Children's Voice July/August 2007

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Easing Immigrant Families' Fears

Children and Family Services (CFS) staff in Contra Costa County, California, realized they had a problem on their hands when, during the 2005-2006 school year, rumors began circulating among immigrant parents at a local public elementary school that CFS was taking children away without warning.

The rumors started among the Latino immigrant community following a handful of cases where students at Cambridge Elementary School in Concord, California, were placed in foster care following separate child abuse investigations. Parents believed that bowls of candy in the principal's office during the holidays, and the school's distribution of free bikes to needy students, were props to lure their children away from them.

To make matters worse, the teachers felt parents were blaming them for the removal or investigation of their children. Teachers complained about being asked to interpret for child welfare staff, law enforcement asking them to identify students who may need to be assessed for child abuse, and police not providing adequate explanations to parents after children were removed from homes.

CFS staff were viewed as "baby-snatchers," said CFS Division Manager Steve Peavler, "only slightly more popular than immigration officials."

A San Francisco Bay bedroom community, Concord has experienced an influx of immigrants from all over the world. Two decades ago, whites comprised 86% of Concord's population, and Latinos made up only 7%. Today, approximately 61% of Concord's 121,789 residents are white, while Latinos account for almost 22%.

Cambridge Elementary's 2004-2005 student population was 87% Latino, 4% white, 3% African American, 3% Pacific Islander, and 3% other ethnicities. About 90% qualified for free or reduced lunches, and 73% were English learners. To debunk the myths about CFS and address parents' fears, CFS, school staff, and local law enforcement and immigrant agencies, including Concord's League of Latin American Citizens, organized a community forum that drew more than 250 adults and 400 children.

Collaborating and Cross Training

Leading up to the community forum, school staff recommended CFS and local police officers make a presentation to 20 Cambridge PTA parents. The meeting, held primarily in Spanish, answered questions about CFS procedures for removal of children. After the PTA meeting, CFS sought advice from its community partners about how to deal with the issues raised at the meeting and develop a proactive strategy to improve relationships.

Cross training between parents, school staff, police officers, and CFS also took place. CFS made presentations about child abuse reporting and investigation procedures to the Catholic Deanery, representing the Catholic churches in the region, and to the Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization, a federation of 25 religious congregations and five youth and parent groups. A Cambridge teacher translated the California child abuse reporting law into Spanish and explained a teacher's legal obligation to report suspected child abuse to a PTA meeting attended predominately by immigrant parents.

A workgroup met weekly for three months leading up to the community forum. "The planning process for this forum was parent- and resident-driven, which is why it worked so well," Peavler said.

Meeting Face-to-Face

The forum, held in Spanish, took place in April 2006. Three immigrant mothers representing the PTA, and an immigrant youth representing the student body, served as masters of ceremony and explained the forum's goals. Child care services and food were provided. Aztec dancers opened the program, and the school's hula class demonstrated Polynesian dances. Information about community services for families was distributed and posted.

A short video, filmed in Spanish at one of the social worker's homes using CFS staff as actors, illustrated a child abuse scenario. Following the video, CFS social workers explained how calls are screened and described the juvenile dependency court process. An attorney explained due process, parent's rights, and how judges make final decisions.

During a question-and-answer session, an audience member claimed social workers were inhumane and parents needed a second chance. Two parent moderators defended CFS and stressed the role of social workers to provide services to keep families together. "The lessons I learned from my work [during] the forum," Peavler said, "is the importance of being flexible, meeting the community on their home turf, allowing them to speak in their own language, and allowing leadership to move from agency and staff to community and parents."

Since the forum, CFS has worked with an attorney at the Immigration Legal Resource Center in San Francisco to review its protocol for undocumented children in foster care applying for immigration relief options, and has developed a training-of-trainer curriculum for staff working with immigrant families. Two CFS social workers are serving as liaisons for a local community partnership working with local government, community-based agencies, and businesses to create social and economic opportunities for immigrant residents.

--Yali Lincroft

Steve Peavler passed away in February 2007. This article was written with Peavler before his death and is dedicated to his memory.

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