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.
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.
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
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.