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."
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 parents.
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.