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Brokering Change
Parents and community leaders are key in reducing Black children in foster care.

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Illustration by Alexander Martinez and Roland Drumgo

In Fresno, Calif., “parent partners” and “cultural brokers” specially trained to build connections between the child welfare system and the Black community have helped bring down the number of Black children in foster care. Here, Deputy Director for Child Welfare Wendy Osikafo, Fresno County Parent Partners Ritchie Barker and Tina Jaso, and Cultural Broker LaTrina Bowen explain the reforms that have made a difference.

Q: What motivated change in Fresno?

Wendy Osikafo: Before 2003, Fresno’s child welfare system almost didn’t communicate with the community at all. Then we began looking at data and saw that an African-American child was about four times more likely to be in foster care than a White or Hispanic child. In 2002, 38% of White children who entered foster care went home to family within a year, while only 12% of Black children did.

When we started to reach out, we heard from the African-American community: “We feel like you come into our neighborhoods with your white cars, you pick up our kids, and we don’t see them again. Why would we want to partner with you?”

We made a commitment to addressing these issues and we asked the community for their help. Together, we formed work groups, trained staff and developed supports for families.

Then, in 2009-2010 the Center for the Study of Social Policy did an “institutional analysis”—their researchers helped us look at our entire system to better understand how the system itself contributed to African-American children entering care and why they stayed so long.

The report was painful to read. It said that the department offered families one-size-fits-all services; that the services were not located in places where African-American families lived; and that the department did not support families to achieve economic stability. It said the workers did not look for African-American families’ strengths and did not act with a sense of urgency to get African-American children home.

One reason for these problems, the report showed, was that families were moving through the system like an assembly line. They had a lot of different workers—the hotline worker, the investigator, the reunification worker, the adoption specialist, and more. The way our system was set up didn’t allow workers to really get to know families.

Another problem was that our court and staff were really only looking at service compliance, not whether children would be safe with their parents. For instance, if a mother had completed her services, she could progress to unsupervised visits, but if she hadn’t, we’d delay. We had to start looking at how parents behave with their children and whether they are able to take steps to keep their children safe.

The report gave us a roadmap of what we needed to address. We made practical changes, such as reducing the number of workers that each family interacted with so that workers could invest in long-term relationships. We also changed the services available. But the biggest change has been how we train and supervise workers and partner with the community.

Q: How did Fresno begin to partner with the community?

Tina Jaso: A big change is that Fresno hired “cultural brokers,” people from the Black community who work with social workers to help connect with families, and “parent partners,” who support parents in the early stages of a case. I personally think these programs are two of the best things the department has done.

Even when the social worker comes in trying to be helpful, sometimes parents feel like the social worker is jerking them around and setting them up for failure just because of the position that social worker has. With us they are willing to be more open and more vulnerable.

Ritchie Barker: When my children went into care, I was not afforded a voice. The system took my kids. I showed up in court. They said whatever they said and we were done. I had no idea what they were talking about.

Now, as a parent partner, I go to Team Decision-Making Meetings (TDMs), which take place after a child is removed. I tell the parents, “I was in your shoes and I got my baby back. I’ll walk with you as you go through this particular hard time.” At the TDMs, the parents have an opportunity to say, “I’m doing this, that and the other to improve my situation.” Different information comes out that helps the system make better decisions.

Last week we were able to send children home with a young dad who, a few years ago, I believe the system would never have considered safe. Dad was the non-offending parent, but he was young and upset and he didn’t look like a non-offending parent. He had all these bulldog tattoos all over him and he was saying, “This is so f-cked up” and using a lot of profanity. The social worker was saying, “You cannot be using that kind of language in here. I am going to cut this meeting.”

Big dudes with tattoos scare me. But I was able to say to the social worker, “This is just a young man fighting for his kids. He’s not trying to curse anybody. He’s just using the tools he knows. Right now this is how he communicates.”

I said to him, “What exactly are you saying is f-cked up?” He told us that his wife had been pregnant with twins and had had a miscarriage three weeks before. His wife was depressed, he said. It gave us an opportunity to see what had happened in this family. No, the house was not clean. The children might have been a little motley. But Mom was suffering. She needed help, and only Dad could tell us. As professionals, we needed to be able to hear that that’s what he was saying when he said, “It’s f-cked up.”

LaTrina Bowen: As a cultural broker, one of the things I’m able to do is spend more time with parents. Social workers are required to meet with parents at least once a month, but we see parents once a week, at a minimum. That goes a long way in helping to build trust.

We spend time in their homes, help them with appointments. We also absorb some of their anger. We say, “You have a lot of passion in your voice because you care about your children, but to the department it may sound hostile. When you’re upset, call us first.”

One of the most important things we do is help parents show in court that they’re real people by assisting them in writing a story of their life. We ask them how they grew up and any hurts they experienced and what they’re proud of. Sometimes parents sit down and write out 25 pages. Then it’s our job to edit it down to a short letter they can present in court, so that people begin to see them as more than just a case number.

We also try to make sure children can stay with family when they are removed from their homes. I had a case where the parents had a long history of severe domestic violence. A great aunt had agreed to take the children. But she wasn’t getting along with the department.

The children had experienced a lot of hurt, and their behavior was overwhelming. The aunt felt that the department was scrutinizing and judging her. She wanted to give up. She was saying, “Come get these kids. The department’s not giving me a chance.”

I had helped the aunt arrange services and talked to her about what the children had been through and how we could help them. I had even picked up the children from appointments sometimes. So she trusted me to go back to the department and do some mediation. We were able to sit down at a table together and press the reset button. We explained that yes, she was being scrutinized, but every home is scrutinized. We helped her to see that it wasn’t personal.

Barker: I also see that when workers go out to investigate, they’re not just deciding whether to remove a child. They also connect families to services that help. There was one situation where a little boy saw his dad killed. The little boy was suffering and needed some counseling, and Mom did too. She was trying to hang on. Instead of judging, the workers were able to provide support.

Osikafo: These programs have helped us prevent children from entering foster care.

We also worked with the community to identify the values and core practices that families consider important. We asked community members: “What does it feel like to be engaged? How do you know when someone really cares about what you have to say?” What came out of that are 23 behaviors we want our workers to use, including incorporating the family’s culture and point of view into case planning and attending to trauma the family may have experienced.
Community members observe some of the meetings between workers and families and let us know whether workers are staying true to the model. That gives us valuable feedback on where they see our practice thriving and where we need to improve.

Q: What impact are you seeing?

Osikafo: Since 2003, we have seen the number of African-American children in care drop from close to 25% of children in the system to less than 15% in 2013.

Barker: But there are still barriers. Because a disproportionate number of young men go to jail in the Black community, it’s more complicated for many Black families to get kids home or to relatives. In the past, the caseworker might have just said, “No, the children can’t go to that home with Uncle Bobo there.” Now Fresno County does work with the family. But it takes time to go through all the procedures, even when the criminal record doesn’t suggest a clear and present danger. We had a grandma who had a 15-year-old record. She had to wait almost 3 months before she could get her grandbaby.

Osikafo: African-American children are still over-represented in our system. We also want to broaden our work to other communities, including Native Americans, who are the next most over-represented group here.

Jaso: When my children were placed in foster, it felt very unfair to me. I felt ridiculed. I felt stepped on. I felt like they judged me before they heard the full story. Now everything that was ripped from me—my dignity—has come right back. With my experiences, I really am in a condition to help another family that has gotten caught up in a situation like I did.

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