As Washington shifts to a child-welfare system that focuses on preventing abuse and neglect before they happen, a new program promises to safely reunite more families that have been separated.
The Family Connections Program will enlist the help of experienced foster caregivers to mentor parents whose children have been removed by the state. State Rep. Lisa Callan, D-Issaquah, sponsored the legislation, which was signed into law last month.
By Sept. 1, the Department of Children, Youth and Families must contract with external partners to support two structured mentorship programs, one on either side of the Cascades. The programs will encourage foster-parent mentors and birthparents to develop relationships through regular discussions and ongoing support. The mentoring is intended to help birthparents develop the tools, confidence and persistence to address the health and safety issues that led to the state intervening in their family life. Advocates say the approach will help safely return more foster children to their birthparents — the ideal outcome for children, families and communities.
A similar pilot program that began in 2005 showed remarkable results. Ninety-seven parents with a combined 157 children participated in that pilot, learning parenting and life skills from supportive, experienced foster parents. Of the children, 85% were safely returned to their families, compared with 44% in a comparison group, according to an independent review. Children whose parents were mentored stayed an average of 224 fewer days in foster care.
Birthparents in that pilot showed a greater understanding of their children’s needs, the review concluded. Foster mentors were more satisfied in their ability to make a difference and more likely to stay engaged with the system. Social workers reported greater enthusiasm for their work — important in a workforce so susceptible to burnout and high turnover.
Importantly, mentoring shows children that parents, foster parents and child-protection workers are all aligned in their best interest, said Mike Canfield, longtime foster parent and executive director of Foster Parent Allies of Washington State.
Experienced foster parents know that kids do better when they are able to maintain contact with their birth family, when it’s possible, Canfield said. The organization has long advocated for mentoring arrangements for parents whose children are in state care.
Constructive relationships between a child’s birth parent and their temporary foster parent give children a sense of continuity, even when parental rights must ultimately be terminated, said foster parent and mentor Tracy Freckleton. It eases their feelings of loss and grief.
As always, utmost care must be taken to ensure children’s safety. Lawmakers were wise to begin small. But if the new pilots prove as successful as the previous endeavor, DCYF should work swiftly to make this resource available to families across the state.