On September 19, 2018, Jerry Milner, D.S.W., Associate Commissioner at the Children's Bureau and the Acting Commissioner for ACF, and David P. Kelly, Special Assistant at the Children's Bureau, traveled from Washington, D.C. to meet with four LSNJ clients who told of their experiences with the child welfare system. This New Jersey Family Forum focused on ways to change federal and state practices to reduce unnecessary child removals in abuse and neglect cases, and ways to improve the lives of affected families. It is further evidence of the new approach that this new administration has taken following the landmark federal legislation, the Family First Prevention Services Act. The Act was passed in February 2018 and marked the beginning of an overhaul of the child welfare system in the United States.
The parents in attendance were invited to share their stories and suggestions for improving the child welfare system. Each parent recounted the terrible experience of being separated from their children by the Department of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP) and the obstacles they faced before being reunited with them.
Iesha told of being incarcerated for five days when DCPP took her children into custody. She had been in an abusive relationship that led to legal trouble. Although jailed for only five days, it took four years to get her children back. Iesha completed domestic violence counseling, obtained a restraining order, and, at DCPP's insistence, gave up her apartment to go to a domestic violence shelter. Once there, however, they determined that they could not return her children to her there because it was not considered "stable housing," while refusing to provide any housing assistance.
When ACF's Milner asked, "What could DCPP have done better?" Iesha said she needed guidance from others like her who had gone through the system. Her caseworker had a social work degree but Iesha felt she lacked the empathy and life experience to help. Iesha felt the caseworker judged her incarceration without understanding or sympathizing with the domestic violence that led to her incarceration. The caseworker required Iesha to apply for welfare assistance and did not understand Iesha's refusal to do so. Nor did she help Iesha get the education she sought. It was only through her own efforts and determination that Iesha acquired her EMT certification and went on to become a hyperbaric oxygen technician.
Xiomara shared horrific experiences of kidnapping and sexual abuse she endured in her home country of Honduras and during her journey to the United States. Later, when living in New Jersey, she sought help from social services and experienced additional trauma when her children were taken into DCPP custody. Xiomara was told her children would be returned to her in three days. In fact, it took a year to get them back. DCPP's investigation was completed in English with an interpreter who could not adequately explain to Xiomara what she needed to know. She was told there were no Spanish-language services and her children were placed in non-Spanish-speaking foster homes where they could not communicate with their foster families to even let them know they were hungry."I was not a bad woman. I only needed help."
Supajee was incarcerated when her three-month-old baby was taken into DCPP custody. She was in a violent relationship with a gang member and felt her first DCPP caseworker was unsympathetic to her situation. The caseworker assumed that Supajee must be a drug user when, in fact, she was not. She was caught up in a relationship with a dangerous person. Fortunately, her second DCPP caseworker connected Supajee with domestic violence counseling and supported her as she worked to earn her high school diploma. With perseverance, Supajee graduated from dental school, obtained a driver's license, and got her first car. A turning point for Supajee was meeting her child's foster family. When her son was taken into DCPP custody, Supajee says she was angry and could not trust anyone. She was unable to sleep, worrying about her child. The first ray of hope came when she received a note from the foster family saying that her son was in good hands. A photo was enclosed. Once she met the foster family, Supajee was finally able to sleep. The family stepped outside normal DCPP protocols to meet Supajee, who felt they saw her as a human being and were "on her side." She became close to the foster family and maintains a relationship with them to this day.
The mothers who participated in this meeting with the ACF all voiced the need for better community resources for parents, especially housing, to prevent removal and expedite reunifications. In addition, there is a dire need for culturally competent guidance from those who have gone through the welfare system.
After hearing our clients' stories, Commissioner Milner said the right approach to child welfare is to prevent DCPP removal in the first place whenever possible. Kelly said the federal Administration for Children and Families aims to create a child welfare system that keeps families together instead of tearing them apart. While prevention of child abuse and neglect has always been a goal, the efforts have not received appropriate priority. The current aim is to deliver support and services to families in a non-stigmatic community-centered manner. ACF is calling on all child welfare systems to focus on the overall well-being of children, not physical safety alone, and to recognize the importance of social, emotional, and psychological wellness. The agency's position is that parental well-being is directly related to child well-being and that it is critical to invest in families. Milner and Kelly said foster families must be envisioned and expected to serve as "support" for families, not "replacements or substitutes for parents," and that they are working to make fostering with the intent to strengthen families the norm in the United States.
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