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.
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.
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.
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.