Children's Voice Nov/Dec 2007

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Deciding Children's Futures as a Team

One of the goals for the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA) is to use a total team approach to help kids in foster care. They found the means for achieving that goal through "team decision-making" (TDM), one of four core strategies of the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Family to Family initiative.

HHSA rolled out the TDM approach in six different regions countywide as a pilot program last year. More than 1,200 TDM sessions have taken place since January 2006 to address children's placement needs, resulting in higher numbers of children being able to remain home safely, with increased placement stability.

"Team decision-making is a great thing," says Barbara George, a foster parent who has participated in two TDM meetings. "We can ask questions we wouldn't have the opportunity to ask in court. Every foster parent with a child having problems should get involved in it."

The Family to Family model provides states and communities with opportunities and tools to redesign their child welfare systems so more children can remain safely with their own families or a family-like connection. TDM is one of the integral strategies to the initiative. Under the TDM approach, all decisions about a child--removal, change of placement, reunification or other permanency plan, and so on--are made in TDM meetings that include the foster parents and caseworkers, as well as the birth family and community members.

The TDM meeting is held before a child's move, or by the next working day in cases of imminent risk, and always before initial court hearings for removal cases. An internal facilitator, who is neither a frontline social worker nor a line supervisor, oversees the TDM meetings.

San Diego County first tested the TDM concept as a pilot for the most challenging children's placement decisions. Its goal is to apply TDM to all placement decisions, involving the approximately 6,500 children who are part of the child welfare system.

As of April 2007, 647 change of placement TDM meetings had taken place since July 2006, 448 placements were on track to be maintained, and 204 were expected to be moved to a less restrictive level of care.

Participants of HHSA's TDM meetings say they now have a greater understanding about what each member of the system is trying to do to help children.

"I have more appreciation for the mandates [child welfare services] has to follow," says Debbie Comstock, Program Director of Little House Family Services in El Cajon, California, an HHSA community partner.

Another positive outcome is that social workers who have been trained as TDM facilitators say the model provides the chance to do hands-on social work and change some of the more frustrating aspects of foster care.

"The children talk over and over again about being moved from home to home," says Jennifer Fightlin, Senior Protective Social Worker. "With everyone in the room, we can see all the strengths and concerns. I feel strongly that TDM will help prevent multiple placements."

According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, more than 80 sites in 17 states are implementing TDM. To learn more, visit tinyurl.com/2jswsp.

Alabama Youth in Care Land Spots in the Statehouse

The Alabama Foster and Adoptive Parent Association (AFAPA) came up with a unique idea for bringing National Foster Care Month to the attention of local legislators last May--let foster youth work among them on the statehouse floor.

With the blessing of Alabama Speaker of the House Seth Hammett, AFAPA partnered with Alabama's Department of Human Resources (DHR) to send 18 youth, ages 14-19, from local group homes to work for three days in the Alabama Legislative Page Program. DHR provided social workers to accompany the children to Montgomery, and paid for their lodging and necessary business attire.

"I wanted to bring awareness to our foster children," says Linda Williams, Past President and current Legislative Chair of AFAPA, who came up with the idea. "In government and anywhere else, they see numbers and dollars; they never see the faces of our kids."

For three days during the first week of May, the youth became temporary employees of the legislature, assisting members of the House and Senate by performing errands on the floor of the House and during committee meetings, including obtaining copies of bills, resolutions, amendments, substitutes, and other official documents, and delivering messages to and from members. At the end of the week, the legislators collected tips for the youth, garnering $142 for each teen.

"They were just tickled to be there," Williams said of the youth. "They networked with a lot of the legislators that we would have never got to, ever."

Another positive outcome was Hammett's declaration to make the first week of May foster care week each year in the statehouse, with the intention of bringing more foster youth to serve as pages in the future. "The foster care youth were the best behaved and [most] eager pages we've had in a long time," Hammett says. "We could see their enthusiasm and eagerness to learn how their legislature works. Many of them found new friends among the House members and our staff."

Hammett noted the pages had their pictures taken at the end of the week, and several of the foster youth said it was the first time they could remember anyone taking their picture.

Williams says she hopes other state legislatures will adopt similar programs. "It didn't cost a lot of money, and it's not that hard to do."

In addition to the foster youth page program this year, AFAPA arranged for a shoe collection in May that brought in 16,000 pairs of shoes, each representing a child in foster care, that were displayed outside the statehouse in Montgomery.

AFAPA has a history of advocacy within the state, including collaborating with VOICES for Alabama's Children to draft a Foster Parents' Bill of Rights; after four years of grassroots work, it was signed into law in 2004. In 2005, the National Foster Parent Association named AFAPA the State Foster Parent Association of the Year; this year the North American Council on Adoptable Children named it Parent Support Group of the Year.


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