Children's Voice Dec 2005

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Empowering Parents Through Conversation

As a child protective services (CPS) supervisor in Louisville, Kentucky, Deborah Turner recalls working with a mother who was addicted to drugs and in danger of having her children placed in foster care. The woman had attended multiple substance abuse programs, but nothing helped. Then the mother discovered a discussion group in her neighborhood that helped turn her life around.

Despite their apparent benefits, Turner was troubled by the lack of enthusiasm in the CPS community for community-led discussion groups. She believed they could be helpful--especially in African American neighborhoods, where conventional therapy is sometimes met with suspicion. So, in 1998, Turner established Talkshops at the Neighborhood Place Ujima, a service center for low-income families in Jefferson County, Kentucky. Talkshop participants meet for 90 minutes, once a week, for eight weeks to discuss parenting, family, and community issues, including communicating with their children, understanding the CPS system, and developing healthy partnerships.

Promoting a sense of community and empowering participants are at the heart of Talkshops. While the program is open to everyone, many participants have lost their children to the child welfare system and have been referred to the discussion group through CPS or a parole and probation program. Referred parents often bring relatives and other people involved in their children's lives to participate in discussions.

Parents who maintain custody of their children bring their children along and eat a meal with them at the center before the children go to child care elsewhere in the building during the Talkshop session. Foster parents also attend Talkshops to fulfill training requirements, and therapists and community leaders are invited to participate as well. This diversity of participants allows people involved in different aspects of the child welfare system, including birth and foster parents, to understand various viewpoints within the system.

Volunteer facilitators begin sessions with short presentations, allowing participants to comment and ask questions. Discussion topics come from participants primarily and help shape the program. For example, if a participant wants to know more about buying a house, Turner will invite a housing services representative to speak to the group. She says she wants participants to feel "they own the program." Many participants return to lead other Talkshop discussions.

Turner hopes the Talkshops will change the image of CPS from a "policing force" to a "provider of tools to help [parents] develop skills to make change."

Corrections Program Encourages Mother-Infant Bonding

In Baltimore, women in the penal system who are pregnant or have children under 3 months old may be eligible for a residential program that allows them to remain with their infants. Since 2001, TAMAR's Children (Trauma, Addiction, Mental Health, and Recovery) has helped incarcerated mothers develop secure attachments with their infants.

Women participating in TAMAR's Children have been diagnosed with substance abuse addictions due to trauma, such as losing a baby or witnessing domestic violence, and are serving sentences from 14 months to three years for nonviolent crimes. After being accepted into TAMAR's Children, the women are placed on parole or probation and must remain in the program for six months. Up to 16 women can participate at one time.

Without TAMAR's Children, participants would give birth in prison and lose their children to foster care. On the other hand, children who become attached to their mothers during infancy are "more resilient and perform better in school," according to TAMAR's Children therapist Kate Oliver.

Babies remain with their mothers throughout the program, and the women interact as a community. The mother of a 3-month-old infant, for example, might help the mother of a newborn learn how to change diapers. The mothers receive individual therapy with a trauma therapist and an addictions counselor. Group discussions focus on topics that include relationships and communication. The women follow the mantra, "Always be bigger, stronger, wise, and kind. Whenever possible, follow my lead; whenever necessary, take the lead."

A video component called Circle of Security depicts real-life secure and insecure attachment cases. Used in some Head Start programs, the intervention is based on more than 50 years of research about mother and infant attachment.

The mothers also record their own videos as part of what Oliver describes as an "experimental intervention" called Strange Situations. Two cameras record the mother and child, respectively, for about 20 minutes as the mother interacts with the child. The mother follows the child's lead, turns away from the child, and turns toward the child. Then a stranger enters the room, and the mother leaves. The child's reactions to these situations illustrates whether a secure or insecure attachment is forming. The mothers later analyze the tapes during group sessions and receive tips on forming more secure attachments.

Occasionally, the exercise reveals the mothers' own childhood trauma. One mother, Oliver recalls, reentered the room during a Strange Situation and said her baby was mad at her for leaving. The child wasn't mad, but the mother's statement revealed her own trauma from childhood abandonment.

To date, 25 women have graduated from the program, with a rate of 67% forming secure attachments--a rate equal to that of middle-class white parents outside the penal system, Oliver says. After they have completed the program, the women may enter Shelter Plus Care, a program of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that provides housing assistance and job training for eligible cliental for up to five years. The mothers also continue with outpatient therapy while their infants are between 6 months and 1 year old.

TAMAR's Children is operated by multiple public agencies, including Maryland's correctional services, and is funded by the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the Abell Foundation, and other social service agencies.

Internship Places Foster Care Alumni on Capitol Hill

In Washington, DC, last summer, a select group of young people brought foster care issues to the forefront with help from the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI).

Through its Congressional Foster Youth Internship (FYI), CCAI provides summer internships to college students who grew up in foster care. CCAI piloted the program in 2002 with two interns serving the offices of Senators Larry Craig (R-ID) and Mary Landrieu (D-LA). This year, 13 House and Senate members opened their offices to FYI students. While interns aid legislative assistants with research, attend committee meetings, and sort mail, their presence is a constant reminder to members of Congress and their staff about the need to support the child welfare system, says CCAI Executive Director Deanna Carlson Stacy.

CCAI supports the interns by giving them an orientation about Capitol Hill terminology, the dress code, the importance of punctuality, and how to communicate with congressional leaders. CCAI also holds bimonthly education sessions to discuss problems or questions that surface during the internships. These sessions are important, says Program Manager and Policy Associate Tricia Tyskowski, because "sometimes [students] come without knowing how legislation works."

The internship program has graduated 37 students since its inception, and many have moved on to promising futures. Jelani Freeman, for example, interned with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) in 2003 and now works as the Youth Engaged in Service Ambassador in the office of Washington, DC, Mayor Anthony Williams.

Students from the foster care system who have completed at least two years of college as part of a four-year degree program are eligible to participate in the internship program. CCAI selects 14-16 students for six-week internships in Washington every summer and provides them with a stipend and money for traveling and housing expenses, thanks to funding from the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Beyond the internship opportunities they offer, Stacy says CCAI staff have also committed their resources to helping some of the interns reunite with family members. They helped intern Nyanga Nzabamwita, for example, reunite with her Rwandan family, whom she believed dead; Adier Mach Deng, a Sudanese refugee, was reunited with his father.

The Power of Dance

The Power of Dance On August 11, participants in the CAS/AileyCamp took the stage at New York City's United Palace Theatre on Broadway and wowed the audience with a special performance that ranged from tap and ballet to hip-hop and modern dance. The show capped six weeks of intense work at this summer dance camp, where dance is used as a vehicle for self-esteem and critical thinking. This year, the camp served 100 young people ages 11-14 from New York's Washington Heights and Central and East Harlem communities. The final performance celebrated 15 years of the partnership between the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and The Children's Aid Society (CAS). AileyCamps also operate in Boston, Chicago, and Kansas City, as well as Bridgeport, Connecticut and Berkeley/Oakland, California.


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