Protecting kids and supporting families more effectively with holistic engagement

By Melissa Aase, Chief Executive Officer, University Settlement

It’s said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions – and that insight comes to mind when I think about foster care systems, which all too often inflict trauma on the children and families they seek to protect.

Many are familiar with the term “family separation” in the context of immigration, but it’s no less applicable to the way supposedly protective systems have long hurt families in our communities.

Protecting children and families is challenging work – kids do sometimes need to live safely away from their families, and our systems bear responsibility for their safety – but it’s clear that punitive approaches like family separation cause psychological and material harm to children.

A 2016 study in Pediatrics found that children who have been removed from their families and placed in foster care are seven times as likely to experience depression, and three times as likely to have attention deficit disorder, compared to children who have not.

Every year, 1,100 children age of out foster care in New York City; without robust support networks, few are well positioned for financial independence or success in higher education, and within two years more than 15% such young people are living in shelters or incarcerated.

And because systemic racism shapes interventions in our society, these harms are inequitably distributed – nationally, by the age of 18, 53% of Black children will have been investigated as potential victims of child abuse, compared to 37% of children overall. In 2019, Black children were 23% of all those in foster care in the United States, although only 14% of the people under 18 were Black.

If you’re like me, these numbers make you heartsick and furious. Each is an indictment of a failed approach. Families belong together, and family separation takes place far too often – it’s true at the border, and in Brooklyn and on the Lower East Side. And it’s what animates University Settlement’s Prevention Program, which just celebrated its first year of operation. Our newest program aims to keep children in their homes and out of the system, partnering with up to 96 families in East New York as they do the always challenging work of parenting under the severe resource constraints of poverty and seek to make progress towards their goals.

It’s funded by a grant from New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, which administrates our foster care system. We thought long and hard about whether to work with them in this way; we decided to do so because ACS’s priorities have evolved in a way that’s consistent with our values. The Prevention Program reflects new and more holistic thinking about how best to protect children and support families, through strengths-based engagement. It also acknowledges that foster care systems involvement is usually driven by structural factors including poverty and systemic racism, and that the system often “works” in a way that makes taking good care of children even more challenging for parents struggling to make ends meet.

Through this framework, our teams are well positioned to engage families who are going through really challenging life events and begin building the trust, security, financial power, and community support that all parents need.

Princess McPherson, who leads this project for us, shared an emotional illustration of what this approach can mean for a family:

If we are successful, the families we work with begin meeting the goals they set for themselves when they first met with us. When this clicks, it can be very powerful.

One mother – I’ll call her Cathy – was referred to us for child neglect.

When we met with her and began to get to know her family and understand their situation, we learned Cathy is a very caring mom who is super passionate about her children, but that she was also totally overwhelmed and didn’t have the support or the resources to monitor her children in the way she wanted to.

Our caseworkers began combing through Cathy’s relationships to identify possible sources of support, and it became clear that she’d benefit from expanding her sense of what “support” could look like, so she could look past her immediate family to find solutions.

Cathy is very religious, and we talked to her about engaging members of her church to support her and motivate her so she could stay focused on her goals.

Once she had some of those natural supports in place, she then, unprompted, identified a community resource where she could enroll her children that would support their development and wellbeing.

When we first started working with Cathy, she was doing the best she could with what she had, and she felt tired, and helpless, and judged.

And it’s been amazing to see her make such progress, to the point where she’s reaching out to her network, trusting people to support her, and taking the lead in looking for new solutions. She is now advocating for herself and her children, and it’s such a breakthrough.

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