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June 2022Vol. 23, No. 5Try Something Different

Written by Associate Commissioner Aysha E. Schomburg

Last month, I had the opportunity to travel to Phoenix and spend a whole day in fellowship with members of the Black community there. My plane landed and I headed straight to the "Keeping Families Together" convening, which was coordinated by a local community-based organization called Our Brother Our Sister. The purpose of the event was not only to discuss the drastic disproportionality of Black children and youth in foster care in Arizona, but it was also a call to action to end family separation and do everything possible to safely reunite families that have been separated by the foster care system.

The convening included several substantive presentations, but what stayed with me the most was the "lived experience panel." The panel included one father who recounted a devastating close call with the Arizona Department of Child Safety (DCS). His daughter was nearly taken into care as a result of, as I understand it, a misunderstanding about her medical follow up. He told his story through his tears. One young woman talked about her experience of being taken into foster care with her younger sister, with whom she was very close, and then being separated from her sister while in foster care. She wanted to protect her little sister, but she couldn't. She cried, too. Another woman spoke about reaching out to DCS for help with one of her children and receiving that much-needed help; however, some years later, she reached out to DCS again for help but instead her children were taken away. Her story of betrayal cuts deep. Finally, there was a mother who had been reunified with two of her children but is in the middle of a fight to have her other children returned. She asked, "How is it that I am able to parent two of my children but not all of my children?" Her struggle continues.

I want to mention that I was sitting at a table right in front of the panel, so I had an unobstructed view of their pain—and sitting two seats to my right was the director of Arizona DCS. What was so heartening about this community-led conversation was that we were not operating in factions. We were all there—federal and state governments, external partners, and impacted community members—actively engaged in tough listening. Shortly after hearing from the panel, I was invited to join a conversation about how to move Arizona toward transformational change. I retreated to a conference room with community leadership, the director, and the executive director of an organization that has demonstrated success in keeping children out of foster care and bringing families together. This particular organization puts parents with lived experience at the center of the solution. Parents can help parents. We left the conference room with a plan in place to try something different.

June is National Reunification Month. Make a commitment to try something different. Let's be transformational in the way that we work together to reunite families.