On Wednesday, April 3, 2019, the Texas Alliance for Child and Family Services held its spring quarterly symposium in Austin, TX. This symposium focused on family engagement and included a sneak peak of the Texas Permanency Outcomes Project (TXPOP).
TXPOP is a project led by the partnership of the Texas Institute for Child & Family Wellbeing and the Texas Center for Child and Family Studies, in collaboration with the the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, the Children’s Commission, and the federal Children’s Bureau.
TXPOP is a five-year, federally funded project that will develop sustainable best practices to aid child welfare agencies across Texas as they make a critical shift to serving birth families. The goal of TXPOP is to improve permanency outcomes for children by connecting children to their birth families and the other people important to them. “We want to use this project to create the tools that private providers need in order to help them engage with birth families and support foster families as they interface with birth families,” explained Monica Faulkner, Ph.D., LMSW, Director of the Texas Institute for Child & Family Wellbeing (TXICFW).
The day began with a moderated panel of several professionals, including Chrystal Smith, co-founder of Foster Village Austin; Sadie Funk, CEO of First3Years; Tym Belseth, TXICFW research coordinator and foster alum; as well as both birth and foster parents who shared their personal experiences with the system.
The room was silent as each panelist began unfolding the histories of their families, and the ways in which the child welfare system has had reverberating effects on their lives. A consistent topic that came from every panelist was the need to create a better working relationship between all adults involved in a child’s life to enhance the child’s sense of belonging.
“We must place our focus on preventative versus punitive measures. Currently, there’s lots of miscommunications about why foster parents are needed. We also need to dismantle the narrative of birth parents being the bad guys. This is about coming alongside families that are in crisis, and maybe have the opportunity to restore families…Ultimately, we’re shooting for a perspective shift. There must be a willingness to get messy and lean on each other,” said Chrystal Smith.
Monique Gonzalez, a birth mother of six whose children were previously in the foster system, shared many stirring thoughts on how to include birth parents in the decision-making process while children are in foster care: “If we work together and actively listen—parents, case workers, CASA, kids—that’s a perfect world. We can know what each one of us expect from each other.”
Gonzalez and the other panelists all touched upon a very important child welfare issue: how do we as a system go about building on our strengths and breaking down barriers that get in the way of better outcomes for children and families? During the second half of the forum, the TXPOP team hosted focus groups with participants in order to try to answer this key question.
The symposium attendees provided critical information for the project about ways Texas can improve its performance on federal Child and Family Service Review permanency outcomes. Seventy-one stakeholders participated in 10 focus groups. Each focus group represented the diverse range of child welfare professionals and/or individuals impacted by the system in attendance and was guided by a facilitator to address a theme in three questions. Throughout all of the groups, there were several consistent themes that rang true by the end of the day. One of the most prevalent themes across responses was the importance of giving children a voice in the decision-making process. From increasing permanency and stability in children’s living situations to maintaining family connections and continuing the relationship with birth parents, children should be at the center of the decisions made and included in all planning.
Another prevalent theme across responses was the benefit of open communication between foster and birth parents. Ideally, foster parents should be recruited with the expectation for engagement with birth families and forming partnerships that ultimately benefit the children in their care. Moving beyond tokenistic involvement of birth families to real collaboration that gives voice to both mothers and fathers, honors the experience and culture of these families, leverages their strengths and expertise, and gives them power in planning and decision-making are all critical components to better outcomes.
“We believe that all children can and should have multiple permanent connections to their networks of support. This project is a thrilling opportunity to dive into the potential of how our organizations can improve the child welfare sphere for all involved,” said Jesse Booher, VP for Policy and Innovation at the Texas Alliance for Child and Family Services.