Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Foster Alumna Changing the World Through Film

I recently returned from the FCAA Summit in Seattle, Washington. Sometimes in my life, as a former foster child, I have felt alone. At this summit, I met some amazing people.

Over my next series of blog entries, I plan to share some of their stories, and to explain more about the foster care movement that is taking place. At the FCAA summit, when one alumna was asked, "Why are you here?" she answered, "I'm here for the movement!"

Just as the civil rights movement and women's liberation movement changed American history, when foster care alumni connect, our goal is to transform the world.

Here's how Sasha Isaac-Young is using her gifts and talents to give foster children a voice...

Sasha Isaac-Young graduated USC with an MFA in Film Production. Prior to that, she attended Washington University in St. Louis, where she earned a BFA in Printmaking and a BA in Acting.

I was able to spend time with Sasha during the conference, and we found out that we had a surprising amount of life experiences in common. We've decided to collaborate and share ideas about how to convey the vulnerability and confusion experienced by females coming of age within the foster care system.

I watched two of Sasha's films, a documentary and a fiction film.

Foster Stories
"Foster Stories"is a short documentary Sasha made while still in school. It won best short documentary at the Urbanwide film festival in New York. It opens up with the premise that, "I can't tell you what it's like to live in foster care, but I can tell you stories."

This documentary aired on PBS. After it was shown locally, a viewer commented, This is the kind of documentary that should be shown nationally, on public television as well as all kinds of venues, it is so important.

As far as I know, there has never been any kind of documentary study on this subject, and with the touch of a filmmaker who clearly knows the ins, outs, ups and downs of the system.

This becomes a true masterpiece that could easily become an educational classic, and a work that should be seen by as many people as possible. I can only hope that the filmmaker could get feedback and support enough to allow them to expand it into a feature film; at the least, PBS should add this to it's national broadcasting, so the rest of America can join in the discussion.

To see a portion of "Foster Stories," please visit:

Little Valerie
While at USC Sasha directed a second thesis project, a fictional work titled “Little Valerie.”
In this short film, a young girl vys for the attention of the boy who lures her away from her institutional home. Sasha storyboarded the film masterfully, it is the essence of "show, don't tell."

I told Sasha, that I would like to show the film to my husband, but that I know that after I do so, he will start calling me, "Little Valerie."

Full-Length Documentary
Sasha's next step will be a feature film, a full-length documentary examining the American foster care system from the foster children's perspective.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Resources to Assist Social Workers

As I mentioned in a previous posting, in April 2006, New York caseworkers received a memo telling them not to discuss, email or post online anything that might reflect poorly on the agency. At the time, I mentioned my concerns that child welfare agencies, which are rather intrusive by nature when it comes to biological and foster families, might be avoiding accountability themselves.

What makes this directive even more interesting to me now is that in the January/February issue of Child Welfare, in-depth interviews of New York and Chicago social workers were published. A high percentage of New York caseworkers had reported poor morale and described their agencies as inadequate. I have to wonder if this prompted the April directive.

In these interviews, social workers were interviewed and asked their views on the child welfare system.

According to the social workers, the child welfare system:
-Does not meet the basic needs of children in care
-Lacks the necessary resources to appropriately serve clients
-Often sets unrealistic / unattainable goals

One caseworker stated that, "The system abuses the kids just as much as the parents do." Other respondees mentioned that foster children were often lost in the system, because there were not enough placement or adoptive resources.

Their overall responses emphasized the need to reform the child welfare system, and to re-evaluate funding priorities.

What might empower social workers to do the best job possible?

1.) Training. Not just initial, but ongoing training is necessary. Custodial cases are complicated. Laws change, policies adapt, inititiatives are created and research reveals new insights into child development and attachment issues. Investing in ongoing training for social workers is vital.

2.) Support: Caseworkers encounter high levels of stress and burnout. They often feel devalued and unappreciated for the work they do. To be effective, caseworkers need the support of their supervisor and coworkers.

3.) Qualified Supervision: Many caseworkers reported unqualified supervisors, unsupportive supervisors or the absence of supervision altogether. Lack of leadership does not promote effectiveness or morale.

4.) Cooperation with Court Personnel: I've mentioned the PEW Commission's recommendations on court proceedings in previous posts. They had mentioned that the adversarial approach of traditional judicial proceedings was detrimental to children in foster care.

Intrasystem contention: One interesting facet that this study revealed was that an adversarial relationship exists between court and child welfare personnel. It's hard to protect the child and facilitate collective decision-making when this type of antagonism between legal staff and child welfare staff is taking place.

Caseworkers also mentioned their frustration regarding:
-Lawyers who come to cases unprepared
-Certain birthparents and their lawyers were adept at manipulating the legal system
-Courts that were too quick to sever custody
-Courts that were too lenient on abusive birthparents and unwilling to sever custody

5.) Resources for Clients: Caseworkers expressed concern about their ability to provide the necessary services for clients.

Part of the social worker's job is to set clear limits for birth parents and provide them with the resources to overcome destructive behavior. However the instruments used to assess families were viewed as inadequate.

In order to comply with their case plan, birth parents are often required to go to multiple agencies, and if those particular trainings are overbooked, it can take up to six months to find a provider.

Reevaluating the job description

Perhaps it's time to examine the requirements of a social worker position.
-The job demands are high.
-Workers juggle high volume caseloads and redundant paperwork.
-Little time is left over to visit the children, focus on their well-being and determine the best outcome.
-Worker turnover and transition often results in lost information or spotty record keeping.

Even for a social worker with conviction, commitment and experience, the frequent lack of technical, administrative and personnel resources can be quite challenging.

We hand these overworked, underpaid individuals our most vulnerable children. We expect them to work miracles - and we demonize them for any evidence of failure. Rather than blaming the workers, we should reexamine the system as whole. And to do that, child welfare personnel should not be bound by any code of silence.

Source: Zell, Maristela. Child welfare workers: Who they are and how they view the child
welfare system. Child Welfare; Jan/Feb2006, Vol. 85 Issue 1, p83-103, 21p

Monday, May 22, 2006

Foster Children & Attachment

Ironically enough, just as I have been given the opportunity to be a "voice" for foster children in my upcoming trip to Seattle, I now have laryngitis. I am just praying that my voice comes back by the time I arrive on Friday!

Losing the Foster Parent
Because parental rights are prioritized, attachments between children and their foster parents are often ignored. The presumption is that the child can and will reunite with biological parents if at all possible.

Sometimes children who have been raised by birth by foster parents are sent back to biological parents who are effectively strangers to them.

Not only may children not have attached to their biological parents, but they also might have long-standing experiences of trauma with a parent. In these cases, children who have found sanctuary and built trust in a foster home are sent back to biological parents who have neglected and abused them for most of their lives.

Unfortunately, since the bond between foster parent and child is often minimalized, children who return home often do not receive supportive services to cope with the loss of the foster parent.

Meanwhile question remains: Will the biological parents maintain their progress? Or, will they fall back into old behavior patterns? It is vital in these cases to continue to monitor safety plans for the children after they return home. All too often, this does not happen.

Losing the Biological Parent
The reverse is also true. If parental custody is severed and the child is adopted, the child will still need time to grieve the loss of biological parents.

Even in the context of a loving adoptive home, with healthy meals, stimulating activities, support and resources, the child doesn't enter that home with a "blank slate."

Paradoxically, the more safe and secure the home is, the more likely the child is to grieve lost parents. Why? Because grieving is a process. Children can only begin to grieve within a safe and secure relationship.

Only within a safe, secure environment can a child:
-Face their losses
-Confront their anger
-Move past denial
-Emerge from behind a shield of detachment
-Recognize and resign themselves to the fact that any fantasies that they might have had about a reunion will not come true

This painful work usually takes place after a child enters a permanent home -- and at the very time that the social services often terminates services.

For both scenarios, follow-up services are essential. Losing either the foster or biological relationship might be very painful if the child has established a bond.

Source: Rebuilding attachments with traumatized children: Healing from losses,
violence, abuse and neglect by Richard Kagan, PhD.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Foster Children Alumni of America

As Ferris Bueller pointed out, "Sometimes life comes at you fast. If you don't stop and look around around once in a while, you might miss it."

This year, my life has come at me fast. 2006 has been a year of wonderful opportunities. I have been interviewed on the radio, for the first of four tapings. My book is progressing, with my agent eager (but patient) for the final draft. I've prepared and led workshops for foster children and foster parents.

In the meantime, I've also been made exempt (non-hourly) at my day job, which means that I often work 12-hour days. Fortunately, my day job as a children's librarian often intersects with my volunteer work as a child advocate...

Where work and advocacy collide:
-Programming for homeless children and teenagers
-Visiting schools in the inner city and getting to know the teachers and students
-Leading programs for teen moms
-Booktalks at residential facilities

So many of the things I do in my day job have allowed me to meet local resources...

Whom I then contact on my own time, to offer:
-Interviews (so that I can promote their services on the radio)
-Free programming for children and teens, in my spare time
-Workshops more specific to foster care needs
-Bibliographies of resources
-Links to mentoring, including contacts for local organizations

The city where I live seems fragmented. Nonprofit organizations have to compete for dollars, which often means competition between organizations, rather than mutual support. There is an attitude of secrecy; a fear that by sharing ideas with another organization, that group might 'steal' the idea and launch it on their own.

This saddens me, because I've always been a connector. When I was in college, I joined countless college organizations. If I met someone who 'didn't fit' with one group, I would invite them to come with me to visit another group. Many of the college students who were drawn to me as a friend seemed to be looking for a support group, and I really liked helping them find the right place for their needs.

I guess I'm a big picture person. If group A can't meet your needs, why not try group B? If church A isn't right for you, go to church B. We can't be all things to all people, and sometimes the mission and goals of one group will be more in allignment with what you need than another. And, who knows? The right fit for you might change over time.

All this is an introduction to say that...

Hopefully, I will finally be able to impact the big picture. My friend Gayle and I have been chosen as a chapter designee for FCAA, Foster Children Alumni of America. I'm traveling to Seattle, Washington at the end of the month in order to attend a summit, wherein foster alumni from states across the nation will discuss national policy regarding foster care.

The focus of FCAA is national policy, not direct service. Therefore, my plan is to:

- Partner with my friend Gayle and working as a subsidiary of her organization, to provide direct service such as housing for foster alumni, on a local level.

-While also continuing my research and advocacy to impact foster care on a national level, through FCAA.

More information about this new and growing organization can be found at:

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Facing Down the Demons of Injustice

Last night, I met with a group of homeless and transitional-living teenagers. They, and their families, were being provided for by an agency I mentioned in my previous posting. I attended their youth drop-in center/focus group.

One young man spoke about his experiences in school and in the local neighborhood. He felt that he was being stereotyped and scapegoated, although he did not use those terms.

He described the anger and indignation he felt when he and his friends were singled out by police officers due to their race and clothing.

He was upset that, just as he was trying to work hard to raise his grades at school because his goal is to ultimately go to college, the school administrators were also emphasizing clothing. Specifically, the colors red and blue are now forbidden, due to gang-related concerns.

Another young woman talked about her biological father. When she was younger, he had abused her. Her father had not provided for her. He did not regularly visit her, but when he did, he tried to assert his authority. When she was three years old, he had tried to cut ties with her permanently... and it was obvious that that his rejection still hurt her deeply.

What struck me about both of these young teenagers was that, in their minds, they were facing down the demons of injustice. Shouldn't academic progress be more important than clothing? Shouldn't a father love his daughter?

Another thing that struck me was that there was no place on earth that I would rather be...

I told the young man that he had choices. He was facing prejudice, perhaps even racism. Would he react with the anger of Malcolm X or the stubborn but law-abiding conviction of Martin Luther King?

What were his choices?
-Stay and fight the school administration over clothing issues?
-Transfer to another school, which might support his academic progress?
-Study on his own, and acquire his GED?

Because, he did have choices, he did have power and (thanks to this wonderful organization) he did have support.

I told the young woman that she was worth something. It's easier to feel loveable if you are loved. It's easier to feel valued if you are valued.

But this intelligent, articulate young woman, only 12 years old, has tremendous value that has not yet been recognized. One day, a man might meet her and fall in love with her. One day, she might build a family. When those things happen, she will feel loved. She will feel valuable.

But she is no less valuable right now.

Youth Empowerment Program (YEP) is a program that emphasizes:
1.) Housing
2.) Education
3.) Civic engagement

They provide community services:
1.) Community ownership
2.) Community awareness
3.) Advocacy

Their website is: http://www.cohhio.org/yep/

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Second Example of An Effective Preventative Program

Prevent Child Abuse Ohio offers parenting classes to teenage mothers.

I recently led two workshops for their clientele on early literacy promotion with infants, and I was very impressed by the support that teen mothers are receiving from this program.

I was also happy to see that teen fathers were welcome to attend workshops and trainings as well. In the first session I led, one of the teen fathers was one of the most active participants in the training.

Children of adolescent mothers are at greater risk of being neglected or abused. Since teenage pregnancy is often associated with adverse family experiences in childhood, including violence and sexual abuse, it's wise to assume that teen mothers might need some coaching in parenting skills.

Teen parents benefit from emotional and academic support. Providing guidance and mentoring to adolescent parents can raise their self-esteem, help them to stay in school, prepare them for college and/or careers and above all help them not to abuse or neglect their children.

Meeting regularly with teen mothers can help to keep an eye out for other concerns as well. Teen pregnancy is associated with greater health concerns, both for the mother and the child. In addition, if the father was a significantly older man, that's a warning signal that the teenage girl might be involved in a controlling or abusive relationship (high correlation).

Teen fathers are also at risk. Research shows that young men who have experienced childhood abuse or have witnessed the physical abuse of their mother, are twice as likely to engage in sex leading to a teenage pregnancy. Men who have endured a combination of physical and sexual abuse, plus exposure to childhood battery are even more likely to be involved in the pregnancy of a teenager.

To learn more about their parent enrichment program for teen parents, please visit their web site...

Prevent Child Abuse Ohio

Hollander, D. Risks and disadvantages are raised for teenage mothers with older adult partners. Family Planning Perspectives, Nov/Dec2001, Vol. 33 Issue 6, p285, 2p;

Rosenberg, J. Boyhood abuse increases men's risk of involvement in a teenager's pregnancy. Family Planning Perspectives, 00147354, Jul/Aug2001, Vol. 33, Issue 4.

Saewyc, Elizabeth M., et all. Teenage pregnancy and associated risk behaviors among sexually abused adolescents. Perspectives on Sexual & Reproductive Health, May/Jun2004.

Tamkins, T. Teenage pregnancy risk rises with childhood exposure to family strife. Perspectives on Sexual & Reproductive Health, Mar/Apr2004, Vol. 36 Issue 2, p88-89, 2p.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

First of Two Examples of Effective Efforts Towards Prevention

Neglect Vs. Abuse
In an article called, "Helping the Overwhelmed Family, author Ellen Perlman mentioned that a child safety agency in Minnesota found that separating child neglect from child abuse cases was better for the protection of children.

Preventing Neglect and Empowering Families to Succeed
I see wisdom in differentiating between neglect and abuse. In the case of neglect, a parent is not providing for a child's needs -- something which might be remedied through parental education. Whereas abuse can be more pervasive and damaging.

With that in mind, I wanted to share about two Ohio agencies for whom I programmed recently... Both of these agencies appear to be doing a good job at parental education and fostering family stability. Here is part 1 of 2...

Homeless Families Foundation
As well as being a child advocate, I (Lisa) also work a day job as a youth services librarian. I recently visited the Dowd Education Center in Columbus, Ohio in that capacity. The Homeless Families Foundation is a family shelter in Columbus, Ohio, whose programs include:

1.) Apartment units for homeless families. Adult participants must be drug-free and alcohol-free in order to participate in the program. There are frequent tests of parents to assure continued sobriety.

The Homeless Families Foundation operates as a "Housing First" agency, based on the belief that families are capable of living independently and can address their issues best in a stable, long-term environment.

2.) Support services for adults. This includes GED test preparation and development of job skills.

3.) The Dowd Education Center provides after school programs and summer school for homeless children in K-8th grades.

The center views children as innocent victims in the tragedy of family homelessness. Therefore, their commitment to homeless children is to provide healthy meals, educational support and an atmosphere of stability.

When I visited the Dowd Education Center to promote summer reading, literacy and to booktalk several books to the children, I was impressed by the meals provided to children.

I don't know if you've seen the movie "Supersize Me," but too often school cafeterias serve cheap, unhealthy meals. And, having volunteered at homeless shelters in the past, the ones I volunteered for tended to serve stale, leftover food (even on Christmas!)

But these meals were healthy. All four food groups were represented. They smelled wonderful. And, being a health-conscious eater, I can honestly say that I would have been happy to grab a tray myself!

I was also impressed by the programs that they were offering the children. One teacher gave me her email and I promised to send her a list of the books that I booktalked to the children. She wanted to build upon their initial enthusiasm and to promote literacy at the shelter.

I liked how they channeled the children's energy into physical activities such as dance class and tae kwon doe.

Viewing the entire program through my "foster care" lens, it was obvious that this program promotes family stability through:

-Its selectivity (no substance abuse by parents in the program)
-Long-term shelter (as Maslow's hierarchy of needs will attests, shelter is a primary need)
-Academic focus (for children and adults)
-Health focus (for children and adults)

I have to add that when I led a program for the children, their enthusiasm was wonderful. I had brought a "wheel of fortune" of book covers. I called each child up to take a turn at spinning the wheel and then I booktalked the title based on the book cover that appeared. The children wanted to read every story and find out what happened!

I was also saddened by recognizing some of their unmet emotional needs. One young girl clung to my arm throughout the beginning of my presentation. When I ended my program, young children rushed to me to give me hugs. I was surrounded by a human wall of need, a circle of arms around me.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Changing Lives By Changing Systems

Last summer, the National Judicial Leadership Summit invited judges and child welfare administrations to develop state action plans to improve outcomes for children in foster care. Every state in the nation was represented.

State Action Plans focused on how to:
-Assert judicial leadership
-Increase accountability
-Foster collaboration between courts and agencies
-Provide a voice for parents and children

A National Call to Action
Plans developed from that summit have just been released by the National Center for State Courts.

Court delays are a key factor in prolonging children's time in foster care. These delays can be caused by:

-Insufficient information collection
-Postponement of hearings because not all parties are present
-Miscommunication between involved parties

National Curriculum
The "National Curriculum for Caseflow Management in Juvenile Delinquency Cases Involving Foster Care" was developed in 2005. Its goal was to improve the court system's ability to oversee court cases in order to shorten the time needed for children to find permanent placement.

One thing that was emphasized in this curriculum was that the better the collaboration and communication between state courts and child welfare agencies, the better the outcomes for foster children.

State Courts and Child Welfare Agencies
Both of these two groups act as "gatekeepers" for the foster care system. Both are responsible to protect children. Without mutual collaboration between them, both groups are hindered.

Real-life examples of this type of collaboration can be found in a document called "Improving Outcomes Together," which was released by the ABA Center on Children and the Law and Fostering Results.

To Learn More:
National call to action: http://www.ncsconline.org/
National curriculum: http://jeritt.mus.edu

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Judge Takes A Proactive Approach to Foster Care

I recently emailed the Communications Director of the PEW Commission:

-I praised the DVD they created in order to outline their recommendations regarding foster care.

-I also suggested that it might help to show a diagram, or create a written, audio or video presentation of what it looks like when judges, attorneys, social workers, court appointed special advocates, foster parents and parents get together and discuss what placement might be in the best interest of the child.

Show Me, Don't Just Tell Me
It's hard to learn new things without a demonstration. Even more difficult to "unlearn" old patterns of behavior without a vision of what the new behavior should look like...

In the meantime, I've been searching newspaper databases to try to find some real-life examples. Here's what I've come up with so far...

Judicial Field Trip
Kudos to a California judge for his creativity, leadership and initiative when it comes to deciding cases involving foster care.

Superior Court Judge Philip Soto organized a "courtroom field trip" for a group of public defenders, district attorneys and private attorneys. He took them to Rosemary's Cottage, so that they could witness firsthand what the girls were experiencing.

Rosemary's Cottage provides residential foster care for girls between the ages of 13 and 17.

During the visit, the courtroom visitors and Rosemary staff shared concerns and challenges. The open dialogue permitted each group to ask questions of one another.

So often, the staff at Rosemary's Village communicate with the courts only through intermediaries. This creates a disconnect between the legal staff who are representing the children and the agencies entrusted with their care.

Soto explained his initiative in visting the center by saying, "Every state gets bogged down under its own administrative weight, and sometimes it takes a judge going out in the field and learning more about these programs."

He plans to arrange more field trips in the future.

Ruiz, Kenneth Todd. Taking court to foster care. Pasadena Star - News. Pasadena, Calif.: May 3, 2006.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

From One Extreme to the Other

Quick to reunify or quick to sever custody? Is there no middle ground between these two extremes?

While some states and social services agencies drag their heels in terms of finding children a stable permanent home, it appears that Kentucky has gone in the opposite direction.

Financial incentives appear to be prompting hasty and unwise decisions that are not necessarily in the best interests of the child.

From 384 in 1999 to 902 in 2005, the number of children moved from state foster care to adoption in Kentucky has steadily increased.

This increase has resulted in $1 million in bonus money which Kentucky received in 2004. The state receives a bonus of $4,000 for each adopted child, and more if the child has special needs.

A whistleblower lawsuit claims that the Cabinet stands to lose millions of dollars if it fails to meet federal time frames. Veteran state social workers have reported being pressured to terminate parental rights.

The bottom line in the parent rights debate:
1.) It's important to prevent children from languishing in foster care.

As my recent blogs will attest, ongoing abuse and repeated abandonment by a parent of their biological children should lead to termination of parental rights -- not reunification.

2.) It is also important to avoid "quick trigger" adoptions if there is not enough evidence to justify the removal.

Kentucky political agenda
- 225 complaints were filed on an anonymous hotline, which was set up by child-protection workers who were concerned about the situation, but fearful of violating confidentiality laws by making their concerns public.

-Social workers in Hardin County reported that supervisors picked adoptive families based on how those families could benefit the Cabinet or because supervisors thought the families were owed a favor.

-Social workers from other parts of the state said supervisors forced them to terminate custody prematurely in order to raise the number of adoptions of foster children.

"Over-correcting the problem"
-In 1999, federal authorities found Kentucky out of compliance with the Adoption and Safe Families Act. Children were languishing in foster care.

-By 2003, the problem still had not been sufficiently corrected and Kentucky faced $1.7 million in fines if the situation didn't improve.

Unsafe adoptive homes
Here's a quote that really disturbs me: The attorney for former state social worker Pat Moore says Moore was fired because she criticized her supervisors for insisting that two foster children be placed with an adoptive family in Verona in Boone County even thought the family, among other problems, allowed a man described in court documents as a pedophile convicted of sex crimes to be around the children.

In her whistleblower suit, Moore said the Cabinet was forcing the adoption to keep its numbers high. Court records show that Cabinet supervisors pushed for the adoption even though those same supervisors acknowledged that the prospective adoptive home should not have been approved and a private foster care agency deemed the home unfit.

According to a memo from Cabinet officials that is included in the lawsuit file, there had been a half-dozen complaints about the prospective adoptive parents, which the Cabinet never substantiated.

In a September 2004 court petition to remove the children from the home, Thomas W. Beiting, a court-appointed guardian, told a judge that both parents had criminal records. Beiting also noted that a son living in the home had been convicted of multiple felonies, including drug convictions, and that the foster mother's brother, a convicted child abuser, had been in the home around the foster children.

"It is obvious that this home probably should have never been approved," said a July 2004 report that summarized a meeting between three regional supervisors and was included in the court file.

But the supervisors went on to push for the adoption. "It is our recommendation that we proceed quickly with the adoption, while building in the greatest safety net as possible," the report said (Foster adoption push).

Where's the logic? To take a child from an unsafe home and place that child with a secure adoptive family - that I can respect and understand.

But to try to use children to repay favors? To place them in adoptive homes that are unsafe? That child doesn't need a safety net. He or she needs a safer initial placement.

Equally disturbing is this quote from a second article: Domestic violence shelter directors say the state is increasingly taking children away from women who have done nothing more than move to a shelter to escape a violent home...Some Cabinet workers have been telling women that shelters aren't an appropriate atmosphere for children (Mothers in domestic violence shelters).

Here's the scenario: Mother is in an abusive situation. She leaves, taking the child with her. That's motherly love. Is she protecting the child? Yes. Caring for the child? Yes. Making sure that the child is sheltered, fed and nurtured? Apparently so. She certainly didn't abandon the child by leaving him or her behind.

So, I would ask the Cabinet to give me a good, strong reason why such a mother might lose parental custody. Is the mother neglectful? Addicted to drugs? Abusive? Or has she just fallen on a period of hard luck, and all she needs is some support in order to pull her life back together?

These are very important distinctions to make before coming to custodial decisions.

Sources: Foster child adoption push investigated: State unjstly terminates parental rights for federal money. By Valarie Honeycutt Spears, Herald-Leader staff writer.

Mothers in domestic violence shelters face losing their children. By Valarie Honeycutt Spears, Herald-Leader staff writer.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

ABC Therapeutics Occupational Therapy Weblog: The role of occupational therapy in family reunification

ABC Therapeutics Occupational Therapy Weblog: The role of occupational therapy in family reunification: "Terling (1999) states that reentry into foster care due to additional maltreatment occurs too frequently, and that 37% of the children reunited with their families reenter the system within 3 1/2 years."

Risks of Reunification

In many schools of science, there is an obvious "pendulum swing" from one extreme to another. Regarding foster care, despite the change in focus between 1980 and 1997, the focus on "family preservation" is still dominent -- despite the risks of reunification and frequency of reentry into the foster care system.

The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 required states to make reasonable efforts to keep children in the home. If the child must be removed, this law also prioritized returning foster children to their family of origin if at all possible. The assumption was that it would harm a child developmentally if that child lacked contact with his or her biological family.

The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 addressed many of the risks and concerns about reunification efforts, such as:

-How long should a child remain in limbo before finally getting a stable, permanent placement?
-If the parent continues to abuse substances and/or children, why not just terminate custody?

Section 101 of 1997 Act states that: "Efforts to preserve and reunify the family shall not include certain parents if they pose a serious risk to the child's health and safety."

Despite the change in focus between those two Acts, American legal and social services continue to uphold the value of preserving and reunifying families whenever possible.

Reunification is not a panacea to the foster care problem.
Just as removing a child from the home can create trauma and emotional disturbance, so too can returning the child to their biological family. Studies indicate that foster children who have been reunified with their biological parents often regress in terms of behavioral functioning.

After being reunified, foster children are at-risk for:
-Higher levels of family dysfunction
-Significantly greater behavior problems than foster youth who are not reunified
-Exposure to violence, poor family functioning and lower levels of social support
-Decrease in monitoring children after they exited foster care
-Less likely to receive mental health services
-Higher risk of re-entry to foster care system
-Greater number of foster placements and placement changes than foster youth who are not reunified

Quote: "Reunification prior to age 4 is associated with children being exposed to more adverse life events by age 6, including exposure to elevated family dysfunction, instability and harm" (Lau).

Berliner, L. Is family preservation in the best interest of children? Journal of Interpersonal Violence 8, (1993): p556(2)

Gelles, R. Family reunification/family preservation: Are children really being protected? Journal of Interpersonal Violence, (1993): p557(5)

Lau, A., et all. Going home: the complex effects of reunification on internalizing problems among children in foster care. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 31.4 (Aug. 2003): p345 (14)

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Caseworker Turnover & Recurrent Child Abuse

Annual turnover in child welfare agencies averages between 20 and 40 percent. Resources spend in replacing workers means money spent on administrative services, rather than services to at-risk families. Additionally, the experience and knowledge of frontline workers impacts the level of effectiveness in serving families.

Effective workers are generally those who are:
-Well trained and supported
-Given access to necessary resources to do their jobs
-Allotted a reasonable workload
-Valued by their employers (i.e., reasonable salary)

Cornerstones for Kids recently did a study that revealed a correlation between staff turnover and recurrent child abuse and neglect. They used 2002 data from 12 diverse California counties and were provided information on approximately 3,000 workers and 40,000 cases.

Researchers classified the counties as low, moderate or high functioning, based on workplace characteristics, efficiency measures and recurrence outcomes at 3, 6 and 12 months. The outcome of this study demonstrated that high staff turnover was associated with higher rates of recurrence of child abuse and neglect.

1.) Low functioning county agencies demonstrated the following characteristics:
- Lowest salaries for both workers and supervisors ($32,245 and $38,576, respectively)
- Least amount of training days for new workers (14 days)
- Required to be on-call

Efficiency rate of low functioning agencies:
- Staff turnover rate of 23%
- Maltreatment recurrence rates of 15 - 22 %.
- Highest rate of non-compliance with standard time of investigation (17.3%)
- Time from first contact to closing investigation greater than 60 days = 40.3%
- Care providers least likely to be given health and education documents (17.1%)
- Only 51% of children received a standard physical exam

2.) Moderate functioning agencies demonstrated the following characteristics:
- Salary in the median range for workers and supervisors ($41,154 and $51,1999 respectively)
- Moderate amount of training days for new workers (31 days)
- Educational reimbursement allowed
- Moderate effectiveness

3.) High functioning agencies demonstrated the following characteristics:
- Highest salaries for both workers and supervisors ($56, 71 and $70,057 respectively)
- Most amount of training days for new workers (48 days)
- Educational reimbursement allowed
- Best ratio of workers to supervisors
- On-call status was optional or not required

Efficiency rate of high functioning agencies:
- Lowest staff turnover rate (9%)
- Lowest rates of maltreatment recurrence (6-15%)
- Greater percentages of approved case plans (twice as many as low-functioning agencies)
- Care providers more likely to be given health and education documents (43.9%)
- 71.1% of children received a standard physical exam

Recommendations from the study's authors*:
1.) Increase salaries for workers and supervisors
2.) Eliminate overtime
3.) Eliminate of on-call work
4.) Emphasize completing written and approved case plans

*Please note that caseload size did not factor into this particular study, because the agencies that they studied did not exceed the recommended maximum levels.

**Also, the authors of the study didn't comment on it, but I find it interesting that the highest functioning agencies were more likely to make sure the child had a physical exam and to share medical information with care providers. That might prevent recurrent child abuse due to physical evidence, in my opinion.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Emotional Risks for Females Aging Out of Foster Care

Young women often emerge from foster care emotionally vulnerable. They have a deep (and legitimate) need for permanency, security and emotional constancy.

And there are men who prey on vulnerable women. Men who might offer to be a "father figure" or a "big brother." Men who offer themselves up as an oasis of safety (and maybe they even mean it at the time)... and then they want more.

Emotional vulnerability can translate into sexual vulnerability. According to the National Survey of Family Growth: “Women who spent time living in foster homes or with relatives other than their parents have an elevated risk of engaging in high risk sexual behaviors.”

These high risk sexual behaviors include:
- Teenage pregnancy (60% risk of unwanted pregnancy)
- A greater number of sexual partners
- Losing their virginity at a younger age as compared to women of “normal” backgrounds.

Two extremes of behavior exist:
- Emotional isolation
- Toxic relationships

One can result from the other. One can feed the other. A woman who is emotionally isolated is more vulnerable to predators. Likewise, a series of dysfunctional relationships might cause some women to fear intimacy and retreat from relationships altogether.

These difficulties can be overcome. I was raped when I was 16 years old. I distrusted men. I feared intimacy. I refused to date for eight years. And, where am I now? Married, to a man who loves me. Stepmother to two wonderful children. There is definitely hope.

My concerns is the "platform syndrome." By that, I mean, whenever I hear about a program for foster alumni, they are up on a platform somewhere. "You went through a hard life, kid, and now you owe it to us to save the world."

Saving the world is great -- I certainly want to do it. But postponing emotional healing is unwise.

When I hear about groups like CYC (California Youth Connection) that limit their members to under 23 years old, I feel concern. Perhaps because I look back at the person I was when I was 23, and I still had some growing and healing to do. Granted, everyone is different, but -

Where are the resources for foster alumni in their 20's who are unlearning all the emotional damage from their childhood?