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Raw Emotions, Real Insights: Learning from Parents in the Child Welfare System

Learning from parents in the child welfare system

Most people know that the child welfare system is set up to protect children – even the name says “child” welfare. Child welfare systems investigate reports of child abuse and neglect, provide services to families that need assistance, arrange for children to live in safety when they are not safe at home, and arrange for reunification, adoption or other permanent family connections for children leaving foster care.

But children always exist in families; not on their own. Both research and common sense tell us that the best way to help a child is to strengthen their parents or other family members to provide a safe, loving place for them.

For this reason, KVC Kansas, which serves thousands of families in the child welfare system each year, recently began some innovative approaches towards learning from parents in the child welfare system. Dr. Linda Bass, Vice President of Clinical Services and Wellbeing, launched a group for parents whose children had either been removed from home and placed in temporary foster care, or who were required to participate in state-funded services to prevent foster care. Her work was guided by a planning tool produced by the Annie E. Casey Foundation called “Engaging Parents, Developing Leaders.”

James is a single father who overcame challenges in order to safely reunite his family after his children were placed foster care.

“Parents are the people we are serving, so we wanted their voices to be a central part of everything we do, from creating programs to training staff,” said Bass. “Our goal was to find out what quality of services we were providing and if there were ways we could support parents more. These parents have already provided so many insights which we’re putting into action, making our services better for the next family.”

Dr. Bass started the group over one year ago, convening the group every other month. The parents themselves decided to take the meetings on the road, visiting each of KVC’s 12 offices in Kansas. Each time, the meeting starts mid-morning with a gathering of the birth parents along with all the staff in that office. There is a parents panel in which the parents share their stories of facing the child welfare system. Few dry eyes are left in the room as parents express the fear, anger, frustration and deep pain they felt as a result of having their children taken from them. They recount the long, often difficult process of completing parenting classes; finding safe, stable housing or employment; working to overcome substance use or addiction; and moving toward that day when they would finally be safely reunited with their children.

When Breanne’s children entered foster care, she embraced the support that was offered to her for becoming a successful and confident parent.

One common theme among the parents is that they lacked a support network of family or friends. When life dealt them hard blows, they felt alone in weathering those storms. Some even asked for professional help but didn’t qualify for services. They were told that their problems were not significant enough to warrant assistance. Unfortunately, this reflects the nationwide reality that preventative services are often significantly less funded than higher-level interventions like foster care. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, but taxpayers and state budgets don’t always heed that logic.

After the panel discussion, the parents and staff mingle over lunch. Then the parents in the group have their meeting afterward. Each time the group meets, new parents from that county join and share their stories. It slows down the momentum, making it difficult to complete an entire agenda, but the stories are cathartic and they resonate.

When Alexia was removed from her home and placed in foster care, Shannon and Leah committed to making a change and overcoming their addiction in order to safely bring their daughter home.

The group is making big plans for June which is National Family Reunification Month, celebrating the families who did the hard work needed to bring their children safely home after foster care. Last year, KVC held three “Families United” picnic celebrations. This year, the group is quadrupling that effort to get to 12 events – one for every KVC Kansas office. This will allow parents from all 30 Kansas counties that KVC serves to participate. The parents are designing the t-shirt that will be worn at these events celebrating families. Staff are working to secure donations of hamburgers, potato salad, cakes and other items from local businesses. The invitation list has been expanded from families who have already reunified, to those who are in preventative services. Essentially anyone receiving child or family services is welcome to attend.

Beyond these summer events, the group is having an impact all year long. KVC now gives parents newly involved in the child welfare system a turquoise welcome bag with the words, “You are amazing, you are brave, you are strong” on the front. The bag includes a letter from the agency’s leaders, a calendar, a water bottle and other items. The letter affirms that KVC Kansas’ goal is to help the parent(s) bring their children safely back home. That is the happy ending for the majority of families in foster care. Sometimes just hearing that it can be done and that the professionals believe in the parents’ ability to succeed helps the parents believe in themselves.

When Kassi and Michael’s daughters were removed from the home and placed in foster care, the couple worked hard to learn healthy skills to help them manage stress and be successful, both as individuals and as parents.

The group is starting parent support groups in each office. The groups will meet twice a month and provide a safe place for parents at all stages of the journey. KVC has hired its first birth parent to be a KVC Parent Advocate, a paid position that helps to facilitate the support groups, and a second parent will be hired soon.

“These parents are craving support and, because of what they’ve been through, they’re also really good at supporting their peers,” said Dr. Bass. “They can have those difficult conversations with each other and inspire hope. They are organically forming the support networks they need. That has big potential to not only help the families who have reunified, but to also help a family on the brink of a crisis, preventing the need for foster care in the first place.”

KVC Kansas regularly shares videos and written stories of families who have successfully reunited after foster care. Check them out at www.kvckansas.org/reunify.