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A Real-World Application

The Family to Family Initiative, also known as Family Centered Neighborhood-Based (FCNB) practice, developed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, integrates many of the concepts and processes previously discussed and showcases an important variation of the stakeholder mapping process. The FCNB strategy is, in part, a response to growing numbers of children going into out-of-home care without concomitant increases in the numbers of traditional foster homes. In addition to serious overcrowding within available foster homes, more and more children are inappropriately placed in institutional and other very expensive congregate facilities. From this perspective, the initiative was prompted by an operating capacity deficit: insufficient foster homes. Following from the initial value of working with children and families in their neighborhoods and building neighborhood capacity to care for and about each other, however, nearly a decade of experience has subsequently lead to far deeper insights into the needs of children and families and into the structure and dynamics of neighborhoods.

Family Centered Neighborhood-Based practice has evolved into a complex, highly effective approach to working with children and their families within the indigenous context of their neighborhoods. It is based on the principle that the first and greatest investment in time and resources should be made in the care and treatment of children in their homes, and when that is not possible, in their neighborhoods. Thus, the focus of opportunity and support for most children and families, the primary responsibility for assuring their safety and vitality should remain within their neighborhoods. In support of this outcome, the underpinning values of the FCNB approach are:

·       Children have a right to grow up in a family.

·       Children have a right to be nurtured and protected in a stable family environment.

·       When children are at risk of harm, the community (government) has the responsibility to intervene.

·       Families are the community’s most important resource (for children) and therefore must be respected, valued, and encouraged to build upon their existing strengths.

·       The community must support families in raising and caring for their children.

·       The racial, cultural, and ethnic heritage of families and the neighborhoods where they live must be supported and seen as assets.

·       The best place for children is:

·       In their own home, when possible and appropriate, with services and resources from the neighborhood and clinical supports

·       With their relatives who reside locally, if home is not possible or appropriate, so that the children and parents can visit frequently. (Appropriate kinship services and supports need to be made available to the relatives providing the care.)

·       In a family foster home in the child’s neighborhood so he can continue in same/familiar school, church, and recreation. (Again, visitation with parents can be more frequent if this is the case.)

·       In a foster family home close to the neighborhood with the same services, supports, and resources in place

By fully integrating these values into practice, specific target outcomes follow in relation to the original issue: an operating capacity deficit, i.e., insufficient foster homes.

·       Reducing the number of children served in institutional and congregate facilities

·       Shifting resources from institutional and congregate care to foster care and family centered services across all child and family serving systems

·       Decreasing lengths of stay in out-of-home care

·       Increasing numbers of planned reunifications of children with their parents

·       Decreasing numbers of unplanned re-entries into out-of-home care

·       Decreasing numbers of placement disruptions

·       Decreasing numbers of children served in out-of-home settings away from their families

Among the more effective strategies used to implement the FCNB approach in neighborhoods are:

·       Improving screening and assessments of children being considered for removal from home to increase safety for the child and to determine what services might be provided to preserve the family

·       Targeting neighborhoods from which the majority of children in out-of-home care come and investing resources in those neighborhoods

·       Involving foster parents as team members in family reunification efforts

·       Targeting children in institutional and congregate care with the explicit goal of returning them to and re-uniting them with their neighborhoods

No, the FCNB approach is neither simple nor easy but it is doable within the community served by any public child protection agency. As a prerequisite to success, though, the agency must have access to up-to-date, accurate data concerning all children in its foster care system or placed by the agency in other out-of-home settings. At a minimum, this data needs to be sortable:

·       By zip code, showing where the children were living at the time they entered out-of-home care

·       By zip code, showing where the children are placed in out-of-home care

Most agencies that have this data quickly see that a majority of their children in out-of-home care come from a relatively few zip codes within their service area. When the placement locations are mapped, it becomes obvious that these children are mostly placed significant distances from the neighborhoods where they were living at the time of initial removal. This distance dynamic reduces both the frequency and quality of contacts between the children and their families. This single factor, in turn, significantly reduces the likelihood of successful reunification. Assuredly, regular visitation helps, but it does not fully mitigate the negative effects of the child’s separation from family, friends, school, and the neighborhood. The trauma of long-distance separation is very difficult to mend, even if the separation is only to the other side of the city or county. If it is to another county or another state, it may soon be irreparable.

For purposes of illustration, assume that the zip code sort for your agency shows that eighty percent of the children in foster care come from four zip codes (neighborhoods) in your service area and that ninety-five percent of these children are placed outside of their neighborhoods. (This would be fairly typical for public agencies.) Furthermore, assume that these four neighborhoods are viewed by agency staff as barren of the services traditionally accessed for children and families served by your agency. These traditional services are located either downtown or in the suburbs, a significant distance from the neighborhood.

From the perspective of the neighborhood, the agency frequently removes children from the neighborhood and is slow to reunify them with their families after removal.

“If they come, they will probably take your children and you may never get them back; but if you do, they will put you through hell and it will take a very long time.”

There is little, if any, agency investment of resources in the neighborhood to address the children’s needs or to support families in crisis. There is little, if any, meaningful dialogue between the agency and the neighborhood’s leaders. Because of these and other institutionalized dynamics, there is deep-seated bitterness and hostility within the neighborhood toward the broader community, toward government, and specifically toward the agency and its staff.

From the perspective of the agency, staff may well perceive the neighborhood to be void of any resources which can be used to increase the safety of children. They may believe that the neighborhood has no citizens who are concerned about their children and about family vulnerability. There may be a strong sense that they are doing children a favor by placing them outside of the neighborhood.

These same staff members may strongly dislike being in the neighborhood and avoid, at all cost, being assigned to work exclusively in the neighborhood. They offer convenience and personal safety as the true reasons for their preferences. However, the issues are often much more ingrained in personal values, beliefs, and attitudes, not only toward the neighborhood but also toward the children and the families who live there.

How does one bridge such a perception, culture, and attitude gap? Surely, to do so requires adaptation by both the agency and the neighborhood. For such a bridge to be constructed, though, the initiative must come from the agency. There must be a firm commitment from the agency’s leadership and especially from its executive,, to build the bridge. The motivation may come from a desire to do the right thing and to better serve children and families but may also be much more practical. Changing the manner in which the agency conducts business may reduce to simple economic necessity. If children are being removed from neighborhoods and not being returned, placement rolls increase and the resulting expenditures for children in out-of-home care grow proportionately. A new manner of doing business is not optional; it must be found.

The adaptive leader must have a clear vision of where he is going, must focus on the mission of increasing child safety and permanence through partnerships. The concept of partnerships must be expanded beyond the traditional agencies and stakeholders to include the neighborhoods, not an easy task since a relationship of little to no trust and respect exists. The neighborhoods have been alienated for a long time and are not likely to get past it quickly or easily.

Building the bridge starts internally with identifying key staff who can and will help champion the initiative. Next, the formal and informal leaders in the neighborhood must be identified. Beyond these first steps, you then need to carefully attend to the groundwork within the broader authorizing environment. Refer to the large stakeholder map you developed earlier. Who on that map has a vested interest in knowing that the way your agency does business will be changing and the reasons why? Further, who on that map has the ability to directly or indirectly influence (positively or negatively) the FCNB outcomes? These are the people on whom you need to focus and whose support you must have to proceed. Be sure to consider each group across the top of the stakeholder map as well as each primary outcome down the left side of the chart. Adopting the FCNB approach and philosophy is a huge change and no key stakeholder can be ignored or overlooked if you are to garner the level of sustained authorization required to be successful.

When preparing for your work with stakeholders, this strategy will be helpful. Make an FCNB planning chart that is somewhat like your large stakeholder map. Down the left, write the primary outcomes, e.g., protection, permanence, well-being, long term success, prevention, financial responsibility, and public accountability. Starting with the second column, write the six primary FCNB values across the top of your chart. For this purpose, they can be abbreviated as: Child’s right to family, Child’s right to nurturing and protection, Government’s responsibility to intervene, Family is Child’s most important resource, Community must support families, and Neighborhoods are assets. Now draw the vertical and horizontal lines to construct the boxes in the chart. The first box in the top left represents “Protection” and “Child’s right to family.” How does growing up in a family increase protection? The answer is, perhaps, “When children live with loving, attentive parents, they are better supervised and their individual needs and interests are more fully considered than in other settings, thus better assuring that they are kept from harm’s way.” Proceed then with developing a statement or power message for each box in the chart. Along with being a very difficult task, this process will assure that you and others have carefully thought through the “Why?” and “How?” of committing to the FCNB approach. These are the messages you will use when interacting with stakeholders in relation to the FCNB initiative. (This process results in forty-two power messages. Once you have the full set of messages, first prioritize them from the most to least powerful. Having done that, select from among the messages the two or three that will be most persuasive for each stakeholder you have identified in relation to the initiative.)

As you initiate the process, be sure that the agency has and maintains the operational capacity to make such a large scale change. To shape the value and acquire the necessary authorization to pursue such a change and then fall short because of operational capacity would be disastrous. The agency’s reputation may well be tarnished not only within its broad authorizing environment but probably irreparably in the neighborhood as well. There is much risk as well as great opportunity at stake.

Your next step is to develop an issue-driven stakeholder map. This must include both the individuals external to the agency as well as internal agency staff because each may well be resistant to this change and each is crucial to contributing to the transformation which must occur.

This step directly confronts the issue of neighborhood leadership. Do not be surprised if the common wisdom is that there is no indigenous neighborhood leadership. Common wisdom or not, there is recognized leadership in every neighborhood and your FCNB initiative will not succeed without it. Simply assume that there are yet unidentified key stakeholders in the neighborhood.

An agency in North Carolina had an interesting experience when identifying neighborhood leadership and you may want to use some variation of their approach. First, they drew a map of what they thought was the neighborhood. Using that map, they went door-to-door, explaining their initiative and asking two questions. (1) After showing the person the map, they asked if they had drawn the neighborhood correctly. (2) They then asked who in the neighborhood would need to be consulted, if the initiative were to be successful.

The first question yielded the surprising finding that they had drawn the neighborhood wrongly. They had actually included parts of two neighborhoods. For the initiative to succeed, they needed to expand the area to fully include both neighborhoods and then approach them separately.

The second question yielded a list of people, some from each of the two neighborhoods. A few people from each neighborhood were perceived as critical participants by their neighbors. These individuals then became identified as key stakeholders in the project’s success. In one of the neighborhoods, the most influential and active stakeholder turned out to be the mother of a shopkeeper who was himself seen as having little to no influence. In the other neighborhood, the most influential stakeholder turned out to be a gang leader. He said, “I won’t put up with anyone hurting kids.” He was not active with the initiative but made it clear that no one was to “mess with” agency workers when they came into the neighborhood so long as they did not “mess with” gang business.

Ask these questions:

·       Who are the key actors?

·       Where do they stand in valuing this change?

·       Do they have authorizing power to promote or scuttle the initiative?

·       Can they contribute to the operational capacity to make this change work?

Plot the neighborhood and other key stakeholders on your map and where each stands in relationship to these questions. Now develop the strategies which you will use to start this ball rolling. The compilation of these strategies becomes your preliminary plan. Strategies may include:

·       Build the foundation of your internal team. Explain the concept, values, and principles of FCNB and connect this approach to the importance of the agency’s mission: safe children and stable families. Share the removal and placement data and the financial picture. Ask this core of people to help you identify the community leaders, formal and informal, you will need to approach.

·       Build your authorizing environment. Meet with those key people and groups. Share the same data you did with your internal team. Build the value which will, in turn gain the support of the political, community, and neighborhood leaders for this effort.

·       Identify a lead stakeholder in the neighborhood. Present the information to that person. Be prepared for doubt and anger. In most cases, it is understandable and justified. Cultivate and earn the trust of this person and others. Ask them to accompany you when you meet with other formal and informal leaders in the neighborhood. This strategy cannot be over emphasized. In many agencies that have embraced this philosophy of practice, the neighborhood participants reported that a primary reason for their willingness to listen and become engaged with the initiative was because the agency representative was accompanied by a trusted member of the community who said it was OK to do so.

·       Provide orientation and training to your staff at all levels. Share the data you have developed. Never characterize this change as a pilot because people outside the pilot site can rationalize that this change will never affect them. Characterize the shift as the way the agency will be conducting its business “instead of” the old way it has conducted its business.

·       Monitor supervisory and direct service staff’s adaptation to the change. Some will progress faster than others. Some will not progress at all. There will be casualties in this transition as some staff will choose to do business the old way and not adapt. Those people will need to be moved to other positions or counseled out of the employment of the agency. Identify the champions and use them to influence and lead others to change. There is plenty of room for leadership in this change effort. Share it.

·       Create a Good News Board that is updated weekly, sharing with all staff key data, information, and successes.

·       Post the agency’s mission and the values of the FCNB approach throughout the agency as a daily reminder of why this work is being done and why this change is being undertaken.

·       Meet with the formal and informal leaders of the neighborhood. This may be done individually, in groups, or both. Ask your “neighborhood liaison” with whom you have earned trust to accompany you on these visits.

·       Perception is reality and the neighborhood’s reality is probably something of the nature, “here comes another bureaucrat from the county who will promise the world and deliver nothing.” Be clear that you are not here to build their neighborhood. That neighborhood was there long before you were and will be there long after you leave. You are there to partner with the neighborhood to create better outcomes for its children.

·       Share the system’s transformation and strategic planning with the neighborhood.

·       Conduct environmental scans to involve the entire neighborhood in identifying the strengths and barriers to developing a solid working relationship and to pro-actively responding to the neighborhood’s specific needs and issues. Combine this step with jointly identifying how the neighborhood and agency will share the work and responsibility to create better outcomes for children. This might include:

·       Neighborhood partners taking the lead on foster home recruitment.

·       Neighborhood representatives actively participating in family case conferences and semi-annual reviews.

·       The agency deploying staff and resources to the neighborhood and using neighborhood facilities for services and activities.

·       Always follow through on your commitments and be very clear on what you cannot delegate. For instance, you cannot delegate ultimate decision making authority for child removal and reunification. However, you can demonstrate, on an everyday basis, your commitment to sharing that decision-making as much as possible. Your long-term track record of doing this well builds your credibility as a partner and your commitment to partnership with the neighborhood.

·       The influence of race, culture, and power in the implementation of the FCNB approach to service delivery must be acknowledged and addressed in the planning and implementation effort. The discrepancy between the race of those in charge and the race of children in care is an issue with internal and external stakeholders. Internal staff resistance to neighborhood-based work exposes middle class bias and a lack of cultural competence in many agencies. Given the depth of feeling associated with these issues and their complexity, it is perhaps no surprise that race, culture, and power will influence most discussion about family-centered neighborhood-based work. Working through these issues depends on the agency’s willingness to respect culture, engage in open discussion about culture related issues, and to learn.

·       Foster parents must be trained and fully oriented to the FCNB approach. They are key to its success and need to be on the team that makes decisions about reunification and other permanence issues. After all they spend twenty-four hours a day with the child. Who besides the child’s birth parents know the youngster better?

 Foster parents also need to be used as mentors, teachers, and supports to birth parents. They can facilitate visits and provide valuable knowledge and skills on parenting. Some existing foster parents may not choose to engage in this shift. Perhaps these families can be used to provide care for children in permanent custody or where visitation will not occur for whatever the reason. Newly recruited foster parents, however, should be trained and expected to serve this role as a member of the team as well as mentoring the parents of the children for whom they temporarily provide care. The agency is giving up some of its “power” by engaging the foster parents as valued members of the team. It is easier for a caseworker to make the decision in a vacuum. However, outcomes for children will likely be better if all who know the child participate in the decisions affecting the child.

·       Successes should be shared with the media. It is an important part of the authorizing environment and must be exposed to this effort. Consider inviting them to a family case conference, semi-annual review, or other event, so they can learn about what the partnership is doing. The media’s positive support for this initiative can influence elected officials’ and other stakeholders’ perception of the change.

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