May 2019Vol. 20, No. 4A Neighborhood-Based Model for Foster Care Services: Reflections on 30 Years of Practice and Thought
Written by Julia Jean-Francois, co-director, Center for Family Life in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, New York
The Center for Family Life in Sunset Park was founded in 1979 by two visionary social work practitioners, Sister Mary Paul Janchill and Sister Mary Geraldine Tobias. The sisters pioneered a model of neighborhood-based foster care that was entirely unique in New York City and that garnered skepticism and resistance from child welfare practice traditionalists. The sisters' idea was quite simple: children who enter the foster care system should not undergo the secondary trauma that results from being uprooted from their homes, neighborhoods, schools, play spaces and friends, pediatricians, and all that is familiar and stabilizing about their lives. To avert the experience of secondary trauma, the sisters believed that all foster care placements should be made within the same community in which the child lives at the time of their removal from their homes. Every effort should be made, they proposed, to ensure continuity in the daily routines and lives of children in the foster care system, and every effort should be made to engage birth parents to continue to participate in not only visits but also daily routines and home life in the foster home, in order to facilitate, whenever possible, the reunification of children and their families.
It was a simple idea: keep children in the neighborhoods where they have their roots and social networks and support parents in their efforts to remain productively engaged in their children's lives. In practice, however, this idea flew in the face of accepted wisdom about how foster care needed to be designed to promote child well-being. At that time, few child welfare practitioners were comfortable viewing the child's biological parents as their "client," insofar as the case-planning staff would be required to provide as much support to biological parents as they would to foster parents. In mainstream child welfare practice, biological parents were seen, quite plainly, as the perpetrators of abuse, and their progress was viewed as their own responsibility. The sisters, however, viewed biological parents as "yesterday's children," meaning these individuals were almost always themselves the victims of trauma and abuse and were more like their own children in their experiences of maltreatment than they were different. The sisters were convinced that for the child in foster care to internalize a positive, robust identity, and to feel strength and solidity in their own lives, case planners must engage with biological parents with compassion and a determination to provide support and partnership.
Whether or not biological parents were ever able to successfully overcome challenges, which could include any number of issues, such as substance use, a history of intimate partner violence, or any other matter, the case practice must support the child to find some productive and sustaining perspective on the parent that could serve as the foundation for the child's own personality development.
Further, many in mainstream child welfare practice expressed skepticism about the sister's insistence that case planners support foster parents to serve as partners and mentors to biological parents and to maintain an open and accessible home where both children and biological parents would be welcome. Perhaps it was the sisters' fundamental personal commitment to caritas and love of neighbor that gave them the certainty that this model would be successful. Their experience provided the evidence that families who, together, remained engaged with partners and mentors had stable and productive outcomes.
The sisters' commitment to neighborhood-based care extended to their work beyond child welfare program development to launching programs that focused on community development far more broadly and that extended well beyond the domain of foster care services. From the earliest days at the center, the sisters laid the foundation for what is now a multisite youth development project in nine public schools. The project addresses youth both in and out of school and extends from kindergarten through college. Through summer camps, youth employment, and a "ladder of leadership," the project supports youth in the community as they grow to become the leaders of our Center for Family Life programs and to assume other community leadership roles. Together, the sisters supported the development of neighborhood-based adult employment and small business development services, a food pantry, and legal and advocacy supports, all designed to wrap around the families who entered into the center's child welfare program.
Today, the center serves as a model of foster care intervention that engages skilled professionals—many of them with master's degrees in social work and counseling—in the practice of family-focused clinical interventions to address the acute trauma experienced by children and biological parents. Critically, these interventions are placed into an architecture of program offerings—available to all family members, foster parents, and multiple generations of community members—that support capacity building at the community level through the dynamic engagement of families in the economy and in the civic life of the community in which they live.
Clinical intervention in foster care services, in this model, has value only in so far as it prepares and strengthens children and families to become engaged, to lead, and to make decisions within the communities in which they live. The center's child welfare interventions are framed to provide support for children and families to gain skills in interpersonal relationship building and communication so they can ultimately find jobs, build businesses, find stable housing, and raise strong families.
Fundamentally the goal of the center's programs is to partner with the community to support youth to engage as active members and participants in critically analyzing their conditions and framing actions that shape their environment. In this model, we aim to support all members of the community to experience agency in their own lives and, as Paulo Freire suggests, to experience "concientization," or critical consciousness, of their role as members of a community.
The therapeutic interventions in our foster care program serve to support our participants to gain strength and insight into their personal and family dynamics. They may prove to be facilitators or barriers to ultimately exercising greater community voice and to determining the direction of the community's future. It is our hope—as it was our founders' hope—that our work, undertaken with a spirit of fellowship and humility, can serve as a useful example of an approach that joins therapeutic intervention with educational attainment, economic development, and community building to establish greater community voice, self-determination, and influence in the civic sphere.
To learn more about the Center for Family Life, visit https://sco.org/featured-programs/center-for-family-life/, or listen to the recently released Children's Bureau podcast, "Foster Care: A Path to Reunification - Part 1," which features the work of the Center for Family Life, available at https://www.acf.hhs.gov/cb/resource/child-welfare-podcast-foster-care-part1.