Rising Ground to Expand the Role of Foster Parents in Supporting Both the Child and Family to Speed Up Reconciliation

Parents and kids having fun in living room

Rising Ground, a leading human services provider in New York City, is piloting a new practice in which parents and foster parents will co-parent a child while the child is in foster care, announced Alan Mucatel, CEO of Rising Ground, today. He noted that similar programs in other states have shown that shared parenting reduces stress for children in foster care, speeds family reunification, and enhances the family’s ability to stay together after a child returns.

“Our goal is to make co-parenting the standard practice for every family supported by our Family Foster Care program,” he said. Incorporating co-parenting in our services will change how Rising Ground has traditionally worked with foster parents, who can now play an even greater role in helping a family. We are looking to transform the role of foster parent so that they contribute to more successful reunification with the child’s family.” Mucatel pointed out that foster parents will receive additional training and be treated as partners in supporting families. 

There are several reasons why providers should be encouraged to make greater use of foster parents in family foster care. First, parents can more easily relate to their child’s foster parent than to a child welfare worker. Second, as co-parents, the child’s family and foster parents interact with each other several times a week or even daily—far more frequently than parents meet with child welfare professionals.

“For children, a co-parenting approach means that their parents continue to be closely involved in their day-to-day world,” Mucatel explained. In conventional foster care, parental contact is all too often limited. In a co-parenting practice, parents are encouraged to communicate frequently by telephone and FaceTime®-like apps. Parents can read bedtime stories to their children; foster parents can call mom with questions about the child. Furthermore, the child is less likely to feel a divided loyalty between the child’s parents and foster parent.” 

Establishing a co-operative relationship 

At present, the co-parenting pilot is in a six-month planning phase, during which time Rising Ground will develop a detailed protocol and hire a co-parenting facilitator—a clinician with marriage and family counseling experience—to guide the parent and foster parent’s relationship. The idea is to bring the parent and foster parent together within days of a child’s placement in the foster home. At that point, parents may still be angry that their child was removed from the home. 

“Co-parenting may not come naturally, and it will take time to develop trust, but the investment in building a close relationship between parents and foster parents will pay dividends for years to come,” explains Amiee Abusch, Vice President of Family Foster Care and Adoption at Rising Ground. “The bond between child and parent will remain strong. The parent will develop parenting skills and confidence.” 

The two-year pilot program is funded by a $200,000 grant from the Redlich Horwitz Foundation, whose mission is to improve the child welfare system in New York. Sarah Chiles, executive director, noted that: “We’re thrilled that Rising Ground is prioritizing a culture of shared parenting and collaboration between the family of origin and the foster parent. We are really hopeful that this will demonstrate a successful approach to expediting family reunification for the rest of the state.” 

Chiles continued “We have to change the system so that parents can remain highly engaged in the parenting of their children, and so that they can benefit from the relationship forged with the foster parent. All of us as parents can learn from other parents.” 

About Rising Ground

Rising Ground, which changed its name last year from Leake & Watts to more accurately reflect its full scope of services, is a leading nonprofit human services organization, currently operating more than 55 programs at more than 50 different sites across all New York City boroughs and Westchester County, and employing a workforce of 1,800 people. Daily, it provides children, adults, and families with the resources and skills needed to rise above adversity and positively direct their lives. It has won the prestigious New York Community Trust Nonprofit Excellence Award. 

Founded as an orphanage in 1831, Rising Ground has been at the forefront of supporting evolving community needs and has become a leader in utilizing result-driven, evidence-based practices. Today, the organization’s work is a positive force in the lives of more than 25,000 individuals. For more information, visit RisingGround.org. 

Building Families: Social Workers in Foster Care

Sponsored by Campbellsville University

According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, there were approximately 443,000 children in foster care in 2017 with more than one-quarter of those children waiting to be adopted.

Unfortunately, the foster care system needs help, according to Anne Adcock, program director and assistant professor of social work at Campbellsville University. Some people get into fostering for the wrong reasons, thinking that they’ll be able to live off the money they receive.

Fortunately, social workers in foster care can help. According to the National Association of Social Work (NASW), social workers play a critical role in child welfare systems, and studies point to social workers’ education linking to better outcomes for children and families. “The foster care system is not perfect, but social workers are there to make it as good as it can be,” Adcock said. How does that happen in roles like the foster care social worker? In an interview, Adcock shared details on job responsibilities and the impact that social workers in foster care have.

How Foster Care Social Workers Help Children and Families

Social workers in foster care are often employed by private agencies that have contracts with the state, Adcock explained. The agencies have a number of foster care families who are considered when it’s time to place children into homes.

Foster care agencies employ social workers who work as therapists for children and those who work as case managers. Case managers, who are also known as foster care social workers, take care of responsibilities like assessing families for suitability, placing children and monitoring children. Regular contact is often made with the family about two to four times a month.

There are two crucial tasks that encompass how foster care social workers help children and families. “Mainly, the social worker’s role in the foster care system is to make the connections between the family and the kids,” Adcock said. “And then to monitor those relationships to make sure the child is getting what they need and the foster parents are managing that situation well.”

Making Connections

Building connections with foster care children and potential families is vital for creating a successful placement. Social workers in foster care must take care in choosing the right home for kids in foster care.

Once children are removed from their homes by Child Protective Services, according to Adcock, they receive a social worker either through the state or the state will contract out with an agency to provide a social worker. The social worker will begin the process of finding a more permanent foster home.

In some cases, children have greater needs, such as those with disabilities or behavior problems. In that case, foster care social workers will start searching for what’s known as therapeutic foster homes. Those homes and parents can accept children who need special attention. If that scenario unfolds, social workers will need to work on connecting children with the right therapeutic home. There’s a lot of linking required to find the right environment for those children.

Monitoring Relationships

Once a placement is made, foster care social workers will monitor the relationship. Regular contact is kept with at least two visits a month must be in person, at the home, and the remaining visits can be by phone.

If help is needed, social workers can step in and respond accordingly. “As a crisis comes up on the part of either the parent or the child, they go and take care of those things,” Adcock said. From crisis prevention and response to providing other types of support, there are a number of ways foster care social workers monitor cases.

  • Emotional Support: Foster care children need emotional and behavioral support. “Most of the time these kids also have a therapist,” Adcock said. “The case manager and the therapist kind of work as a team. So, if there are things that the case manager sees that need to be discussed in therapy, they can communicate that to the therapist.” The foster care social worker can also talk with children in general about their concerns and fears, or anything else on their mind. Another way social workers in foster care provide emotional support is by accompanying children at family court. That enables children to receive some help navigating the court system.
  • Financial Support: If children have extra needs that go beyond the monthly stipend parents receive for food, clothing and basic necessities, social workers will ensure they receive what they need.
  • Mediation and Crisis Intervention: Some situations can be difficult to deal with. “A lot of these kids have trauma in their past,” Adcock said. “They have abuse in their past. It’s not uncommon for a foster child to have significant behavior problems . . . Sometimes they will run away from the foster care home. I know I had a former student that was in a foster care agency, and the kid just took off.” The social worker in that case was out with the police helping look for the child. In other instances, such as when foster parents have proven to be inadequate, the social worker may need to correct the situation or remove the child from the foster home.
  • Respite Care: Parents can request respite care for circumstances when they cannot care for foster children. For example, if a parent has surgery or an out-of-town family reunion, there are respite homes social workers can locate to take children for a few days.

The Rewarding Nature of Working in Foster Care

There are some tough times for social workers in foster care, but that’s not always the case. “Overall, it’s rewarding, because they get connected to the kids and the kids rely on them,” Adcock said. “Sometimes they’re the only one that the kid trusts, and that’s a good thing.”

There are times that demonstrate why foster care social workers dedicate their lives to helping children and families. “If everything goes well, they’re (reunited) with their original family,” Adcock said. “The best times, I think, for a lot of my former students . . .  is when an adoption goes through. When the foster care family is the right fit, everybody’s happy, and it moves forward to adoption . . . I think those are the best days.”

Optional pull quote: “When the foster care family is the right fit, everybody’s happy, and it moves forward to adoption . . . I think those are the best days.”

Another great part of social work is that there’s always room to move up. Foster care social workers, or case managers, can earn their master’s degree and become a therapist. That enables them to have some variety while staying in the foster care specialty.

Career Information for Foster Care Social Workers

Salary and Job Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), social workers earn a median annual wage of $47,980 per year. Starting salaries will be less when starting out, according to Adcock, but there is plenty of growth in this area. “Especially if someone with their BSW moves forward and gets their MSW,” she added. “That’s where the most significant growth in earnings would come. Typically, there’s a $10,000 to $15,000 salary difference right off the bat, depending on where you are.”

Employment for all social workers is projected to grow 16 percent by 2026, according to the BLS. That figure is more than double the average percentage increase for all occupations, which is 7 percent. According to Adcock, there is a special need for social workers in foster care. Private foster care agencies are always hiring, given the demand that has resulted from states contracting their work to those agencies. “And then a lot of foster care agencies are expanding their services and starting to provide alcohol and drug addiction treatment services for juveniles,” Adcock said.

Educational Requirements

The BLS noted that social workers need a bachelor’s degree. Providing counseling services as a clinical social worker requires a master’s degree in social work.

An online bachelor’s degree in social work can allow you to become a foster care social worker. You’ll develop an understanding of the basics of social work while gaining, hands-on, practical experience in the field. There’s also a course, “Foster Care & Adoption,” that covers the foster care specialty.

Campbellsville University’s program lets you study in a convenient, flexible environment. Gain the skills and knowledge needed to become a social worker at an institution that was ranked the 4th most affordable among Christian colleges in the United States. The program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.

The Case of ‘Mary’: Further Reflections on Child Protection in Ireland

On 29th March 2017, the publication of yet another report was released examining the operation of our child protection and wider safeguarding structures in Ireland. The Case Review for Mary involved a child left in a foster care placement where the foster father had prior allegations of sexual abuse. Despite other children being removed from the home, Mary was left under his care for almost two years even though the allegations had been deemed credible by TULSA within months of the original report in 2014.

The review was undertaken by an independent reviewer, Dr Cathleen Callanan, a former Child Care Manager within the HSE, and was assisted by two senior staff nominees from the HSE and Tusla. The purpose of the review was to (i) establish the facts of the case, (ii) consider, in particular, the issues of safeguarding and risk assessment in respect of the case, (iii) set out findings in this case with regard to risk, safeguarding and best practice and (iv) identify specific and general issues to inform any necessary learning, having regard to best practice in managing risk and interagency engagement.

The Review, is defined at the outset of the report as:

“A review jointly commissioned by the HSE and Tusla into the circumstances whereby a vulnerable young adult (“Mary”) with an intellectual disability, in receipt of services from both agencies, continued to reside with a former foster family following a report being received of a retrospective allegation of abuse, which did not relate to residents in the foster home.”

The Report was commissioned in May 2016 and completed in July 2016 and the Reviewer should be commended on this timeframe. However, in respect of the delay in publication, the reviewer notes that:

“…the commissioners (Tusla and HSE) made submissions to the independent reviewer, in the period between October 2016 and January 2017. These (separate) submissions were concerned with addressing matters of factual accuracy and seeking clarity around some of the findings of the report. In particular, the Tusla submission was concerned with what it perceived to be an imbalance in the review, insofar as it did not adequately acknowledge attempts made by Tusla to refer the case to the HSE, and focused attention on the activity of Tusla in the case, without giving due regard to the responsibility of the HSE Disability Services. The reviewer responded to the submissions and this document constitutes the final report.”

Report Analysis

The reviewer ultimately notes in respect of the report’s limitations that “The reviewer is not aware of the circumstances that allowed for the lapse of time until the final submission of the report.”

Whatever the reasons for delay the Government discussed the report during a cabinet meeting with some strong, but unfortunately, all too familiar recommendations; namely, interagency cooperation and record keeping.

As a child ‘Mary’ had been placed, by Tusla, in foster care with ‘Mr & Mrs. A’. Due to the level of her intellectual disability, it was agreed that Mary would remain in this setting after turning 18, which she did only a few months prior to the allegation being made. The allegation at the centre of the concern was that “In January 2014 (by which time Mary was an adult), information was received anonymously by the social work department of Tusla in Mary’s locality, alleging that Mr. A had, around fifteen years previously, sexually abused two young teenage girls within his extended family.”

This information was classed as a ‘Retrospective Disclosure’, in other words, a referral made by an adult relating to abuse which they experienced as a child. Retrospective referrals and inefficiencies in respect of their assessment by Tusla formed the basis of the recent controversy surrounding the allegations against Sgt. Maurice McCabe and Tusla’s handling of same.

Unfortunately, we see some inefficiencies in respect of these referrals again here in this case; from the Chronology in the Review:

“an anonymous allegation was received by Tusla on January 10th in the locality where Mary was living. This information was not passed on by the duty team to Team Leader1 for a further five weeks; it came to the attention of Team Leader1 because there was another child in that placement who had an allocated social worker. There was no suggestion that this or any other child in the placement had been harmed and the allegation did not concern any child who had lived in this home. At interview Team Leader1 acknowledged that given the level of demand on the service, the delay was regrettable but understandable.”

Despite the delay in assessing this matter it must be, and is in the review, noted that Tusla acted appropriately in respect of the children in the foster home:

“Two team leaders, one from Tusla child protection and one from Tusla foster care services, were nominated to conduct an enquiry into these allegations. They found the allegations credible and acknowledged in their subsequent report that Mr. A had denied the allegations, and had been supported by his wife in doing so.”

The children were removed from the home and the foster carers were removed from the register of foster carers later that year. However, ‘Mary’ remained in the home despite this ‘credible’ risk being determined and the removal of children being deemed necessary.

This also highlights the fact that a credible referral of sexual abuse lay unassessed on a retrospective wait-list for five weeks before action being taken. I have argued previously, and continue to do so, that it is time to treat retrospective allegations like all other referrals to social work departments and seek to discharge our ‘proactive duty’ to care for and protect children and vulnerable adults alike.

“On foot of the information passed on to her in February [2014], Team Leader1, having sought legal advice, agreed on the need to inform Mr. A that such information was now on record.” Again, this is a delay that we don’t consistently encounter with ‘so-called’ current child protection concerns. Social Workers, rightly, use their authority under Section 3 of the Child Care Act 1991 to ensure safety and protection, they contact parents, they call out to houses if no response or as follow-up to phone calls and they, in a relatively short space of time, put the concerns to the alleged offender. This doesn’t happen with retrospective disclosures and in all my years of researching this issue I have yet to receive an adequate answer as to why not! Other than staffing and resources there is no legitimate reason why retrospective referrals of abuse should be treated any differently than those deemed to be current concerns.

While the Review highlights that there should have been a clear written referral from Tusla to the HSE Disability Service regarding the potential risk posed by Mr. A to ‘Mary’ the receipt of this information in any form at any level should trigger an appropriate response. If the protection of children and vulnerable adults is to be everybody’s business, then the sharing of soft information or conducting of ‘informal’ conversations between professionals regarding risk need to have consequences and effect an appropriate response.

And this is where the main body of the Review places its focus; inter-agency communication and response between Tusla and the HSE Disability Services. The Review does state that Tusla attempted on a number of occasions in 2014 to have the relevant voluntary services assess risk in respect of Mary given Tusla’s own lack of legal remit in respect of those over the age of 18. Despite this, Tusla still had an ongoing input into Mary’s life in terms of provision of Aftercare services and the extent of a legal duty of care attached to provision of these services needs to be fully examined following this the publication of this review. In fact, it was the input of a specific Tusla Aftercare staff member that triggered an internal review of the matter within Tusla in 2015:

“…The file of Manager1 (with oversight of aftercare) states that in January 2015 the Aftercare Coordinator alerted him to the situation whereby a vulnerable adult continued to reside in a placement with foster carers whose names had been removed from the panel of foster carers, from whom other children had been removed. The file of Manager1 indicates that he then sought and received a copy of the original assessment of the allegations completed by Team Leader1 and Team Leader2 in 2014.”

Initially, prior to the allegation at least, “the placement was considered by the Tusla social work department and the foster care department to be a successful one.” “There were other children also in foster care with Mr. and Mrs. A and they were considered to be receiving a high level of care.” There appears to have been confusion between the agencies whereby the HSE Disability Services state they were informed by Tusla that there was no risk to Mary, following the allegation, while at the same time Tusla were continuing to request the HSE to carry out a risk assessment.

While both agencies are committed to the roll-out of a new joint protocol that will seek to clarify roles and routes of communication, ultimately, the arbitrary age cutoff of 18 and the stark lines of demarcation between services need to be examined and, where appropriate, dismantled in the best interests of service users whether they be child or adult.

In lieu of such proactive developments the Review does states that “In the area where these events took place, an Aftercare Steering Committee has been established by Tusla “to fulfil the requirements of planning, implementing and monitoring a comprehensive, integrative Aftercare Programme for each young person leaving care” (internal Tusla document, 2016). This committee is multi-agency in nature with representatives as follows:

  • Disability Services: HSE
  • Non-Government Organisations
  • Education/Training e.g. SOLAS
  • Residential Service: Tusla
  • Fostering Service: Tusla
  • Children in Care Team: Tusla
  • Primary Care: HSE
  • Department of Social Protection (Community Welfare Office)
  • Housing
  • Tenancy sustainment provider

This seems like an excellent multi-agency initiative if a reactionary development can be classed as ‘initiative’, but why is it only established in the area where this incident took place? Bolting horses come to mind!

Findings of the Callanan Review:

While the review itself details the extent of confusion and contact between the relevant agencies the findings are ultimately that:

  1. Promotion of a shared awareness of intersecting policies and procedures for interagency working including the HSE Safeguarding Policy and the Tusla Aftercare Policy will facilitate a mutual understanding of roles, responsibilities and referral pathways, which would assist the management of complex cases
  2. Formal arrangements to include meetings to address complex cases pertaining to people with disabilities with multi-agency involvement would facilitate improved management or shared management of specific cases
  3. Requirements with regard to record keeping standards are an identified deficit requiring attention. Clear guidance needs to be provided to staff in relation to good record keeping practices.

We have unfortunately seen all these recommendations before and with the Government set to introduce Mandatory Reporting by the end of the year it is critical that all agencies who work with children or vulnerable adults begin sharing soft and hard information and begin to establish pathways for referral, feedback and review as necessary.

Recommendations

One mechanism which would enable this process is a coordinated integrated child protection computer database system. Unfortunately, due to arrive far beyond the implementation of Mandatory reporting, “NCCIS is being rolled out on a phased basis and is expected to be fully operational by the end of next year”, according to TULSA’s press release. However, this should arguably be linked with adult safeguarding services in the HSE and An Garda Síochána to ensure a comprehensive response to abuse and neglect and facilitate the possibility of proactive, preventative actions or the raising of red flags.

The Review poses one final question where it states that “In conclusion, the question emerges as to what would have been a proportionate response to the acceptance of the allegations in 2014.”The fact remains that retrospective disclosures of abuse remain within the remit of Tusla. These disclosures, being made by adults, will always contain the potential for further risk to adults, deemed vulnerable or otherwise. The intersection between services and responsibilities needs to be clarified as posed by this Review.

Furthermore, the legislative structures surrounding the safeguarding of vulnerable adults, those with intellectual disabilities and the powers and duties placed upon Tusla to assess risk in terms of adult referral needs to be examined in detail. I originally felt that a review of Section 3 of the Child Care Act 1991 was necessary and we are told by Minister Zappone that this is underway. I fear we may have moved beyond this territory now and that the suitable recourse is for the Law Reform Commission to examine the entire legislative structures surrounding the protection and safeguarding of vulnerable adults and children in Ireland.

Rightly or wrongly, we again find social care and social work professionals in positions where a lack of clarity in law and policy places them under deeper scrutiny where ultimately wider systemic failures are at fault. In lieu of a staged, coordinated re-location of care, Mary was ultimately removed to a residential unit as an emergency measure 21 months after the initial, credible, allegations of sexual abuse and it is with ‘Mary’ that our thoughts should be.

Foster Care and Online Technology: Are you Keeping your Child Safe?

As a foster and adoptive parent myself, I recognize the importance of technology in the lives of children.  Indeed, technology is everywhere, and for our children today, it is a large part of their lives. Yet, social network sites, such as Facebook, have opened up a whole new world for those involved in the foster care system. Foster children, foster parents, birth parents, and social workers have all felt the impact of this powerful technological communication tool. Social Networking allows foster children to stay connected to friends and family members from all over. For these children in need, it can very much be a benefit as they stay in touch with birth parents and biological family members.

socialmedia_menThese sites open up a new way to communicate with birth parents and other biological family members. Facebook and other networking sites allow foster children and birth parents to remain in day to day contact as it allows the foster child the opportunity to continue in a relationship that is important to him. This may help in allowing the child to cope with the separation from his family.

However, social networking can present challenges for children in fostercare. Some caseworkers may prefer that contact with birth parents be limited. Yet, with social networking, this can be most difficult and almost impossible for foster parents to monitor. More and more birth parents are contacting their children through social networking sites, and many times against the wishes of both foster parents and caseworkers. Birth parents are able to openly communicate with their child unsupervised, which can lead to false accusations as well as false promises.

Indeed, social networking is a whole new world for all involved in foster care; a world that can be both wonderful and dangerous at the same time. “There is the chat component of Facebook,” one caseworker noted, “where a child and their parent could essentially have a conversation that no one would be able to monitor unless they were sitting right next to the child, which is a grave concern.” Case managers would have to be familiar with the birth parent’s Facebook page before the foster child was to even access it. Along with this, there are many reports of foster parents being bullied and stalked by the birth parents through social networking.

Another caseworker suggested that, “I am personally aware of inappropriate things that parents post on their Facebook pages that would not be appropriate for their children to view. Not only might there be inappropriate information and comments on there, there also might be inappropriate photos and other harmful content that the children do not need to be exposed to, not just from the birth parents, but from the internet, in general.”

Indeed, social networking is a whole new world for all involved in foster care, and its a world that can be both wonderful and dangerous at the same time. Much more information and research is needed before the social network explosion engulfs foster care.

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