Children's Voice Jan/Feb 2007

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Agency Briefs

Exhibit Showcases Resiliency of Abused Children and How to Help

Every now and then, a horrendous case of child abuse hits the headlines and briefly raises public attention around the issue. The case of 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown is one such example, recalls Mel Schneiderman, Director of the Vincent J. Fontana Center for Child Protection in New York City.

School administrators reported suspected abuse of Nixzmary, but help didn't come soon enough. The starved and beaten 36-pound girl died of a blow to the head, inflicted by her mother's boyfriend in her Brooklyn home, in January 2006.

The Fontana Center is on a mission to keep the issue of child abuse in the spotlight and prevent cases like Nixzmary's from happening again with a new permanent exhibit on child abuse and protection. The center began offering public tours of the exhibit in October to parent-teacher groups, religious institutions, and other groups to educate the public about child maltreatment and what they can do to protect children.

"We thought it would be innovative and effective to sensitize the public to the issue of child abuse," Schneiderman says.

The interactive exhibit provides answers to frequently asked questions about child maltreatment. Guests select different topics from a monitor to receive a lesson on particular aspects of child abuse. The exhibit also features information on the stages abused children go through during the healing process. Visitors can view a short film about the necessity of child protection centers and study a timeline on the evolution of child protection services created by John E.B. Myers, a professor at the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, and author of A History of Child Protection in America.

The center is working with marketing experts to draw people to the exhibit. "We know people don't want to see things that are distressing," Schneiderman says, "so we want the exhibit to be engaging and stimulating, not depressing." The exhibit specifically showcases the resiliency of abused children and how one can help.

The center collaborated with New York's Museum of Modern Art to create what Schneiderman calls "the highlight of the exhibit." About 70 children who suffered from abuse in the New York area submitted artwork and described what the art meant to them. "I think that's more poignant than the artwork itself," Schneiderman says.

In addition to the exhibit, the Fontana Center--established by New York Foundling in 1999 and named for its long-time medical director--holds public forums that bring in experts to inform parents how to protect their children from potential everyday dangers, such as Internet predators and bullies at school. The Foundling's conference center is also used to train thousands of child welfare professionals a year.

--Stephanie Robichaux, Children's Voice Contributing Editor

Counseling Parents About Permanency Options

One of the most challenging aspects for child welfare workers working with families facing an unplanned pregnancy or struggling with the care of a newborn baby can be setting aside personal convictions and helping clients make choices that are right for them and their families.

Whether a worker's perspective springs from cultural expectations, personal beliefs and values, or simply a habituated family-preservation practice model, it's easy to make and share assumptions that, ultimately, can have a profound effect on many lives.

In 2003, New York City's Administration for Children's Services and Spence-Chapin Services, a private adoption agency, partnered to establish the Collaboration for Permanency to train child welfare workers to provide Options Counseling. In its simplest form, Options Counseling means asking parents directly: "How do you feel about your pregnancy?" and "How do you feel about parenting this child?" The approach encourages families to explore and express their feelings and thoughts concerning their ability and desire to parent. It also requires workers to discard their assumptions, set aside their personal values, and explore all options with expectant families.

Every woman or couple facing critical decisions in the aftermath of an unplanned pregnancy needs counseling about all available options, including parenting, pregnancy termination, kinship adoption, and voluntary adoption through the private sector. When families do not have the opportunity to consider all of their permanency possibilities, they may be steered toward parenting inadvertently, which may not have been their choice had they been fully informed of all options. The consequences can be devastating to children and their families.

"Often, professionals whose work is geared toward keeping families together do not fully explore options with pregnant women," says Susan Watson, Director of Birth Parent Services at Spence-Chapin. "But leaving out possible options does not empower families and gives workers' assumptions too much authority."

Watson remembers, "The collaboration initially began when Spence-Chapin offered trainings to help clarify the ways voluntary adoption differs from the involuntary adoption most commonly seen in the public sector. Many professionals were unaware that birthfamilies can choose the adoptive family for their baby and that they can have an open adoption and maintain contact with their child. But when we began to describe our agency's practice of voluntary adoption, they were just as interested in learning more about our approach to comprehensive options counseling."

The training curriculum developed through the collaboration, Permanency Planning for Babies: A Counseling Model for Early Planning, is founded on the belief that babies require the earliest permanency possible in order to form secure attachments to stable care providers. Foster care placements disrupt vital parent-child bonds, and unnecessary foster care placements can be prevented for those families who would choose an alternative to parenting if they knew they had that option. For families who choose to parent, the training can help make a stable parenting plan, perhaps addressing challenges that might otherwise eventually lead to a foster care placement.

The training also specifically discusses the option of voluntary adoption. According to a study by Edmund Mech at the University of Illinois, 40% of self-identified pregnancy counselors in health, family planning, and social service agencies who were serving adolescents and who participated in the study were not discussing voluntary adoption with their pregnant clients. Of those who did present the adoption option, 40% provided inaccurate or incomplete information.

When identifying options, the worker is trained to ensure that any myths or misunderstandings about an option are uncovered and clarified so the decision is based on facts. Some of these misunderstandings can include the belief that abortion will prevent mothers from having future pregnancies, that parenting is limited to baby care, that adoption means handing the baby to a stranger and never seeing him or her again, or that kinship adoption means coparenting.

Workers' own biases are left out of the dialogue while families' personal values and beliefs are thoroughly explored. According to one birthmother at Spence-Chapin, "You can't say you've explored all your options without entertaining all your options."

According to Spence-Chapin Executive Director Kathy Legg, "It feels like a natural fit to think of Options Counseling as concurrent planning that begins during pregnancy or shortly after birth."

The Collaboration for Permanency has received support from the Kenworthy-Swift Foundation, the New York Community Trust, the New York State Office of Child and Family Services, and the Pinkerton Foundation.

Contributed by Heidi Arthur LMSW, Program Manager, Collaboration for Permanency, and Selina Higgins LCSW-R, Director, Family Engagement Programs and Initiatives for New York City's Division of Child Protection. For more information about the collaboration, call Heidi Arthur at 212/360-0239.

Does Your Agency Have a Unique Program?

Has your agency or organization developed or adopted an effective, innovative program for children and youth? We'd like to hear about it. E-mail, or write us at Children's Voice, CWLA, 2345 Crystal Drive, Suite 250, Arlington VA 22202.

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