Advocacy is a useful tool in seeking change when change needs to happen. I am a rather passionate person, and when there is a cause worth fighting for, I am there. These days I tend to focus on those topics near and dear to my life (Adoption, foster care and FASD primarily), but if I could I would add a lot more to that list. I found a recent quote from A Wide Line encompassing how I view the need for advocacy. It is a reminder to not blindly accept everything as status quo.
The one area that is in DIRE need of advocacy however, is the one area I have always been the most scared to advocate for: Foster Care.You might be asking why foster care? Or, if you’re a foster parent, you might be shouting “AMEN!” The reason advocacy within the foster care system is so hard…so scary, is because we have the most to lose; the children.
The reason advocacy within the foster care system is so hard…so scary, is because we have the most to lose; the children.
In some of my recent blog posts I have been sharing some of the issues foster parents currently struggle with. In one of those posts, I discuss how Foster Parents are more than caregivers, and are in fact the functional parents. We have likely developed a very strong bond and attachment with the kids that come into our homes, loving them as our own. Add in social workers who carry a great deal of power, often yielding it in inappropriate ways, and you can see why our steps forward can be frozen from fear. Why? Because we are afraid of losing the children. To clarify, I am not referring to reunification. All foster parents can agree that is the first step that is taken when children enter the system. What I am referring to, is those foster parents that really tick a social worker off, get under their skin, and the worker retaliates by moving the children to a new foster home. It sounds horrific, but it does happen. Other times, foster parents who fight are labelled as “not coping well” or as “taking on too much” or as “difficult and non-compliant.” This leaves foster parents in a very dangerous zone; unable to advocate for the children or themselves.
Within this broken system it is hard to know how to navigate this terrain riddled with land mines at every step, dependent on which worker we have, what agency we are with, and what topic a worker might have a particular bias with. Hopefully some of these ideas will provide the tools to make some headway and advocate to the best of your ability without jeopardizing the children or yourself. Just remember, a social worker can not move a child because you advocate. If this is attempted, your must bring this to the higher ups to ensure children do not face broken attachments due to a difference of opinion. I have faced my fair share of of threats and have always been able to resolve the issues through the following methods.
1. Open Communication
One of the first places you can start is with open communication. I am a social worker and have worked within the child welfare system, and I can honestly tell you, social workers are doing their best and truly have the best interest of the child at heart. Of course their ideas and our ideas may not always coincide, but intentions from everyone are pure. So before assuming the worst when a situation arises, be sure to share your concerns in a calm and kind manner, and ask questions when clarification is needed. Did you know that a large majority of decisions are made because of legal requirements or the judicial system? I won’t get into the judicial system this time, but lets just say it is severely broken and not adequately set up to manage child welfare concerns (in my opinion). Sometimes a decision being made may not be something the social worker wants to do, but instead is forced to do because of legal requirements or court orders. Finding out why some decisions are made, can help direct where the advocacy should go or if it is even needed. Sometimes, social workers are not aware of all of the circumstances. Letting the social worker know of a particular need of the child, of something that occurred during a visit, or of some other important detail, can help a social worker understand what needs the case may have. As foster parents, we are the eyes and ears of the child, and are seeing first hand what the child is facing on a daily basis. Sharing this perspective can help immensely!
2. Elevate Your Concerns
When open communication yields little understanding or change, the next step you can take is contacting the supervisor of the social worker. Be sure to approach the supervisor in a calm and professional manner, and explain the situation to them. An angry tone (regardless of how upsetting a situation may be) will immediately put a person on the defensive. In order for them to be receptive to what you have to say, be sure to be kind and provide as much detail as you can. Background information is often helpful in case the supervisor is unaware of relevant facts pertaining to the case. Often a problem can be solved at the supervisor level without any further steps required. I also advise not blaming the social worker unless the problem is serious enough to warrant it. Instead, explain what is currently happening and what you hope to see happen and why. Pointing fingers can, again, lead to a defensive reaction and in an effort to advocate, we want to have everyone remain calm and moving forward.
Sometimes, however, the supervisor does not solve the issue. Sometimes they may not agree, understand, or do not have the power to change something. In these instances, it may be appropriate to go to the manger. Each province and state may have different names for each level of supervision, so take it to the next level in charge. Repeat the process and be sure to let them know you have already discussed the matter with the social worker and their supervisor.
3. Quality Control
Depending on your agency, you may have a team or person that manages quality control or policy control and handles complaints within the agency. Finding out what policy is within your agency can be key in addressing your concerns. For instance, many social workers actually create their own rules based on their loose understanding of policy. Something they may consider as a hard line, may not in fact be a rule at all. Other times, social workers may be moving the case in a particular direction, without taking certain aspects of policy into consideration. By contacting the quality control worker, you can ensure you are aware of the rules, and whether or not they are being followed for your case. Knowing the rules before you elevate concerns if often a good idea so you have evidence to back up your concerns.
4. Contact Your Local Foster Parent Association
Many regions have foster parent associations. Contacting them when a concern arises can be helpful for two reasons. The first, they may be able to clarify rules or procedures and assist you in your next steps. The second, they may be able to provide a support person to come to meetings with you. Having another person attend meetings can help you remain calm, act as a buffer between you and the agency, and can also act as a witness to anything that may occur during the meetings. Some associations are local to your region, province or state, so be sure to find out if one exists near you! If you don’t have a foster parent association, don’t be afraid to bring someone else to meetings as a support person, such as another professional, family member, or foster parent.
5. File a Complaint with the Advocates Office
Not every province and state has one, but if you are fortunate enough to have a child advocate’s office, then be sure to utilize them. Advocate offices are a type of watchdog agency, outside of the fostering agency, but with a voice and power to help direct cases. Contacting the advocate’s office is usually reserved for cases that have serious concerns and the welfare of the child is in question. Advocate offices typically do not advocate for the foster parent, but instead advocate for the best interest of the child. This may or may not align with what you are advocating for. If you believe the child’s needs are not being met or their reunification, permanency, or case planning is not in their best interest, than they may be able to help. You can contact the advocates with your complaint filed as anonymous (so your social worker or agency won’t know it was you), or you can have your name known. Usually the rule is, however, that recourse cannot be done by the agency or social worker for reporting the case to the advocate. Foster parents, children in care, or community members can all make reports to the advocate and should not be in fear of any repercussions.
IMPORTANT FACTS TO REMEMBER
When advocating for your child, be sure to remember some of these key facts to help assist you in your efforts:
- Document everything.
- Try and get everything in writing. If you spoke with a worker on the phone, follow up with an e-mail and include a sentence such as “I am following up with our phone conversation today where we discussed…..”
- Bring a support person to meetings.
- Known your region’s policies and rules. Often they can be found online.
- Remain calm.
- CC’ key players in relevant e-mails.
- Don’t be afraid to speak up.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
If you’re like me, you may be passionate about foster care and want to advocate for bigger, systemic changes beyond your own case. If you want to see change within the foster care system, here are a few ideas:
- Join your local foster parent association board of directors.
- Found an organization or group that seeks change.
- Spread awareness on social media.
- Write to local policy makers, politicians, and key players in the foster system.
- Get connected with other foster care advocates on social media .
- Share blogs like this, or write your own!
- Facilitate support groups for other foster parents navigating the trenches.
- Create programs to help key players such as children in care, foster parents, birth families, and workers.
- Volunteer at organizations already advocating for change.
And be sure to check out why Foster Parents need to Take Strike!
Please share other ways to advocate for change in the comments, we love new ideas and to hear what others are doing!
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