This one’s for you: foster parents, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs), and others who care about and for abused and neglected kids. As is often the case, it was prompted by a tweet about advocating for children and youth in foster care. Generally I write about ‘big picture’ issues–advocating for the child welfare system as a whole. But in a flashback moment, I’m going to re-live my days of directing a support program, back when I was a CASA volunteer and foster parent, in my spare time. One of my activities then, was to provide workshops for families on advocating for the children in their care.
Sadly, people filling these roles are often left out of the conversation, whether it is big picture discussions or focusing on an individual child/family in the child welfare system. Of all the people whose input is critical, persons in the roles of foster care provider or CASA volunteer, and other persons involved in a foster child’s life, have the most to contribute to the conversation. They are the ones who live with the results, and consequences of decisions made in child welfare.
Generally, this would be a presentation lasting, at minimum, two hours. Usually workshops lasted four to eight hours, with a few related topics included. I’ve attempted to condense the information as much as possible. Workshop topics often overlapped with or included advocacy in educational systems so I will say upfront, many suggestions that follow can apply to Individual Education Plans (IEPs), Individual Family Service Plans (IFSPs), or other planning meetings in education.
1) Be prepared. Just like the scouts say, be prepared. Many of the items that follow will fall under the general topic of being prepared.
Often people have spent a great deal of time and energy on the emotions of the issue but not so much on other aspects. In order to be an effective advocate on someone else’s turf, you need to prepare to play on their field. Know the rules, who will make final decisions, who will attend meetings, what you can expect to happen.
2) Do your homework. Whatever the issue is, be prepared to speak intelligently not just about your observations and experiences, but about other relevant information. For instance, if you want to see a newborn placed with their siblings, dig up some research on outcomes, policies in your state/jurisdiction, practices in this area. With access to literally trillions of websites, a person can generally find information and resources on almost any topic. In this example the National Resource Center on Permanency and Family Connections has numerous articles on the topic of siblings in foster and adoptive care. In the age of Google, you can find almost anything.
3) Use available resources. If research isn’t your ‘thing’, use the professional resources in your community. The state or national foster parent association, advocacy organizations, libraries, service providers, CASA staff, universities and community colleges, all can be valuable resources. Call or visit them if you need assistance with information on a specific topic. If you want suggestions on where to start, consider asking at a local support group. (By the way, I strongly recommend involvement in support groups or programs. A support network is most effective when built prior to the need for support. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been at this, at some point everyone needs help. If you don’t feel that this will be effective for you, think of it as a way to give back to others by sharing your experiences; good karma, if you will.)
4) Find allies. Talk with the child’s therapist or guardian ad litem or attorney. If they can’t sign on to your cause, consider talking with others involved in the case to determine if they might support your efforts. I would include a caution here, always be cognizant of the potential for damaging relationships with a case worker, a placement agency or other essential entity. Consider whether winning the game is more important than taking home the championship. Maybe it is; maybe not. (I’m not a sports enthusiast but occasionally I have heard such analogies can be effective.)
5) Don’t fly solo. If possible, take someone along to attend meetings, conferences, or other decision-making events. (This applies to important conversations as well.) Because of confidentiality, you may be limited in who can attend a meeting. In many cases, that may mean your spouse is the most likely option. Other possibilities include a representative from the state foster parent association, a person from CASA, an attorney involved in the case, or a therapist. Of course, you’ll want to make sure you know where they stand on the issue at hand before inviting them. And you’ll want to make sure their attendance is allowed beforehand. Out of courtesy, it is best to advise other persons attending that another person(s) will be accompanying you.
The role of this person(s) will depend on the situation. It may be that they attend to serve as an extra set of ears. Especially if it is an emotionally charged issue, another person can be invaluable to hear what you may miss. They may be an active participant, joining in the discussion if they are well-informed of the situation or issue. They may have knowledge that you lack to contribute to the discussion. Or they may be available to fill awkward pauses or give you time to think about what to say next. It might be particularly beneficial if the person is well-respected by the person or persons with whom you are meeting. This should also be a consideration in deciding who you will have join you or if a person should participate–it would be to your benefit to invite someone who has a good relationship with and/or is respected by others participating. I hesitate to say this but some people respond different to men versus women so it may be a good idea to have both represented on your side.
6) Check your emotions at the door. This doesn’t mean you cannot have emotions about the issue–just make sure they don’t overpower your ability to present a rational, well-articulated case. Many people have difficulty dealing with powerful emotions, especially in a work setting. While you may think a few tears will help your case, it may make some people very uncomfortable or worse, unable to perceive you as a credible advocate.
7) Objectively document your observations. It is one thing to say little Johnny is afraid to go to Uncle Jerry’s home but quite another to provide an objective, blow-by-blow accounting of the temper tantrums, bed-wetting, aggressive behaviors exhibited before and after visits, and declining grades in school. If possible and appropriate, document with pictures or video. A picture of favorite toys destroyed or video of aggressiveness towards other children can strengthen your case. If a teacher or therapist can confirm your experiences, ask them to document as well. As mentioned in number 6, leave your emotions out and focus on those things that can be objectively verified.
8) Dress for success. People seeking career advancements are often told to dress for the position they want. The slightly modified advice for advocates is to dress as you wish to be perceived. If you want to be considered a professional on equal footing with social workers, lawyers, and/or administrators, be prepared to look the part when attending meetings, hearings, or other gatherings. This does not always mean a basic black three-piece suit. Something comfortable yet professional looking can set the tone when you walk through the door.
9) State your desired goal(s). Be prepared to attend meetings with an “ask”; the end result you want to see. Preferably, you’ll have more than one potential outcome. For instance, you may want to see Emma moved from an alternative classroom to a less restrictive environment. You can suggest a gradual transition with a teacher’s aid available, specific classes may be in a mainstream classroom, or a transition at the beginning of the next semester may be considered. As mentioned in number 2, do your homework and know what the options might be available. Include in your “ask” details of what you are willing to do to make the desired outcome successful.
10) Follow-up as appropriate. Everyone wants to do the right thing, to know they made the right call. Regardless of how your advocacy efforts turn out, follow-up to let other parties know the status of the issue. Tell the social worker that the new supervised visits are much less traumatic for Johnny, write a letter to the principal letting them know how much happier Emma is in the new classroom, or provide accounts of how excited the children are to see their new baby brother/sister. Even if things don’t go the way you think they should, resist the urge to get discouraged. Re-examine the situation and if you still feel it is important, press on with your cause. Attend court hearings, case reviews, and other meetings to share your perspective, focusing on what is in the best interests of the child.
While the above suggestions are mainly directed at advocacy on an individual level, they also apply to the ‘big picture’ conversations as well. In order for the system to be effective, the voices of all parties involved are essential. Your ability to be an effective advocate on an individual level can be a gateway to invitations to participate in the conversations that guide the future of child welfare.