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Article of Interest - Foster Care

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Bridges4Kids LogoBirth Parents Retaining a Voice in City Foster Model
by Leslie Kaufman, New York Times, June 3, 2004
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Kristal Johnson nestled deep into the sofa between her mother and her foster mother and listened to the two women laugh about how she used to try playing one against the other.

There was the time when Kristal, now a poised 18-year-old, skipped chores at the home of her foster mother, Janet Stevens, and was told that she could not go to a party her boyfriend was having.

Naturally, Kristal, who was scheduled for a weekend visit to her mother, Bernadette Blount, tried to get a second opinion. But Ms. Stevens had already called ahead. "She told me what had happened and asked me if I agreed with the punishment or if it was too harsh," Ms. Blount recalled. "I said, `Oh, no, you are right. I'll back you up.' "

This scene of parental solidarity speaks to a minirevolution in foster care, one being led by New York City. Fifteen years ago, it would have been hard to find a place in the nation that encouraged foster parents and birth parents to meet, let alone talk. Child welfare literature commonly held that birth parents especially those like Ms. Blount, who admitted that she had beaten her daughter could be dangerous or might try to take their children. Moreover, it was dogma that children would adjust better to living with foster parents if the separation from the birth home was swift and total.

But in 1998, New York was among the first cities to adopt an approach to foster care that actively nurtures open relationships between foster and birth parents.

In this model, which takes a page from the latest thinking in divorce custody cases, not only do the birth parents know where the foster parents live, they share in the decision making on everything from discipline to the cereal on the breakfast table.

In the best cases, like that of Ms. Stevens and Ms. Blount, the foster parent remains a continuing source of support and counsel after the child returns to the birth parent, as most do.

Now after six years, with some 28,000 families having participated in the program, the city's departing commissioner of children's services points to the growth of the program as among the achievements he is most proud of. "For many parents, it has demystified foster care," said the commissioner, William C. Bell, who will step down in a few weeks. "In surveys, parents report a much more positive experience with the system and their caseworkers. Children are returned home on average three months earlier."

The family-to-family strategy, as it is called, is considered so promising that it has already been adopted by 35 cities and counties in 16 states. And in July, Mr. Bell will become executive vice president of Casey Family Programs, a nonprofit Seattle organization that develops and finances model child welfare programs across the country, hoping to bring the model to the rest of the nation. "We don't ever want a situation where a parent has a kid and doesn't know where they are placed," he said.

Proponents of this intimate approach argue that it is urgent to expand it now, as a record 300,000 children a year are being taken into foster care across the nation, in part because of a 1997 federal law encouraging adoptions that urges states to remove children in potentially dangerous family circumstances.

Because family to family increases contact between birth parents and children, they say, it improves the likelihood that the family will reunite. They say the program also helps birth parents who are never going to regain custody terminate their parental rights so their child can be adopted, because they are more confident that their child is going to a good home. Most important, they argue, it makes the separation less traumatic for children.

But the program has its opponents, including cities that resist it because it requires significant funds for retraining social workers and foster parents, many of whom now see the birth parents as enemies.

"Foster families came to see themselves as saviors of the children," said John B. Mattingly, director of human services reform at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a Baltimore philanthropy, which he led in pioneering the family-to-family concept. Many of them found it hard to become mentors for the adults they were taught to revile, he said, and with a nationwide shortage of foster parents, this resistance can scare localities from mandating relationships.

    

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