Welfare (Partnership for Strong Families, Partnership Connection, July-September 2014)

Every quarter, I get to write an article for the Partnership for Strong Families' newletter, Partnership Connection.  I've been doing this for years, and I love doing it.  It started out with a request for me to contribute an article from the legal perspective focusing on legal issues that foster and adoptive parents and other caregivers would be interested in.  It quickly deteriorated into me just writing about whatever came to mind when I received the reminder email that my article was due (it's only four times a year, but it comes around SO quickly!).

I always try to keep the article focused on child welfare, but often I end up commenting on some book I've read or some parenting experience I have had that ties into the child welfare issue I'm addressing.  Luckily, the responses have been overwhelmingly positive, and that has contributed to my decision to begin this blog.  Keeping work in balance with life is a huge part of my life calculus for sure, and one that I am forever thinking about and adjusting.

So, at least every quarter, I will share my PSF article.  It doesn't look like they copyright it, and even if they did, PSF is such a great organization that I'm certain they'd give me permission to re-publish (have I mentioned I'm an ask forgiveness not permission kind of a gal?).

So, here it is...

The Calculus of Child Welfare
            Full Disclosure:  I just finished reading Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball,” and whether you are a baseball fanatic like my husband, or just married to one like I am, “Moneyball” is a beautifully written and fascinating book. 

When you think about baseball, you can’t help but think about statistics—batting averages, runs batted in, on base percentage, earned run average, and the list goes on.  As a child welfare professional, I have been both a little suspicious and a little jealous of all these seemingly endless items that are painstakingly tracked in connection with the game of baseball.  Baseball seems to measure everything, so they must have it all worked out!  But as hard as we try in the child welfare world to come up with performance metrics, score cards, predictive analytics, and foolproof ways to measure our efforts, prevent serious injury and death of children, and ensure best outcomes, we continue to fall short. 

I always thought it was for a variety of reasons: 1) we’re late to the game and have only recently begun trying to operate in this realm of data and evidence-based outcomes; 2) we’re wasting a lot of time because just like Mark Twain said, “There are three kinds of lies—lies, damned lies, and statistics,” or in other words, why bother because numbers will never tell the truth about the complex world that is child welfare, and 3) even if there is something to be gained from looking at these numbers, we will never have the level of resources dedicated to this task to allow us to do it right.

But after reading “Moneyball,” I feel differently.  Baseball has also struggled both to measure the right things and to properly interpret the many, many numbers they have at their disposal.  The biggest message I took from Lewis’ book is that statistics in and of themselves are not truth, but if you are willing to ask, “Why?”, the statistics and information you gather can help you gain insight into the most important issues you are dealing with, empower you to creatively solve problems and improve outcomes, and allow you to make the most of your limited resources.  The Oakland A's, under the guidance of General Manager Billy Beane, are the case in point that “Moneyball” focuses on, and it is an inspiring story.  If the A's can consistently create a top-notch team in an economical way by understanding the needs of the team and the abilities each player brings to the equation, we in the child welfare profession can do the same thing.

This week, I received the May Scorecards for both the community-based care agencies and child protective investigations, and Partnership and our Circuit 3/8 investigators looked good, as usual, with their measurements of things such as, recurrence of abuse and reentry into the child welfare system, permanence for youth, investigation commencement times, timely closure of cases, case loads, and measures related to education and administrative costs.  My Children’s Legal Services team is also in preparation for our Northeast Regional Review of our work, where we will be evaluated on things such as case load size, quality of legal writing, quality of legal decision making and documentation, timeliness of adjudication of dependency and permanence, courtroom preparation and skills, efforts to address children’s educational, safety, permanence, and well-being needs, and whether children have the appropriate goals and are moving through the court system appropriately.  I have also had the privilege over the last several years of working with Casey Family Programs on the Cold Case Project, where we use predictive analytics to identify the youth in our system of care who are at greatest risk of “aging out” without permanent connections.  We then do in-depth reviews of cases and participate in Permanency Round Tables where we share our findings and help to develop action plans focused on achieving legal permanence.

With all of this information and analysis and grading and comparison, it is easy to get overwhelmed, and even defensive and discouraged.  But I prefer the approach of Billy Beane and the Oakland A's.  I want to find ways to dig into all of this data and make sense out of it so that we can use it to improve our work.  I want to make sure we are tracking the right things and that we are gathering accurate information.  I want to make sure we are making smart decisions about where to focus our resources and how to improve our system.

Also this week, I received a report that indicated that around 25 percent of the children in care in the Northeast Region do not have a father listed for them in our Florida Safe Families Network database (the statewide database we use to record all of our child welfare investigations and cases).  One possibility in response to this report would be to conclude that 25 percent of the children in care in the Northeast Region have no legal father.  Instead, we should be asking where the information came from and whether it is accurate.  Until we understand that, we don’t really know what the problem is and what the best approach would be.  Do we have a data entry problem, do we have a problem with identifying fathers, or do we have a problem with establishing paternity?  Probably a little of each, but until we can get a better handle on the proportions, we don’t know how or where to devote our resources.

I could go on and on, but there is only so much space in this newsletter, so I will just say this:  the data we collect and what we do with it matter.  We should never lose sight of the individual children and families, but we should also spend time gathering information, understanding what it can and can’t tell us, and never being afraid to ask why.  And then, to quote a wise man, “Do. Or do not.  There is no try.”

Kelsey Burnette is the Managing Attorney for Children’s Legal Services, the division of the Department of Children and Families that represents the State of Florida on behalf of the best interests of children in dependency cases.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Simple math: Three Little Things Plus Three Short Years Equals One Happy Birthday

Not quite three years ago, life was basically good but felt unbalanced somehow.  I made some changes...well, more like mini-commitments.  Now, three years later, on my 44th birthday, it seems like a good time to look back, reflect, and share.

Calculus sounds so complicated, and I've never been great at math, so initially, I did just three things: went back to church, went back to Weight Watchers, and went back to the library.

Not some outrageous bucket list.  Just a very simple, very personal list.

This isn't going to be a religious blog, though I will talk about faith.  I believe in God, I am a Christian, but I mostly subscribe to the notion that "we are all just walking each other home" (thanks for that image/idea, Ram Dass).  There are as many pathways as there are people.  I definitely don't have the perfect equation, but I keep working on it.

At first, I just sat quietly in a pew each Sunday, but soon I joined the choir, and I realized how much I had missed singing, something I had done for years but discontinued after the birth of my first child.  Making joyful noises with the little choir at my church has turned out to be immeasurably good for my soul.

Church also led me back to prayer, of course, and I love the quote from C.S. Lewis in the movie, Shadowlands: "I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping.  It doesn't change God, it changes me."

The first thing I prayed about in earnest was my Dad, who is in the later stages of dementia, and my step-mother, who is his primary caregiver and who, of course, struggles with grief and loneliness.  Prayer helped me to focus and act.  I talked with my step-mother, and we came up with a plan where I would visit about every other month, and on most visits I would bring one of my three kiddos with me. Three years and a whole bunch of visits later, it's been life changing for all of us.

Returning to Weight Watchers was somewhat less dramatic, and I'm not here to be their spokesperson.  It is just a solid vehicle for making a long-term commitment to my physical health.  I've struggled with my weight forever, and I've joined and quit WW before.  So, I went in with the mindset that I was going to commit for the long term, expect it to take time but be permanent, and that I would not say mean things to myself through the inevitable ups and downs.

It's taken every bit of the last three years, but I've lost more than 50 pounds, am adopting healthier eating habits, am much kinder to myself, and go running at least five days a week.  I've completed a couple of 5Ks and my first 10K is in sight.  This definitely isn't going to be primarily a weight loss or health/fitness blog, but I will share aspects of my journey, as this improvement in my physical health has been an important part of my equation.

Finally, I dusted off my library card.  I've always been a bookworm, but law school and then kids disconnected me from reading just for the sheer pleasure of it.  I started using Goodreads to keep track of my "to read" list, as well as to share what I've read and my reviews with friends.

Reading more reminded me of how much I like to write.  I used to journal all the time.  Now, I write my little book reviews, my endlessly entertaining Facebook posts, and a quarterly article on child welfare-related topics for the Partnership for Strong Families' Partnership Connection newsletter. 

All of this has been so much fun that it got me to thinking about blogging.  One thing you need to know about me--I usually think about things for quite awhile before I actually get started. Not sure what that's all about, but I'm sure as I continue to crunch the numbers, I'll figure it out.  So, here I am, on my 44th birthday, baby-stepping into the blogosphere.  Heaven help us all!