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Collaborative Problem-Solving Equals Wide-Sweeping Change in Vermont Child Welfare

Cayden entered foster care at age five. He can still remember the chronic feelings of loss he experienced each time he was moved.

"I can't remember how many foster homes I lived in, but I can tell you that it was a lot. My whole life could be flipped upside down in a matter of seconds and I could move to a new home with no warning. I would have to begin my life all over again with a new family. I lost people I cared about. I lost friends. I lost possessions. And I lost self-esteem with each move."

Chronic feelings of loss are all too common for kids in foster care. And the longer they spend in temporary foster care settings, the greater the negative impact on their development and future potential.

In 2000, there were 93 children in Vermont foster care who were legally freed for adoption with little hope of finding permanent families. These were the longest-waiting children in foster care. Most were destined to leave the system at age 18, without a legal parent or place to call home. Many had experienced numerous foster care placements. All faced challenges ahead.

Prompted by this situation, Vermont Adoption Chief Diane Dexter and Lund Family Center Adoption Director Wanda Audette began talking. Dexter had a long list of children who needed permanent families, and Audette had a long list of prospective adoptive families. These two pragmatic individuals teamed up to do what made sense for the children.

As Audette and Dexter further explored the issues, they identified some key points:

  • Lund was getting more and more calls from prospective adoptive families looking to adopt older children;
  • Most had no idea there were children in Vermont foster care waiting to be adopted; and
  • Vermont did not have a statewide program in place to effectively match prospective adoptive families with the waiting children.

In 2000, the Vermont Department for Children and Families (DCF), a CWLA member, partnered with the Lund Family Center to secure a federal grant and collaboratively address these areas. What emerged was a long-standing, public-private partnership between DCF and Lund to find families for older children in foster care. Audette and Dexter serve as the co-directors of this initiative, called Project Family.

Project Family combines the unique strengths of two institutions that share a common mission: to protect children and strengthen families. Lund brought its reputation for excellent work supporting adoptive families; its openness to all family configurations regardless of age, marital status, or sexual orientation; and its passion for building families through adoption. DCF brought its expertise in working with children who have experienced abuse and neglect, its strong track record assisting children and families from all backgrounds, and its passion for securing permanence for all children in state care. The partners engaged local market research and design professionals to identify prospective adoptive parents, create a strong brand, and develop a comprehensive recruitment campaign.

Project Family embodies the co-directors' shared mantra: "There are no unadoptable children, just unfound families." On October 12, 2011, Wanda Audette and Diane Dexter were among 18 people nationwide awarded with a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Adoption Excellence Award for their work.

In its first three years, Project Family found adoptive families for all but one of the children on the original caseload. Since then, the project has expanded and evolved as needed. For example, a growing body of research indicates the strength of keeping the family intact whenever possible and placing children with relatives when they cannot return home. Project Family workers devote increasing time to helping relatives become adoptive parents or guardians for children in care.

Project Family stands out among other recruitment programs for several reasons:

  1. Project Family invests significant resources to quickly addressing a child's past trauma and achieving a successful match, increasing the time children have to heal and grow in a stable family structure. This practice avoids the high cost and detrimental impact to children of years spent in the foster care system.
  2. Each match is based on the needs of the individual child and the prospective family. Older children drive the process by sharing with staff what they want in a family and where they have felt the strongest connections with caring adults.
  3. Vermont has a strong sense of community participation and involvement. Project Family achieved full participation, communication, and buy-in from multiple partners.
  4. State legislation is friendly to same-sex couples. This facilitates the recruitment of a wide range of family structures for kids in foster care and expands the pool of qualified adoptive parents.
  5. Vermont is small enough to test an idea, measure change, and replicate successful initiatives.

More than ten years later, positive change is evident. Since 2000, Project Family has:

  • Found adoptive homes for more than 330 older youths who, due to their age and specific circumstances, would previously have been deemed "unadoptable";
  • Reduced the time between entry into the child welfare system and exit into a permanent home, from four years to under 24 months;
  • Reduced the time it takes for a child in foster care whose parents' rights have been terminated to become adopted, from 26 months to between four and six months;
  • Significantly reduced the number of foster care placements a child experiences; and
  • Increased the resources, care, and thoughtfulness in understanding needs and expectations of potential adoptive parents and children in foster care and, thereby, increased the permanency rates for children in foster care.

And for children like Cayden, Audette and Dexter never stop looking for a place for them to call home. Cayden was finally adopted at age 12.

"I now had a permanent family to celebrate holidays and birthdays with. I had a family that I could love and who loved me for me. I had my own room with my own things and I knew that at the end of the day, I would come back to this very room every single night to go to sleep. I knew where home was always going to be. That felt great to know that I would never have to leave or say good-bye again."

The State of Vermont, in partnership with business and community organizations, continues work to improve the child welfare system through increased collaboration and communication around the needs of individual children like Cayden. Over the past 13 years, this tiny state has proven that change is possible and that child welfare improvements happen when partners collaborate, communicate, and respond to the needs of individual children.

Kitty Bartlett is the Director of Annual Giving at St. Michael's College in Colchester, Vermont. She served as annual giving coordinator for the Lund Family Center from 2008 to 2012.

Neighbor to Family, Keeping Siblings Together

Imagine being ripped from the familiarity of your surroundings, from the side of a brother or sister, and placed alone in a foreign environment. It is a scary prospect, yet an estimated 40% of siblings become separated when placed in foster care. Neighbor to Family (NTF), a foster care provider specializing in sibling group placement, stands committed to reversing this trend. A CWLA member based in Florida, NTF believes that keeping siblings together while entering foster care leads to successful social and emotional adjustment. Sibling groups face challenges as a unit, making them more comfortable and confident in their new home. More so, with their children in one home, birth parents avoid the challenge of trying to piece their family back together.

NTF has innovatively professionalized the role of foster care parents, requiring extensive training while offering competitive salary and benefits. Selected foster parents come from the communities in need, which means that three out of every four children find foster homes within their home county. The organization revolves around the collaborative efforts--and accountability--of birth parents and foster parents, a formula that has produced inspirational results.

NTF evaluates the needs of each sibling group individually in order to navigate the unique complexities of their situation. Under NTF's guidance, 73.5% of children find permanent placement within the first 18 months of their stay, compared to 32.6% of children in traditional foster care. A larger percentage of children reunite with birth parents or are adopted by relatives, and less than one-third remain in custody for more than 18 months. NTF has managed to significantly ease the transition into the foster home, all on a budget below that of the national average.

With offices scattered along the east coast, NTF currently serves more than 550 children. Remarkably, nearly all children enter a NTF foster home with at least one of their siblings, and approximately half enter with all of them. Founder and current CEO Gordon Johnson explains that NTF's success stems from the leadership and commitment of staff and foster parents, and the support given to birth parents.

Conceived in 1994, Johnson tailored NTF to solve the toughest issues he encountered while overseeing the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. After nearly a decade of service, Johnson parted from the state agency to become president of Jane Adams Hull House Association in Chicago. While there, he began implementing strategies that would later become the crux of NTF, including placing sibling groups together in one foster home; holding birth parents accountable for the development of their children; professionalizing the role of foster parents; and making sure all parties are committed to find permanency for the sibling group.

The advanced qualification of NTF foster parents is the organization's key characteristic; it offers professional skills and services, not simply adult supervision. Foster parents must complete 50 hours of training, equipping them with the necessary knowledge to meet the individual needs of each sibling group. Sessions include tutorials on everything from medication to issues stemming from addiction, even basic CPR. Foster caregivers must understand the dynamics within each family and the hurdles they face. "We are preparing them for whatever comes into their home," Johnson says. NTF rejects the idea of a one-size-fits-all approach to foster parenting. Instead, broad training produces professional caregivers who are more able to provide for children with special needs.

But their job does not stop with the children. Foster parents also mentor birth parents, an essential task in increasing the likelihood of family reunification. The goal: to return children in better shape to parents who are in better shape, all through a collaborative effort. Helping the entire family, not simply siblings, reduces children's chances of reentering foster care. NTF makes countless support services available to birth parents, who must meet with foster parents to discuss the progression of their children. Having siblings placed together in one home reduces the stress on birth parents, eliminating the hassle of multiple appointments that may interfere with work schedules and increase financial strain. If parents cannot physically attend a meeting, Skype is used.

NTF encourages birth parents to participate in the day-to-day activities of the foster home to learn how to better care for their children. In some cases this includes eating dinner together, planning picnics, and even spending the night. As a result, the siblings' home extends into the foster home, creating an inviting bridge out of foster care. Once reunited, the family receives six months of aftercare services and community resources, ensuring they receive all the support needed. To further ease the transition, children receive a Lifebook, a compilation of photos of their foster parents to take with them. But even after this stage dialogue continues between foster caregivers and birth parents in case the latter needs advise.

NTF stands on the belief that all aspects of child welfare services must be a team effort. Caregivers support children and parents, and NTF supports caregivers. Keeping the fidelity of this formula remains essential to both NTF's mission and its results. "Be more sensitive to the licensing of foster parents and more willing to change the current process. Not only recruiting but also requiring foster care parents to be more equipped and trained for the kind of children coming in," Johnson suggests. Not simply keeping siblings together but making sure they leave in a better place, together.

NTF has a staff retention rate of 85%, an unsurprising figure considering they have a waiting list of potential foster parents; only two of every ten applicants are accepted. As previously mentioned, NTF manages to offer incentives while operating on a modest budget. The savings largely come from the limited time children spend with foster caregivers before reunification (seven months compared to the average 20 months.)

The disruption of the family home is difficult for any child to endure, especially when separated from siblings in the process. Keeping siblings together significantly eases the transition into foster care, a mantra by which Neighbor to Family has operated for nearly two decades. By professionalizing the role of the foster parent and maintaining discourse with birth parents, NTF continuously meets the special needs of their children, one sibling group at a time.

Fanna Gebre is a freelance researcher who has contributed to, CWLA, and National Geographic magazine. She is currently a master's degree candidate in art history at American University.

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