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.

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