Working to transform the child welfare system.

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Reflections about the Congressional Listening Tour

By: Leah Rankin, MSW; Research Consultant, Partners for Our Children

On October 10, 2019, approximately 90 people gathered for The Future of Child Welfare: Relationships at the Center, a full-day congressional listening session about child welfare priorities for the 116th Congress. The voice of youth and parents with lived experience in the system persisted throughout the day as congressional representatives, state representatives, and other stakeholders widely drawn from fields intersecting with child welfare.  Participants were offered on-the-ground perspective of immediate needs and long-term challenges, as well as the benefits of the system’s protection when partnerships with families are valued and families are given what they need to succeed. The event was co-sponsored by the University of Washington, Partners for Our Children, and Casey Family Programs and developed by a stakeholder planning committee.

A summary of each session is included below. Click the title of each session below to view the video of that session on the Partners for Our Children Facebook page.

The Power of Relationships

In the morning’s opening panel, facilitator Alise Morrissey powerfully told her story of finding out she was pregnant and in jail at age 19. Feeling completely overwhelmed and righteously angry at a system that took her child from her, she emphasized the impact of an attorney walking into a meeting, sitting down, and meeting her in the moment. With two simple words, “this sucks,” that attorney built a rapport with Morrissey that validated her anger, helped her feel seen, and shifted her perspective. Morrissey has since had her daughter returned to her home and now works as a Parent Ally with the Office of Public Defense Parents Representation Program and as the Director of Family Resilience Strategies at Children’s Home Society.

During that same panel, Tory Gildred, who was then a social worker with the Office of Public Defense, reflected on what she learned in her time working with Morrissey. Gildred recalled her own lack of awareness about how physical meeting spaces and locations can shape interactions with parents. She shared an example from an early meeting: “She was very jumpy. We were just sitting at a café on the street. She didn’t want to tell me that she wanted a cigarette*…and I realized that the reason she had been jumpy was she had been out on the streets, this was where she had used; this was a really traumatic environment for her.” Gildred emphasized that, “If I hadn’t been there, if she didn’t have that support, she might have run off” instead of attending her court-ordered therapy session. And this was after a tremendous amount of legwork went into discussing tailored treatment options with Morrissey and selecting the one that both agreed felt most relevant for her.

*Morrissey was eager to share that she has since quit smoking.

Elevating Youth Voice Panel

Later in the morning, a panel of youth from Mockingbird Society shared their experiences with the foster care system and advocated for some changes that could have truly improved the quality of care they received. A repeated request by panelist was for social worker’s case notes to include youth’s interests, hobbies, and desires in addition to behavioral and procedural notes. Rinn Cronin said case files tend to include mostly deficit-based statements such as “This youth has shown x, y, and z. Their discipline isn’t great. They aren’t focused. Their grades aren’t good.” She advances the idea that “We should be able to read and write responses to it… Did you mention that I was living on the streets? Did you mention that I was being bullied at school? That I was being bullied at home? No, I don’t think you did.”

MJ Negron specified: “case files should include what we like to do, who we like to hang out with, what kind of sports we like, just stuff that’s uniquely about us, rather than just passing the case file on to the next case worker and playing a game of telephone.”

The youth panel also advocated for better cultural responsiveness training for social workers and caregivers, sharing important cultural experiences while in foster care, such as celebrating holidays or learning to cook foods from their families of origin.  Without these types of efforts, gaps can create even further distance between youth and their origins and make it more difficult to feel belonging among peers. Youth identifying as LGBTQ+, and as transgender specifically, focused on the need for increased representation among caregivers and training for caregivers to be more affirming of their identities.

Youth highlighted models designed to bring communities of caregivers and children together, such as Mockingbird Family (presented in an afternoon session), as important steps in increasing access to multiple adults and homes where children feel safe and secure in all of their identities.

Lunch & Remarks from The Honorable Representative Danny Davis

Over lunch, Congressman Danny Davis shared his reflections of the morning, stating that he was “tremendously inspired” by the youth panel. Listening to their recommendations reinforced for him that, with a huge focus at the federal level on evidence-based programs, it is key for lawmakers to listen to the individuals who have experienced this system. Congressman Davis went on to reference the bi-partisan, bi-cameral Resilience Investment, Support, and Expansion (RISE) from Trauma Act (H.R. 3180) that he introduced back in June as a concrete step that has come about recently at the federal level to provide better supports to children and families who experience trauma.

Congressman Davis also shared his top three upcoming priorities, stating his first priority is helping states implement the Family First Prevention Services Act (H.R. 1892) in response to a call from foster youth to strengthen families. Acknowledging the time and investment needed for states to make the transition to this focus on prevention services, he referenced the provisions of the Family First Transition and Support Act of 2019 (H.R. 2702) sponsored by Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-CA-37). This bill would suspend for two years the requirement that states must spend at least 50% of their prevention funds on interventions in the highest evidence-based category (well-supported), and then an additional two years where anything “supported” or “well-supported” would be eligible. This time period would allow the Clearinghouse to review and rate additional programs for eligibility. The bill also includes one-time funding to defray startup costs and the transition from waivers, and to improve foster care safety and quality.

In continued efforts to strengthen family connections for foster youth, Congressman Davis also highlighted the need for improved support for pregnant and parenting foster youth and their children and for assisting foster children in remaining connected to incarcerated parents.

Lastly, in light of the 20th anniversary of the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program this year, Congressman Davis also highlighted the importance of supporting older foster youth in basic endeavors such as getting their driver’s license, in getting employed, and in pursuing their education. In this same vein, he also referenced the need for an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit and support in removing the barriers that many foster youth face in accessing this benefit.

Congressman Davis closed by emphasizing that child welfare is one of the most important policy areas of our country and urging all stakeholders to “make sure that our children understand that life has the potential for being and becoming whatever it is that we really endeavor to make it.”

ICWA: The Gold Standard of Child Welfare Practice

The afternoon opened with a session centering elements of the Indian Child Welfare Act as the gold standard of child welfare practice. Autumn Adams, a member of the Yakama Nation, spoke to her experience as a child in care being able to stay on the reservation and in the community in which she was already being raised. She also discussed the hardship of being returned home at a point where she was still not safe, and stressed the extensive process she had gone through to achieve custody of her younger siblings. Through this, she brought to light gaps in the system that made it difficult for her to maintain her own safety and that of her younger siblings at such a young age.

Amelia DeLaCruz, the Social Services Manager from the Quinault Indian Nation, underscored the importance of the Relative Guardianship Assistance Program in providing financial support to caregivers to care for children permanently without having to terminate the rights of the parents – a process necessary to pursue a legal adoption and get adoption support, but one which violates the codes of many Tribes. She highlighted the need to provide paths to building strong relationships between children and birth parents as well as to take a more community-centered approach to raising children while still maintaining eligibility for federal funding based on permanency timelines. In the same vein, she also spoke to the administrative burden of managing multiple federal funding streams in order to maintain eligibility for a primary federal award and called for more opportunities for Tribes to qualify for federal supports under Title IV-B rather than IV-E due to the high burdens of qualifying for those funding opportunities.

Remarks From The Honorable Representative Suzan DelBene

The remarks from Congresswoman DelBene begin around 1:00:35 in the above link.

Congresswoman DelBene offered a passionate and hopeful reflection on the day, highlighting both steps that have been accomplished and the work left to do. She opened by reiterating Congressman Davis’s remarks on the importance of the Family First Prevention Act (H.R. 1892), with a focus on ensuring there are standards to make sure that children feel safe. While she was excited to celebrate the passage of this act with the 2018 budget as a step that actually got done, she emphasized that there is much more work to do.

The congresswoman also spoke extensively to the complexity of child poverty in this country and the provisions of the proposed American Family Act (H.R. 1560) to provide additional financial supports through the tax system. This expansion of the existing Child Tax Credit increases the maximum credit from $2,000 to $3,000 per year, allows eligibility of 17- and 18-year-olds, makes the credit fully refundable, and, perhaps most importantly, allows for advance monthly payment of the credit. Additionally, the AFA that creates an additional Young Child Tax Credit of $600 per year for children age 0-5. Between these two adjustments to the tax code, a team of researchers at Columbia University estimated that the AFA would lift 4 million children out of poverty and would decrease children living in deep poverty, or below 50% of the poverty line, by half. This lift would have huge implications for child welfare, as the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation of the Administration for Children and Families found that children in families with an income below $15,000 per year are nine times more likely to experience neglect than their peers in families with incomes above $30,000. Neglect remains the number one reason that children are removed from their homes.

Increases to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit (CDCTC) were also passed through the Ways and Means committee this year. For the coming year, Congresswoman DelBene discussed the importance of also increasing the Affordable Housing Tax Credit and maintaining the basic benefits of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Innovation Shift and Share

This session was not recorded.

In the afternoon, innovative models geared toward addressing some of the needs raised throughout the morning were presented by an array of service providers. Among these was Mockingbird Family, the intervention elevated by members of the youth panel. Mockingbird Family “creates an intentional community with an experienced foster parent providing support and guidance to 6-to-10 foster families.” This experienced foster parent’s home is called a “Hub Home.” Hub Homes host social gatherings, mentor newer caregivers, and provide respite care. Mockingbird Family boasts an incredible 92% foster parent retention rate in Washington, where it is estimated that 30-60% of all families drop out of fostering each year.

Other programs included:

  • The Family Intervention Response to Stop Trauma (FIRST) legal clinic in Snohomish County, which provides resources and supports to families at risk of becoming involved with the child welfare system in order to prevent removal from happening at all;
  • The state-funded Family and Juvenile Court Improvement Program, which provides case management to connect youth and families with community resources;
  • Connections Meetings, an emerging program to allow parents to meet with caregivers while children are in care and share information about the child’s routine, interests, needs, and strengths;
  • The Passport to College Scholarship, which provides scholarships and support services to foster youth who have been dependents of the state and are attending college or are engaged in apprenticeships or pre-apprenticeships; and
  • Strive, which offers parent education and support in navigating the system through coaching to empower parents during child visitation.

A Family Reunification Story

Closing out the day’s presentations was a rare opportunity to hear about reunification from both a child and birth parent perspective. 13-year-old Alexis Lane shared her story of being in care at a young age and returning home to a complex family situation.  She experiences inconsistent involvement in her life from older siblings who were suffering from substance use challenges and where her mother was hosting Lane’s infant nephew in the home as well. Lane described how wonderful she feels it is to be home, her strong relationship with her mother, and how glad she is to have her mother involved in her life and her activities, such as soccer.

With more regret, Lane and her mother also lamented not being able to continue contact with the foster parents who cared for her during that difficult period, and Lane shared that she was left with unanswered questions about what her life was like during that time and how other children who had lived with her were doing. Lane’s mother shared her perspective that foster care was “foundational” for Lane and that it is to the detriment of children being raised in the system that there is not better communication between parents and caregivers. This statement hearkened back to the injustices of the system for caregivers as well as parents that Morrissey had highlighted earlier in the day, that when children are taken into care from the hospital, hopeful foster parents wanting to adopt are told in that early moment that the parents are never going to change, that the baby being handed to them is theirs to keep. Morrissey had emphasized that “their heart is broken because I have my baby now,” pointing out that these early assumptions about a parent’s capacity to change only sets up both parties to fail.

Federal Policymaker Reflections and Next Steps

Jill Hunter-Williams, the Deputy Chief of Staff for Congressman Davis gave a concrete reflection of how the day’s activities informed her thinking around upcoming policy priorities. In particular, she discussed a multi-faceted Parent-to-Parent bill that would include, among other items, a parent mentoring program similar to the Parent Ally program presented in the first panel, and caregiver to birth parent relationship building, a theme that was threaded throughout the day. Hunter-Williams also referenced the importance of hearing from the youth panel later in the morning. She shared how a simple story of frustration around being able to get proper documentation for a state ID informed her thinking around the need to retain provisions for supporting foster youth in getting documentation in a current bill addressing supports for licensing foster youth to drive. Lastly, Hunter-Williams gave a plug for existing federal benefits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and encouraged service providers to do more to connect foster youth to other mainstream poverty alleviation programs. Overall, she stated that one of her main takeaways was the importance of creating space to involve youth in generating ideas for improving services under the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program.

Kimberly Miyazawa Frank, the Region X Administrator for the Administration for Children and Families, shared that her department is currently focused on the priority of family self-sufficiency, and achieving that through primary prevention and economic mobility. She enthusiastically noted that the Department of Health and Human Services is moving away from being merely transactional and compliance-oriented and is focusing more on a whole family approach that examines that family’s entire ecosystem. With this change in culture that seeks to serve families holistically, Frank highlighted the need to shift language as well, such as moving from a compliance-oriented “visitation” to a more positive and affirming wording of “family time.” She ended with an urgent call to action, saying that “Families in crisis are just like a wildfire. Why aren’t we approaching this with the same sense of urgency? … The families we serve are in crisis. We cannot wait one more day for these families, we certainly cannot wait one more generation.”

Nina DeJonghe, a legislative correspondent for Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-CA-37), closed out the day by summarizing the work of the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth and spotlighting their annual Foster Youth Shadow Day program that allows youth to come to Washington and advocate for themselves at the federal level. She also discussed the current focus on addressing mental health concerns in foster youth and making sure that youth have all the resources they need to manage their mental health needs effectively.

Conclusion

On the whole, the full-day session on The Future of Child Welfare: Relationships at the Center was a powerful testament to the resilience of children and families involved in the child welfare system. Many youth and parents shared cautionary tales of the harms the system can cause when families are not given the supports they need to succeed. At the same time, several youth spoke to the protective capacity of the system in removing them from unsafe situations and placing them in a safe and caring permanent home where they can have a happy and healthy childhood, bringing hope to the capabilities of a well-implemented system in ensuring the welfare of all children in this country.

With a tremendous focus throughout the day on the best practices in supporting these families, the work of the parent allies and social workers with the Office of Public Defense as well as the elevated standard of “active efforts” over “reasonable efforts” in supporting children eligible for the Indian Child Welfare Act stand out as concrete, impactful steps to assure and build capacity in parents to support reunification. One line, spoken by Kimberly Mays, a parent ally, stood out to me as a succinct summary of one of the day’s most common themes: “Don’t save me from my parents; save my parents for me.”