This is the final post to the ‘Making Change Happen‘ series. Some things just cannot be said in one blog post. This idea started with a conversation with Bryan Samuels so I’m coming back around to finish that story.
When Bryan asked about how to get caseworkers to change their behaviors, all that came to mind was those situations (mentioned in Prequel to Making Change Happen) that had been ‘aha’ moments for me; the children who influenced and ultimately convinced me that too little attention is paid to keeping siblings connected in the child welfare system.
There are so many ‘moving parts’ when an organization or entity (ie: the state) takes on the role of parent, it becomes very difficult for caseworkers to prioritize sometimes conflicting mandates. Do kids stay in shelters longer than 30 days while caseworkers search for foster parents willing and able to take siblings? Do you move one child out of a stable home because another home is found that can take all of the siblings? When an abusive parent has a new baby in another state, do you place that baby a great distance from the parent so that they can bond with their siblings and vice versa? What of ‘step-families’ and mandates to seek out relatives when doing so means splitting up kids who have lived together all of their short lives? And what if the foster home identified for a group of siblings means a change of schools?
These are tough questions and regardless of what anyone says, they require that some aspect of a child’s well-being be given priority over other issues. Often caseworkers are trained to focus on certain criteria, such as proximity to the biological parent, or stability in educational environments, when working with children and families. Sure, there are ways to nurture sibling relationships, such as mandated visits. However, that often means an hour or two in an old office space converted to a play room with hand-me-down toys or a trip to McDonald’s, both pitiful substitutes for going to bed every night knowing that a big brother or sister will be there in the morning. And often sibling visits mean caseworkers and/or foster parents go ‘above and beyond’, providing transportation, giving up their own family time, or disrupting participation in other activities such as sports or social events in order to accommodate visitation schedules. In many states, visitation requirements are not factored into caseloads, meaning that the unfortunate caseworker who is assigned to work with a large family must find ways to do more in their 40+ hour work week.
Coming back to the original question, ‘how do we change behaviors?’; clearly it takes more than policies and mandates. At all levels, from the politicians making laws to the administrators writing policies to the caseworkers, people must believe it is an important issue. And how does this belief happen? Belief comes from experiencing, in this case, experiencing the importance of sibling connections.
A caseworker I met a couple of years ago had a suggestion based on experiences so compelling that she became a cheerleader for the cause among her peers. Since she said it better than I could, even in a dozen blog posts, I’m going to share (with permission) a letter she wrote to the Secretary of child welfare services in her state.
Click on Letter to the Secretary to read this caseworkers’ experiences and her thoughts about how others might change their approach to working with siblings.
As was shared in the letter, experiencing the powerful connections during one week at a camp for siblings changed her thinking and ultimately, the way she interacted with the children on her caseload. In fact, she felt so strongly about it, she sought a change in policy to allow her peers to experience it for themselves. What a table-turner is that….a case worker asking for something that likely would ultimately make her work more difficult?!
[Maybe if I had started with this letter, the last two posts would have been unnecessary. Ah well, what can I say; I like to be thorough. In the interest of thoroughness–if you do not have a Camp To Belong in your state, its not too late to do something for siblings separated in foster care!]