Within the child welfare system, families are often put into categories — biological, kinship, foster, adoptive, formal, informal, etc. There are times this is necessary, but it’s important to remember that all families share some basic characteristics. All parents make mistakes. No one parents perfectly. We all face challenges we aren’t sure how to handle. In these situations, all families need support.
Well-intentioned child welfare system administrators, lawmakers, and others involved in foster care spend a lot of time and energy imagining what types of supports families in the system need and trying to design programs to provide that support. They truly want families to be supported in raising happy, healthy children. However, when talking regularly with families, it quickly becomes clear that many of those programs miss the mark.
A common model for family support programs in child welfare uses a professional of some type (a social worker, health care provider, agency representative) to call or visit families at regular intervals to check on the family, collect information, and/or share information about available resources and programs. While these check-ins are often necessary to verify the safety and well-being of children in the state’s custody, they should not be confused with family support.
Families report that continuous check-ins by multiple people begin to feel repetitive, intrusive, and time consuming without providing much useful help. Families also report that often the person calling or visiting is unaware of resources that can help them.
When they do receive referrals for resources, families often find that the application process is prohibitively cumbersome, they are not eligible for the program, or the program doesn’t provide the services they really need. In some cases, families feel compelled to participate in a program they were referred to even if it doesn’t meet their needs, simply because someone with authority in the system referred them.
When asked about these types of programs, one family said, “It’s like having to be ready for your in-laws at any moment.” Another said, “We’re a busy family and making time for frequent visits and calls is one more challenge we deal with.” Families rarely share these thoughts with program providers, however, because they are required to participate in these check-ins and fear that if they voice frustration with calls or visits, retaliation could follow.
So, what kind of support do families want? Let’s look at some characteristics of support. Support is nonjudgmental — it is not a way to gather information that could later be used against someone. Support is completely confidential and provided with the person’s knowledge that their comments are not being reported to a higher authority without their consent.
Support is not earned, does not make demands, does not become punitive when mistakes are made. Support allows for some level of discussion or disagreement about how to approach a challenge, and therefore gives everyone space to learn and grow. Support is provided in a positive and encouraging environment. True support is mutual in that both parties are able to bring something of value to the table. It is relational and not hierarchical.
What does this look like? Often the purest form of support is provided by peers — those who have had similar experiences. Foster families regularly report a need for peer support from other foster families — a primary reason the WV Foster Adoptive & Kinship Parents Network was created.
We’ll talk more about peer support in next month’s column. If you haven’t been involved in this system, there are plenty of ways to support families you know who are.
You can be there for them in tangible ways like bringing meals or groceries when they’re sick or get a new placement, taking the kids on fun outings to give the parents a break, providing clothing or school supplies when needed, contributing financially to help with “extras” like sports fees, prom, or school trips. You can build relationships with the kids and be another caring adult in their lives.
On a system level, parents report that they need programs and services that are informed by their actual needs – as identified in discussion with parents and caregivers. Programs they are eligible for and that are easily accessible without cumbersome application processes. Many families state that programs they find supportive are available at their request, available every day at any time of day, have clear processes and services, and address their specific challenges with services, information and positive support.
One example of this is Birth to Three. This is a federally funded program that provides services for children with special needs under age three. The difference between this program and many others is that it is customized to the needs of the child. So often, foster parents feel the services provided to them are targeted at assessing and monitoring them, not providing support. A fundamental shift in the nature of services offered to families is needed.
Our child welfare system struggles to recruit enough foster families, to retain those we have, and to maintain children in stable placements even after permanency is achieved. One way to address all of these problems is to re-examine the ways that we provide support for families.
The best way to do this is to ask families what they need and trust that they are the experts on what will help them raise happy, healthy children. By providing the supports all families say they need, it may even be possible to preserve more families without the need for foster care.