child welfare watch vol. 21

Shifting the Power Dynamic

"Community reps" from neighborhood partnerships guide parents through their moment of extreme crisis, as child protective services decides whether or not to remove their children.

"I'm not ACS. I'm a community representative," says Ed Parker, as he hands a business card to an anxious mother and her slouching 16-year-old daughter. The mother, her daughter, three city child protection workers and Parker, a retired accountant neatly dressed in a suit and tie, are seated in a sparse conference room at the Jamaica, Queens field office of the New York City Administration for Children's Services (ACS). They are gathered for what's known as a "child safety conference," where ACS will make the weighty decision of whether the mother's two teenagers will be safe at home or need to be placed in foster care.

This meeting is one of about 10,000 such conferences that will take place this year in child protection offices across New York City. These sessions are part of a Bloomberg administration effort to transform the adversarial nature of the child welfare system, giving parents a voice in discussions about what will happen to their kids.

Until very recently, ACS front-line workers and a city attorney would huddle together behind closed doors to decide if they should remove a child from his home. They would seek a judge's approval either before or afterwards—but for most parents, the moment of removal remained thick with confusion and distrust.

In New York today, more often than not, parents are brought into this momentous discussion and encouraged to talk about themselves and their children, and to learn more about the allegations against them. Sometimes they are able to make a successful case for why their children should stay home and out of foster care. But even when not, the conferences provide them a window into how ACS makes decisions about their kids. Officials believe this is an effective way to establish a more productive relationship with parents. And sometimes, thanks to the city's community partnership initiative, these parents have help, with community representatives like Parker on hand to ensure their voices are heard.

Parents are often angry and fearful when they arrive at a child safety conference, certain the odds are already stacked against them. "Let's get this over with, I have somewhere to be!" the mother had said, just moments earlier.

Parker's neutral presence is intended to help parents feel more comfortable. "You aren't on trial," he often tells them. "Speak freely." He knows it's something they desperately need to hear. To parents, these conferences can feel an awful lot like judgment day.

Now both the mother and her daughter sit tensely at the table, staring down.

"Tell us what brought you here," says the ACS conference facilitator.

"You brought me here!" the mother says. "You tell me why I'm here."

And so the conference begins. An ACS caseworker recounts the family's history: The mother recently became guardian to her oldest daughter's two children. As part of the guardianship process, ACS asked her to take a drug test because she had a history of cocaine addiction that, long ago, had drawn the agency's attention. In fact, the city had once placed two of her children in foster care.

"But you refused," the worker tells the mother. Instead of taking the drug test, the mother vanished with the grandchildren. When she later emerged, she tested positive for marijuana. The city immediately placed the grandchildren in foster care.

"I've been clean of crack cocaine for 18 years!" the mother interjects. She speaks not to the ACS workers, but to Parker, the community representative, as though he's the only one who could possibly understand. She talks about her struggles with drugs, how she fought her addiction, won her children back in the late 1990s. She is proud to be clean from crack and to have a healthy home for her family.

"Things are not good at home all the time," she tells Parker, her voice crackling with emotion. "But no children were hurt, no children were in danger."

Parker nods, his face registering concern and understanding.

Parents are often angry and fearful when they arrive at a child safety conference, certain the odds are already stacked against them. To parents, these conferences can feel an awful lot like judgment day.

 

The mother says she cared for her grandchildren informally for years, walking her granddaughter to school each morning. When she applied for guardianship and ACS asked her to take a drug test, she couldn't stop thinking about all the difficulties the agency put her through, years ago. So she left town with the grandkids for a vacation. And she'd stayed longer than she'd told a caseworker she would.

"I extended it because I'm so tired of ACS! And I shouldn't have done that. But no one was in danger. And then the children were taken for marijuana! Marijuana!" she shouts. "When I need to pay a bill, ACS is not there! But when they think they can snatch your kids, they're there, snatching at everything, snatching, snatching, like pit bulls!" Both she and her daughter are crying. Parker places a box of tissues between them.

"Let me ask a question then," Parker addresses the ACS workers. "You mention the 1990s. But why are we here today?"

It's a simple question, but it reminds everyone of the purpose of the conference: dealing with the current situation. It also signals to the mother that she may ask questions, too. For the first time during the meeting, the mother addresses the caseworker directly. "Why would you go straight for the jugular and remove the kids when there is no reason?"

Although she is still angry, something critical in the room has shifted. For the first time since she walked in, the mother appears to sense that the ACS workers might have brought her here to have a genuine conversation, rather than to tell her what they've already decided.

Parker says he has seen this pivotal moment occur dozens of times in the nearly two and a half years he has taken part in child safety conferences as a community representative for the community partnership in Jamaica, Queens.

From the minute Parker tells parents he's from the neighborhood, not ACS, he says he can sense a subtle change.

"When people come here, they have such a fear of ACS," says Parker. "They can't bring an attorney and they feel their rights aren't going to be respected." Knowing a representative from their own community is there as a witness, says Parker, "breaks down barriers, makes them feel heard." It also lets parents see the conferences as a chance to talk with ACS about planning for their children.

"Community reps," as they are known in the agency field offices, translate jargon that ACS workers use instinctively, like "MGM" for "maternal grandmother." They encourage parents to offer their own ideas for keeping their children safe at home. Because they are from the same neighborhood as the parents, they may connect parents to local resources that ACS caseworkers don't necessarily know about, such as the young moms' group at the church on the corner. They're in the ideal position to gently press a mother to see the possible consequences of her actions, both good and bad.

In at least one case, having a rep at the conference may have saved a child's life. One mother who had hit her child had been temporarily ordered to stay away from home. At her child safety conference, the mom confided to community rep Shirley Symonette, a colleague of Parker, that her baby had a blood-clotting disorder and his life depended on shots to his stomach that she administered every 12 hours. Nearly 24 hours had passed since she'd been able to give him the shot. Her husband, who had remained home, could not administer the medication because he could not read—but he was too embarrassed to tell the ACS workers. Symonette encouraged the mother to quickly explain all of this to ACS workers. They promptly stopped the conference and made sure the child got medical attention before it was too late.

"They were scared to tell ACS," remembers Symonette, a retired nurse who has expressive eyes and short, curly gray-white hair. "There are certain things they'll tell us that they won't tell ACS."

In the past, neither parents nor anyone else outside ACS and the Family Court was included in the decision-making about how to keep children safe. "We would interview the family, we would assess what we thought was going on, and we would make a decision and execute that decision," remembers Jan Flory, until recently the deputy commissioner in charge of the ACS Division of Child Protection.

Nor did parents with children in foster care have much say in determining what kind of supports and services they needed in order to be able to take care of their kids.

During the 1990s, child welfare experts began to challenge this routine by arguing that the exclusion of parents was counterproductive. "Telling someone you have to do this and that—without telling them they have a voice in what they need—is not going to have as great an impact as asking families what they need, and trying to respond to those needs," explains Susan Notkin, associate director at the Center for the Study of Social Policy. "When people are trying to change behavior they need to be invested in the change."

In the mid-90s, Notkin was a program officer at the Edna McConnell Foundation and helped introduce a model of family team conferences to human service practitioners in communities in Iowa, Florida, Kentucky, and Missouri. The idea was to support families at critical transitions—when a child was born, when a father returned home from prison, or when a family moved. Team leaders encouraged the family to bring to the meeting anyone who they thought would be helpful—relatives, neighbors, teachers, and religious leaders. They hoped to recreate a time when families naturally had extended families, religious communities, and other support systems nearby and on-call for help as needed. One study found that mothers who received family team meetings reported feeling less depression and stress. In some of the communities, child welfare agencies also used the model to give parents a stronger voice in their own foster care and child protection cases.

Around the same time, child welfare officials in Cleveland, Ohio, introduced a similar approach to that city's foster care system. Child welfare workers began calling team meetings that revolutionized the way they made decisions about how to protect children. These meetings engaged parents as partners in making decisions about children's safety, including the critical decision of whether a child should be removed from home.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation introduced the Ohio team conferencing model to nearly 20 states and New York City as part of a national effort to reform foster care. It wasn't an entirely original idea. In fact, New Zealand had already been doing this for several years. By law, New Zealand requires that a child's family be invited to a group conference whenever a child is at-risk of entering foster care. But it had never been used consistently in the United States.

"The foundation realized that if you want to reform one part of the system, you have to look at the whole system, including how to get families involved in decisions about their children, because better decisions get made when families are involved," remembers Suzanne Barnard, associate director of the child welfare strategy group at Annie E. Casey.

In the Annie E. Casey model, child welfare workers hold team conferences to plan for a child's move to a new foster home, a return home, or adoption. But most importantly, they hold child safety conferences at the key moment of crisis, when a family first learns the government is considering taking the children out of their home.

These conferences aim to remove the bureaucratic secrecy and, ideally, make child protection systems more transparent to the people they serve and the communities where they operate. In turn, child welfare workers use them to gain a better sense of a family's dynamics, including its core strengths, and to build relationships with parents.

"That sets up the relationship to be developed in a very, very different way when the parent is sitting there as the decision and the various pieces about their family are being discussed," explains Flory. "It helps the beginning of the relationship of whatever agency is going to pick this up afterwards."

Since New York City introduced child safety conferences in 2007, a growing number of children have been placed in kinship foster homes, with relatives rather than with strangers, which Flory attributes partly to the conferences. "When you're sitting at the table, and you're asking Mom, 'Is there anyone in your family or anyone you know who could take your children if we have to come to this conclusion?' you get a very different response than in the heat of the moment when the worker arrives to remove your children and asks you that," says Flory. "It's a very different dynamic."

Family and other community members provide checks and balances that weren't there when caseworkers operated in isolation. The Bloomberg administration has credited child safety conferences with contributing to a recent drop in the number of young people entering the city's foster care system. There's an internal benefit for the agency as well: Now, Flory says, ACS attorneys and social workers are more likely to agree about placement decisions, because everyone is more thoroughly prepared.

In 2009, a team of independent researchers with funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation evaluated eight elements of effective team conferences held between 2002 and 2008 at sites in Cleveland, Denver, Phoenix, North Carolina, and Kentucky, such as whether the conferences included the parent, an experienced child welfare worker, and a community representative (see chart). The findings were remarkable. When a meeting had only one of the key elements present, 78 percent of children were removed from home. But when seven or eight key elements were in place, the opposite was true: 70 percent of children remained at home. Most significantly, children who remained home did not have higher rates of being abused or neglected later on.

Having someone present to help the parent advocate for herself was clearly important. "It can be pretty daunting if you as the parent are coming into the conference, and there's four or five or six professionals sitting around," says Flory. "The community reps bring an element of reality and support to the parents."

In East Harlem, ACS contracts with the Child Welfare Organizing Project (CWOP) to provide a different form of community representation in the field office's child safety conferences: Here, the person at the table is a parent advocate—someone who has substantial, personal experience of the child welfare system, often because he or she was investigated by ACS, and who is trained to help other parents advocate for themselves.

"With an authentic voice from the community rep present at the conferences, you're making these decisions with members of the community. You're inviting the community into these discussions," says Michael Arsham, executive director of CWOP, who also describes this as "accountable child protective practice." He adds that data are beginning to prove that the involvement of parent advocates directly leads to fewer children being placed in strangers' homes. In 2009, of the 154 child safety conferences attended by community reps East Harlem, only 39 resulted in a child being placed in the home of someone who was not a relative, says Arsham. The National Resource Center for Permanency and Family Connection is currently studying whether this rate is significantly different from that occurring at child safety conferences without community reps, and expects to have answers within the year.

Citywide, in 2010, ACS organized 9,235 child safety conferences involving cases with more than 17,835 children, the agency reports. Of these, community reps or parent advocates took part in 1,395, or about 15 percent of the total. Currently, the community reps participate in conferences only in the 11 neighborhoods where community partnerships are available to coordinate the program.

***

Recruiting, managing, and supporting community volunteers to attend these conferences is difficult. Of the nearly 20 sites around the country where Annie E. Casey introduced team conferencing, only a few have implemented community rep programs. In New York, budget constraints have meant that ACS and the partnerships have not been able to expand their community rep programs into other neighborhoods with high rates of foster care. ACS has no plans to expand the programs citywide.

While running the community rep program is labor intensive, it is also one of the community partnerships' most clear-cut, collective successes.

Nearly all of the partnerships have found word-of mouth to be the most effective way to recruit reps. Some community reps are retired teachers, social workers, and policemen. Others are between jobs. A number were in foster care as children, have had their own children in foster care, or are foster parents themselves. Most do it out of a sense of caring and obligation to their neighbors. "Me being a family man, I don't want to see children in foster care," one rep explained.

Sitting in a child safety conference can be an intensely emotional experience, and many reps report blinking back tears as they hear details of a family's struggles. At least one of the partnerships hired a consulting therapist to help the reps process what they hear at conferences. "Sometimes the kids get removed right there and you hear their yelling and screaming," says Symonette. "It hurts."

In general, the longer a rep stays, the more effective he or she becomes. Their techniques vary, but they lean toward what's known in the social work world as a strengths-based approach, keeping a steady focus on what's working well in a family rather than what's gone wrong. Asked to identify their strengths, many parents are at a loss for words. It's the rep's job to help the family find the words—starting with the fact that showing up for the conference shows they care.

At a training for community reps in East New York, Merle Daniel-Shymanski, who was a social worker in Trinidad and exudes a warm sense of competency, explained to new reps her methods for winning trust quickly—an essential skill, as reps must get a parent's permission before attending a conference.

Rule number one, says Daniel-Shymanski: First impressions matter. Never overdress for a conference, which can intimidate a parent, nor dress too casually, which might communicate disrespect. When you first walk into an office, she tells the small group, have a pleasant expression.

And then she shares what reps from across the partnerships relay to be the key ingredient in gaining trust: Tell parents, as many times as they need to hear, "I'm not ACS. I'm not ACS. I'm not ACS."

Only once that's very clear will parents be open to hearing what reps' role is. "We are from the community," Daniel-Shyamanski tells her families. "We encourage families to speak up for themselves and ask for help. You want to make sure that the decision that comes out of the conference is one you contribute to, rather than one that's made to you."

Sometimes parents reveal something they're ashamed of. In that case, she says, "What happened already happened, we cannot change the past." She encourages them to talk about all of the good things they've done for their family. "Believe it or not, with that approach, when a family goes in the conference, they're open," shrugs Daniel-Shymanski, smiling.

***

Other community partnerships would be hard-pressed to replicate the success of Jamaica's community rep program, which hinges on the dedication, skill, and force of personality of its small team of three. It is not easy to find many volunteers willing and able to give as much time and energy as do the Jamaica reps, who, like most reps, get paid $15 an hour only for time they spend in conferences.

On an unusually slow Friday at the ACS field office in Jamaica, Queens, Parker and Symonette parked themselves at their usual spot at a table on the second floor, the area ACS workers gave them so they could have a space to work and wait while staying on-call for last minute conferences. Parker was busy fielding calls from parents he's met through earlier conferences, nodding empathetically into his cell phone, scribbling notes, marking meetings with them in his date book. Symonette, whom families call Ms. Shirley, greeted everyone who passed. All seemed happy to see her. The two of them, along with Symonette's sister, Emily Francis, make up the Jamaica partnership's small and dedicated team of reps who have become an integral part of the Jamaica ACS field office, and who do things radically differently from those at other partnerships.

Most partnerships have around 10 reps who take turns attending conferences coordinated through a partnership liaison, who sets tight boundaries around the work, limiting the reps' direct involvement with parents and warning them not to give out their phone numbers for fear they might find themselves overwhelmed. But the three Jamaica reps operate more like freelance consultants, floating about the ACS field office, setting their own schedules, consulting directly with ACS staff, and continuing their work with parents far beyond the conference room. Brady Funn, the partnership's liaison, said community reps attend nearly 70 percent of all child safety conferences in the neighborhood. They also go to court with families, testify to judges, and work with ACS and the community partnership to help families get anger management class, drug rehab, or extra food and clothing. Symonette and Parker pooled resources at the ACS office to help a grieving couple pay for the funeral of their infant son.

Parents and ACS caseworkers alike have come to depend on the Jamaica reps, and call them frequently. Parker estimates that he and Symonette help around nine families outside of conferences at any given time. Though they meet most through conferences, sometimes other parents or caseworkers will refer families to them. The ACS workers at the Jamaica field office have come to know their community's three reps so well, they even know which type of conference each rep has a particular knack for.

Parker's specialty is calming men who are "very adamant, very belligerent," says ACS deputy director Taryen Davidson, who summons Parker for conferences involving domestic violence.

At one conference, Davidson remembers, when the facilitator wrote on a white board ideas that one possible outcome of the conference was that the man's son would be moved to a foster home, the man stood, stormed angrily toward the facilitator, and started wiping her words from the board. Parker sprang to action, wrapping an arm around the father and bringing him out of the room. He walked the halls with him until the father calmed down and felt ready to return. The conference continued.

Because Emily Francis worked in a hospital, she frequently gets called for cases involving medical issues. In one particularly perplexing conference in Jamaica, ACS had removed a newborn baby from her mother because the baby had tested positive for cocaine and heroin. When Francis learned the mother had not tested positive for any drug, she suspected an error. She'd seen firsthand how easy it is for hospitals to mix up blood samples. She urged that both mother and baby be retested. ACS workers listened. Both tests turned up negative, and the baby went home with his mother.

"If Emily was not there, we would have gone into court, and the situation for this family would be totally different," said an ACS worker on the case. "Instead, the mom took home a newborn."

***

Beneath the fluorescent lights of the Jamaica field office, as the child safety conference goes on, the mother who tested positive for marijuana seems ready to regard the ACS workers in an entirely new light: as people who can help her family. She begins sharing pain from her life, tearfully telling of her many brothers who have passed, as one of the ACS workers shakes her head. "I'm hearing loss, loss, loss," the worker says kindly.

When the conference facilitator gently shifts the discussion to ideas for helping the family, the mother seems hopeful. "I need help as far as individual counseling," she says. "My daughter's back in school. She's doing really good. She's a brilliant girl. Very smart," she looks proudly at her daughter. "My son does need help. He went through more. I'm too young to bury a son."

She turns to Mr. Parker. "Maybe you can be a mentor," she says. "I can bring him to your office. I think you'd be good for him."

"If Emily was not there, we would have gone into court, and the situation for this family would be totally different," said an ACS worker on the case. "Instead, the mom took home a newborn."

"Of course," Parker nods. He says he'll help connect the boy to job programs and more.

The mother is so excited she interrupts the conference to call her son on her cell phone. "There's a man here who wants to talk to you," she's gushing. "He's a good guy. He says he wants to help you."

The mother hands Parker the phone, and he heads out in the hall, animatedly talking to her son. Moments later he returns, hands the mother cell phone with her son still on it, and assures her that they'll soon be in touch again.

And suddenly everyone seems to be talking at once, throwing out ideas for how to support the family, the mother leading the discussion. In the end, the mother is happy with what ACS decides: her two teenage children will stay home, and she will submit to random drug testing. The mother will receive counseling and encourage her children to come with her too. ACS, in turn, will see to it that she gets visits with her grandchildren, and, assuming all goes well, begin taking steps to return them to her care. Mr. Parker will work with her son to connect him to a vocational training program.

The only person displeased with the outcome is the daughter, who is annoyed that she will be required to receive tutoring, despite the fact that she's back in school regularly.

Before the room empties, Parker turns to the mother.

"This went very well because you were very honest and open," he says. "My role now is to work with them to work with you. I tell every family, 'Do what you gotta do to get ACS out of your life.'"

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