A social change movement in New York City - led by parents and their allies in the interests of children, families and communities.

Eva Joyce and me at the Child Welfare Organizing Project (CWOP) in East Harlem. CWOP is a parent led organisation. It has been around for more than 20 years and has been instrumental in bringing about change over time. 

Eva Joyce and me at the Child Welfare Organizing Project (CWOP) in East Harlem. CWOP is a parent led organisation. It has been around for more than 20 years and has been instrumental in bringing about change over time. 

Over the past 20 or so years New York City has seen a  dramatic reduction in children in care. A big part of this change has been the work of parent led organisations like CWOP and Rise (see photo below). CWOP runs parent support groups, does direct parent advocacy and support, runs events and training and participates in social change and activism activities to improve policy and change unjust laws. During my visit alone I saw parents working with lawyers, politicians and change makers, developing strategy and making a systemic difference. They also do individual parent advocacy, run groups and more. Find out about CWOP at www.cwop.org 

Jeanette, Robbyne, Nora and me at Rise Magazine. This organisation was developed not long after the CWOP and they have a long history of amplifying parent's stories and voices to bring about change. 

Jeanette, Robbyne, Nora and me at Rise Magazine. This organisation was developed not long after the CWOP and they have a long history of amplifying parent's stories and voices to bring about change. 

Learn more about Rise at www.risemagazine.org/. This amazing organisation has been doing writing and publishing work for many years - documenting the stories of parents and children affected by child welfare in New York City. From successful restorations to disrupted adoptions - stories and voices can help bring about healing and transformative change. I was able to share some of the work of FISH and our wonderful FISH leader Lauren Graham who, as a narrative therapist and story teller, has done similar work in Australia. Rise are helping to prepare curriculum for child welfare workers and undertake other change projects to improve the system. 

Michelle, Wanjiro, me and Phil - at the Center for Family Representation (CFR) in Manhattan and Queens. 

Michelle, Wanjiro, me and Phil - at the Center for Family Representation (CFR) in Manhattan and Queens. 

The CFR and other organisations in New York City including the Bronx Defenders Office (see below for more info) are "family defence" organisations. They are multidisciplinary teams made up of lawyers, parent advocates and social workers who all work to support and advocate for parents with children in the child welfare system.  I also met with Professor Martin Guggenheim at New York University who was part of the development of these organisations. Many of these leaders  and workers started their professional lives as children's lawyers or as social workers in foster care agencies and quickly recognised that supporting children's rights means their parents should always be well represented and supported. These organisations now attract the best and the brightest social work and law graduates in New York. In Marty's words "every child has the right for their parents to have the best possible legal representation". Based on local data the CFR and other family defence practices -  the Bronx Defenders Office and the Brooklyn Defenders Office have contributed to big reductions of children in foster care. The CFR is currently being independently evaluated with results coming out in 2018. I know I'll be watching that space!

The friendly waiting area at the Bronx Defenders Office.

The friendly waiting area at the Bronx Defenders Office.

I had such a great meeting at the Bronx Defenders Office that I forgot to take a photo of Emma, Sarah and Caitlin, the Director, Director of social work and manager of the healthy mothers, healthy babies program respectively. The BDO do similar work to the Center for Family Representation and represent nearly all parents with a child welfare case in the Bronx County, a vibrant community in New York City. Along with their colleague organisations in Manhattan and Brooklyn they are making a difference by making sure parents have a team in their corner and are always supported by an advocate in their dealings with the child welfare system. They are doing particularly important work in the healthy mothers healthy babies program by intervening to prevent devastating and traumatic removals of newborns from parents who have previously or currently have children in care. There are big learnings for us here for Australia. 

Me with Jeremy Kohomban, CEO of the Children's Village and co founder and continuing board member of CWOP.

Me with Jeremy Kohomban, CEO of the Children's Village and co founder and continuing board member of CWOP.

Jeremy is proof that social work and foster care agency  leaders need to be part of a parent led change movement. Along with other allies, Jeremy supported the development of parent leadership from the beginning and is still a board member at CWOP. The Children's Village employs parent advocates in their foster care and family work. They run a number of evidence based programs such as Multi Systemic Therapy but Jeremy was adamant that these programs do not address the root causes of child removal - poverty, racism and entrenched disadvantage. He showed me through a housing project the Children's Village has led which takes a community development approach to address structural disadvantage through safe, secure and beautiful housing in Harlem. 

There is more to say about New York City as these are not the only places and people I visited but time and space is running out. It really was inspiring and an incredibly important part of the Fellowship. 

Building Bridges (between parents and foster carers) in Fairfax County, Virginia.

This image says it all. Carers and parents in respectful and caring relationships leading to restorations home for children. Heidi, Lincoln, Sacola and Maggie.

This image says it all. Carers and parents in respectful and caring relationships leading to restorations home for children. Heidi, Lincoln, Sacola and Maggie.

This blog focuses on the Bridging the Gap initiative in Fairfax County Virginia, near Washington DC. Maggie, a permanency specialist in Fairfax County was amazingly helpful in getting together a range of stakeholders to talk about this initiative which focuses on building better relationships between parents and carers in order to facilitate more restorations home for children in care. As we know in Australia, relationships between foster carers, kinship carers and other carers (including adoptive parents) are often tightly managed and controlled by agencies. Parents and carers are not encouraged to get to know each other in a respectful and relaxed way. In New South Wales there are laws and processes that can act to distance carers and parents in ways that are very unhelpful for children and run counter to restoration and family inclusion. 

This is challenging work that requires a change in practice from agencies and systems. It also requires agencies to genuinely develop a commitment and a culture that values and supports relationships between carers and parents and family inclusion. Fairfax County has a deep commitment to restoration and they have high rates of restoration. 

Heidi looked after Lincoln when he came into care. Lincoln's mother Sacola was relieved when she met Heidi and she was able to be reassured that Lincoln was loved and cared for and that Heidi and her family would support restoration of Lincoln home. Sacola and Heidi developed a relationship that is friendly and warm and that they believe will be lifelong. They have both developed admiration for each other and Lincoln clearly feels and is loved by them both. He is now back home where he belongs but Heidi and Sacola catch up regularly. Both their families have good relationships and have benefited from this connection. 

I loved Sacola's message to agencies and workers? "Do your job but back up a little bit. These are real people going through things. See parents as human." 

Kelley, Colleen and me during my time at Fairfax County. Kelly and Colleen are both foster care specialists with a strong focus on restoration as the first priority. 

Kelley, Colleen and me during my time at Fairfax County. Kelly and Colleen are both foster care specialists with a strong focus on restoration as the first priority. 

Its a tough gig working in child protection but Kelley and Colleen were both impressive in their focus on restoration whenever possible. They described case studies where carers had either facilitated or undermined restoration processes. In their experience the role of foster and kin carers is crucial in making restoration happen quickly and safely.  There is no way carers can support restoration if they don't get to meet and form relationships with parents and family. 

I also met with foster carer trainers and recruiters. They talked about the importance of messaging family and carer relationships and the primary role of carers to support restoration and family relationships from the beginning. I asked about training opportunities for new and ongoing carers in family inclusion, Their trainer, Terri, was clear with me that although they did run specific training with carers on family work, they needed to integrate Bridging the Gap and the importance of family engagement into all their carer training and support work. It is not separate and cant be taught as separate. At recruitment all new carers learn that they are expected to meet and form relationships with carers. 

And guess what? If children don't go home and stay in permanent out of home arrangements - then respectful relationships between the adults - parents and carers, leads to better outcomes for children. 

Thanks to Maggie and others at Fairfax for an amazing expeience. 

Seattle and Ontario - parent and family inclusion is proving crucial to better outcomes

WSPAC meeting childrens home society seattle.jpg

Mariko, me and Alise in Seattle at the Children's Home Society. Mariko and Alise work to support the Washington State Parent Ally Committee - parents having a voice in policy and law reform. 

The Washington State Parent Ally Committee draws it's members from all over the state. Members are parents with lived experience of involvement in the child welfare system including child removal. Alise is one of these parents and is now working to build change, and support other parents through her leadership and advocacy. This group is supported but not led by a range of other stakeholders such as lawyers, social workers and researchers - even judges. They have successfully lobbied for changes in the law to improve the child welfare system for children including ensuring that the availability of parent allies for all parents caught up in the child welfare system is enshrined in legislation. The day to day experiences and difficulties of parents and families have a direct line to this committee through parent allies working directly with parents in the delivery of services on the ground (see below for the work of parent allies). The Committee then works to make sure that policy and law makers in Washington State hear parents and children's voices - they are changing the way people think about child welfare involved families. The Committee partners with child protection authorities but is independent. They are smart, strategic and are proving every day that parents and family voices are crucial to improving outcomes for their children. Check www.washingtonstatepac.org/ for more info. 

Manisha, me and Dana. Manisha and Dana work with the Parents 4 Parents program in King County and in Kent County, Seattle, based in County Courts and funded by the Office for Public Defence. 

Manisha, me and Dana. Manisha and Dana work with the Parents 4 Parents program in King County and in Kent County, Seattle, based in County Courts and funded by the Office for Public Defence. 

It was truly a privilege to meet with Dana and Manisha. Both have worked as parent allies, working directly with parents and family who face child removal or have had children removed by child protection authorities. Dana is now the program manager of Parents 4 Parents (rated as a promising practice by the University of Washington) and Manisha is a parent ally in King County. They both facilitate a range of group processes with parents and other stakeholders including the Dependency 101 group where parents new to the child welfare system are offered a session with parent allies and others to help them navigate and get the help they need. It seems to me that Parents 4 Parents and a version of Dependency 101 would make a real difference in Australia as it is offered during the early stages of the legal process where so many parents in Australia currently experience disempowerment and trauma. It is also based on mutual support and group processes which we know parents and family want and need at this very difficult time. Dana and Manisha explained how helpful (and empowering) it was in their roles to have a line of communication to the Washington State Parent Ally Committee so that the difficulties and barriers faced by parents and their children could be considered at a systems change level. I also had the chance to attend a formal graduation ceremony of a parent from his recovery process which included the restoration of his daughter to his care and the formal ending of the child protection system's involvement in his life. It was amazing to hear him talk about his desire to become a parent ally himself so he could use his experience to help other parents. So much to say about this work and so little time! You'll have to wait for my report and you'll find links to more information at the same website above.  

Degale and Zoe of the Mockingbird Society in Seattle. What starts with a program aimed at supporting and retaining foster parents can lead to better relationships between foster carers and parents which in turn leads to better outcomes for chidlren. 

Degale and Zoe of the Mockingbird Society in Seattle. What starts with a program aimed at supporting and retaining foster parents can lead to better relationships between foster carers and parents which in turn leads to better outcomes for chidlren. 

I wanted to catch up with the Mockingbird Society who have developed a community development and strengthening approach to supporting and retaining foster carers which can also, if supported by the agencies implementing it, lead to better relationships with parents and family. I also heard from two "hub" carers, Cathy and Kevin. The model links foster carers and kinship carers to a central "hub carer household" which provides them with support, training and also ensures children get regular and consistent respite care if they need it.

The model has the flexibility and capacity to connect parents and family with foster carers and kinship carers and to ensure that the networks and relationships that children build while in care can go with them when they return home. This connection between carers and parents is crucial for supporting children to be restored home safely and is too often absent in our work in Australia. For this model to be successful as a family inclusive practice it must be combined with an agency and sector leadership and culture of family inclusion and respectful parent carer relationships. As well as with a much greater focus on restoration. 

Me, Sonia and Tara discussing Family Finding in Kitchener, Ontario in Canada. 

Me, Sonia and Tara discussing Family Finding in Kitchener, Ontario in Canada. 

Family Finding is a set of tools and techniques including family meeting processes that goes far beyond simply locating family members for children in care. There is a lot of interest in Family Finding in Australia (including in Life Without Barriers where I work) and it seems like an approach that has a lot of potential as a family inclusive approach. I wanted to include a Family Finding site on my itinerary so I could discuss implementation and see if the approach has made positive changes in agency culture and to children's outcomes through genuine family inclusion. 

This agency (Children's Aid Society Kitchener / Waterloo) are committed to innovation combined with evaluation. Because of this they have been doing research on Family Finding for some time and on other family meeting and engagement practices. 

Tara and Sonia are passionate advocates for Family Finding, other strengths based practices and for genuine family engagement. They are both leaders of frontline practice and provide consultation and support to their colleagues to hold family meetings, involve family and to understand that it is parents and other family members that hold the key to better outcomes for children. Not paid staff and systems. They felt the most positive outcomes had been achieved by preventing entry to care in the first place but also felt there were many positive outcomes to be achieved by focusing on relational permanency for children and young people no matter what their care arrangements. They encouraged Australians to "persist" over time with agency and systems change to integrate Family Finding and other family involvement practices in the interests of increased family preservation, restoration and relational permanency. Staff skill development is key to the success of these initiatives. The need to engage with frontline staff and their supervisors is a vital part of building a family inclusive practice culture. 

The need for a culture of family inclusion and family restoration in agencies and systems is a real theme that is emerging from this Churchill Fellowship. I am also finding there is a role for peer work and parent leadership to achieve this. The beauty of parent mentoring and leadership is that they potentially contribute to a lot of good outcomes at once including better outcomes for children and families, building skills in child welfare workers AND a family inclusive culture. 

Next blog will include visits in Fairfax, Virginia where I visit an agency working to "bridge the gap" between foster carers and birth parents and New York where I will meet with organisations and individuals doing parent led change and multi disciplinary teams including peer workers and lawyers - to name a few. 

Parent leadership in Portland Oregon and a national USA picture in Colorado

Parent mentors lead change and better practice in Portland, Oregon. Employed through the Morrison family services agency this team support parents to engage positively with services and the child welfare system and get their children home. This photo is of parent mentors and their research and practice supporters: Jessica, Linda May, David, Jason, Duane, Alicia, Loni, NeCola, Patricia and Katharine.

Parent mentors lead change and better practice in Portland, Oregon. Employed through the Morrison family services agency this team support parents to engage positively with services and the child welfare system and get their children home. This photo is of parent mentors and their research and practice supporters: Jessica, Linda May, David, Jason, Duane, Alicia, Loni, NeCola, Patricia and Katharine.

First up this week I arrived in Portland Oregon. First up this week I arrived in Portland Oregon. My first visit was with Open Adoption & Family Services, which runs a program that provides birth parents an alternative to the child welfare system. This program offers parents who fear that their child will be removed by statutory authorities the option of choosing an open adoption. Openness in this agency is truly open. There is lifelong free support for parents who choose adoption for their child. Adoptive and birth parents visit often in an extended family model, ensuring children never lose contact with their birth families. Parents themselves choose who will adopt their child. This agency does not view adoption as a failure by anyone. They presented an alternative to the way we see open adoption from care in Australia. Adoption with this agency is about parents entrusting the care of their baby to the adoptive family and is concerned with enhancing, not controlling, family connections and relationships.  

Next visit was with Portland State University and Morrison Family Services who are in a research partnership over many years including research and evaluation of parent mentoring. This research continues and has found that peer work can help build a relationship and context for family engagement that motivates parents and brings about change. The parent mentor team were incredibly inspiring and really impressed me with their very positive and caring regard for parents (after all, they've been there) and their patient persistence in working with child welfare agencies. The ongoing commitment to research and evaluation over time takes persistence and the stakeholders in Portland made it clear to me that they are in this for the long haul. 

Me with the team from Authenticus... a team of authentic, independent family consultants. Dee, Angela and Tanya

Me with the team from Authenticus... a team of authentic, independent family consultants. Dee, Angela and Tanya

Then I flew to Vail in Colorado to attend the Kempe Centre's Conference on Family Engagement. I had the opportunity to attend a session with a parent owned and led consultancy called Authenticus. These parents with a lived experience of child welfare involvement (including child removal) have joined together to offer independent advice and consultation services to child welfare agencies who want to improve their ability to engage with parents. Authenticus is doing work that is similar to some of the work done by FISH here in Australia. Their focus on systems and organisations to build engagement is badly needed here in Australia where we have an over emphasis on requiring parents to engage with systems and too little emphasis on what systems do to impede and avoid genuine engagement with parents. Authenticus ask agencies to undertake a self assessment process to work out what the agency barriers and opportunities are for improving parent engagement possibilities. Check http://www.authenticusllc.com/ if you are interested.

Kara and Marcella, trainers modelling respectful partnership in child welfare practice, from the Centre for Family and Community Engagement at North Carolina State University

Kara and Marcella, trainers modelling respectful partnership in child welfare practice, from the Centre for Family and Community Engagement at North Carolina State University

Another great session in Vail was with two practitioners from the Centre for Family and Community Engagement at North Carolina State University. Kara and Marcella described their work delivering training to child welfare workers in partnership together - a social worker and a family partner. In this case, Kara is the social worker and Marcella has a lived experience as a young person in foster care. Marcella is also fully qualified as a social worker and has practiced in various child welfare settings. The Centre also works in partnership with parents and other people who have a lived experience of receiving child welfare services. This partnership approach explicitly models what we want to see in practice - a partnership where the expertise derived from lived experience is valued highly. They talked about the importance of moving on from what they call "pop up parents". This is when parents with lived experience are allowed to attend worker or carer training for brief visits - solely to share their story. Pop up parents are a common phenomenon in Australian carer and worker training and this presentation has enabled me to reflect on this and how it may, despite the best of intentions, devalue the lived experience and be a missed opportunity to truly partner and learn from parents. https://cfface.chass.ncsu.edu/projects/family_engagement/FACTT.php 

Meeting up with some Aussies in Vail. Pam, Mark, me and Jennifer

Meeting up with some Aussies in Vail. Pam, Mark, me and Jennifer

Last but not least it was great to meet up with some Aussie colleagues at the conference. Pam from NSW and Mark and Jennifer from Victoria were great to spend some time with. There were also some other Australians I missed out in the photo - Mel, Michael and Annette. We all learned a lot and are keen to improve our sector's ability to work with families positively. 

Next stop Seattle and then a brief trip over the border to Canada. Next blog in about 10 days. 

Parent leadership and peer mentoring in California

I've had an amazing time in California. The first place I visited was the Parents Anonymous (TM) organisation in Los Angeles. More info about PA is at www.parentsanonymous.org. This agency is perhaps the original parent led organisation in child welfare - founded by a parent with child welfare involvement more than 50 years ago. PA runs groups with parents (all parents and caregivers are welcome) with four fundamental principles: mutual support, parent leadership, shared leadership and personal growth and change. I was lucky enough to attend a parents anonymous group and can attest that the groups have a fundamental basis in connecting parents to one another, to reciprocity and to expanding social support. The groups are open and ongoing and have gained some traction in the child welfare system with some parents mandated to attend them by care and protection courts. 

Me with the parents anonymous team in Los Angeles (Lisa, me, Luisa and Christine)The team runs ongoing groups, led by a trained group facilitator alongside a trained parent leader, with all parents and caregivers. Many of the parents who attend these groups are child welfare involved. 

Me with the parents anonymous team in Los Angeles (Lisa, me, Luisa and Christine)The team runs ongoing groups, led by a trained group facilitator alongside a trained parent leader, with all parents and caregivers. Many of the parents who attend these groups are child welfare involved. 

Then on to Northern California to Berkeley University and the areas just north of San Francisco - Contra Costa County. I have been reading about the parent partner program in this county for some time. This team has been operating for over 13 years and has become embedded in the practice of the child welfare statutory system in the County. All parents who have children removed OR are subject to orders in the dependence court system (like Australia's care and protection court) are offered a parent partner and they have about an 80% take up rate. Parents can and do self refer The program is highly valued by parents and social work teams alike. It has succeeded for a range of reasons including careful implementation, flexibility, steadfast leadership and of course the professionalism, leadership and commitment of parent partners themselves. It was really inspiring to meet with this team and their clients and hear direct evidence of the trust and relationships that have been built between families and child welfare teams as a result of peer work. 

The family engagement unit in Contra Costa County, Northern California (Judi, Sunita, Cheryl, Joanie, Sarah, Gina, Dave, Heather and Melissa). The team is made up of 2 drug and alcohol peer mentors and the rest are parent partners - parents with a lived experience of child removal and successful restoration. The team is led by social worker Judi and they work directly with parents to support early and safe restoration. 

The family engagement unit in Contra Costa County, Northern California (Judi, Sunita, Cheryl, Joanie, Sarah, Gina, Dave, Heather and Melissa). The team is made up of 2 drug and alcohol peer mentors and the rest are parent partners - parents with a lived experience of child removal and successful restoration. The team is led by social worker Judi and they work directly with parents to support early and safe restoration. 

I also had the opportunity to meet with social workers from Contra Costa County who shared their experiences of working alongside parent partners. These social workers found the parent partner role invaluable at all stages of their work with famileis including initial investigations. They described improved relationships AND better assessments and case plans - all linked to better outcomes in child welfare.

Me with social workers from Contra Costa County who have worked with parent partners to assist families reunify with their children. (Kim, Me, Johnson and Christian)

Me with social workers from Contra Costa County who have worked with parent partners to assist families reunify with their children. (Kim, Me, Johnson and Christian)

Next stop is Portland, Oregon where I'll be looking at a similar family engagement initiative with parent mentors, this time delivered in partnership with Portland State University and a family inclusive approach to open adoption that diverts children from the child welfare system.

Churchill Fellowship into family inclusion in the USA, Canada, Norway and England.... time to go

Watch this space for weekly to fortnightly updates over the next couple of months as I blog about my Churchill Fellowship research into family inclusion initiatives and programs about child welfare. I’m sitting in the airport in Sydney as I type this and I’m reflecting on the reasons why family inclusion in child welfare is so important and why this Churchill Fellowship is also very important.

The Australian child welfare system faces many challenges. We are often told that the main challenge is finding safe and caring foster carers to look after children who can’t live safely with their families. In fact, Australia now has more foster carers available to care for children than ever before. The real challenge is not in recruiting foster carers or in finding alternate families to care for children. The pressing challenge we face as a community is in supporting children to stay safely at home in the care of their families and in supporting children in care to have enduring relationships with their families. This is what children want and need and this is what my Churchill Fellowship is all about.

My Churchill will explore three main areas.

Firstly I'll be looking at peer support programs. Child welfare "experienced" parents helping parents who are just starting their time with child welfare including parents who have just had their children removed. For example, peer workers in the US work with social workers and lawyers to help parents navigate the system. Parent partners, as they are sometimes called, have become leaders in service delivery in some places. 

Secondly, I'll look at programs that involve and include parents and family in children's care, after children have been removed. For example there are initiatives that build relationships with carers and that involve families in decision making. Good relationships between carers and parents is great for kids and leads to higher rates of restoration. 

Finally I'm looking at initiatives which amplify the voices of parents and family in the policy discussion and debate about child protection and work towards reform in the system in the interests of kids.

Heading off now as they are calling my flight! Keep in touch on the FISH Facebook page to link to this blog!

Jessica Cocks

 

The Family Inclusion Strategies in the Hunter (FISH) Committee enjoying lunch together before I leave. FISH is led by parents with a lived experience of child removal and by workers with experience in child protection and out of home care.

The Family Inclusion Strategies in the Hunter (FISH) Committee enjoying lunch together before I leave. FISH is led by parents with a lived experience of child removal and by workers with experience in child protection and out of home care.