Main Page
This Issue
Next Article
Previous Article

2000 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 2, No. 1
Winter 1997

In Pursuit of Permanence: North Carolina's Families for Kids Counties

As part of their efforts to improve outcomes for the families and children involved in the foster care system, North Carolina's Families for Kids (FFK) counties are asking families to play a bigger role in determining their futures. In all of the North Carolina FFK counties (Buncombe, Catawba, Cleveland, Edgecombe, Guilford, Iredell, Richmond, and Wayne) families are becoming more involved. In this article we'll look at some of the efforts Buncombe, Catawba, and Wayne counties are making to get parents involved to prevent foster care placement.

Buncombe County

Four or five times a week, Tracy Engh finds herself in a remarkable position. As facilitator for precustodial staff meetings and FFK program coordinator, she often finds herself in a room full of people whose sole purpose is to help a family prevent its children from coming into care.

To these precustody staffings, Engh says, "we invite the family and ask them to bring along whomever they feel supports them." This sometimes includes their attorney, friends, community or church members, and people from other agencies. The social worker working with the family also invites representatives of DSS—usually someone from CPS and placement services—and people from any other agency with whom the family might be working. This sometimes includes people from the developmental evaluation center, the program for victims of perinatal substance abuse, mental health, schools, juvenile court, even private therapists.

"Then we lay it on the table for them—custody is our last resort. Then we ask them: `What are you willing or able to do to rectify the situation?'" Engh says.

Buncombe combines this directness with a strengths-based approach. As Engh puts it, "We ask the family to focus on the strengths—what skills and resources they can bring to the situation—and we talk about the strengths of the agencies present."

Because these meetings occur when a case nears the point where children will have to be removed from their homes, one meeting is usually enough. However, for chronic cases where there is a persistent, low-level risk to a child, they might have up to four staffings with just one family. In these chronic cases, they often find it necessary to remove the children.

The results for the majority of families have been positive. Often, when they are confronted with the gravity of the situation and given a chance to participate in making a plan, parents can avoid having their children placed with DSS. For example, when the problem is neglect because of substance abuse, a mother may decide to place her child with relatives until she can complete a treatment program. DSS is there throughout to support her.

When they began in January 1996, social workers and people from various agencies were sometimes uncomfortable with the kind of direct communication with families that goes on during these meetings. Now, Engh says, they see the value of this openness and feel more comfortable with it. "Social workers have become better at collaborating with families to solve problems."

Catawba County

Catawba County, North Carolina began having similar community-based assessment meetings, which they call "action meetings," last February. The objective of these meetings is to pull together as many resources as possible to help the family prevent placement of their children. To reinforce this idea, the family is encouraged to bring anyone—minister or landlord, mental health counselor or grandparent—who can give them support.

Each meeting has two phases. In the first, the facts are put on the table. The family is asked to explain, from their point of view, why this meeting is being held. The human services professionals in the room are then given a chance to present their view of the situation.

The second phase of the action meeting focuses on solutions. As Deborah Nealy, Catawba's FFK program coordinator explains it, "We turn to the family and ask them `What are the things that are working well in your current situation? What's worked in the past for you? How can we help you to reproduce your past successes?'"

If parents don't show up for these meetings—and this happens quite often—they cancel the meeting. Nealy explains, "Parents fail to show up for a number of reasons, but we feel that if they're not part of the plan, how can they be charged with the solution? We rescheduled one meeting four times until the parents could finally make it."

The following is an example of the kind of results Catawba's Families for Kids has achieved using action meetings. A couple had substance abuse and other problems, and so became involved with DSS and their children's services staff. When the situation became very serious, DSS called an action meeting during which the parents talked about their strong ties to their own parents, who lived in another state. As the meeting progressed, the family said they felt they needed to have these extended family members present to resolve the current crisis.

Together, the people at the meeting saw a way to bring the grandparents down to North Carolina. Families for Kids paid for the grandparents' gas mileage and hotel accommodations en route. At a second action meeting, this time with the grandparents in attendance, DSS and the other agencies involved put all the facts on the table and then left the room, leaving the parents, grandparents, and children to come up with a plan.

Ultimately the parents decided to place their children with the grandparents out of state, giving them physical custody and informal guardianship and establishing their own visitation policy. This arrangement was made possible in part through close collaboration between Catawba DSS and social services in the county in the state where the children went to live. Because there was no court involvement, the children were "placed" with their grandparents over the weekend. Had there been formal court involvement, they would have been placed in a foster home or homes within North Carolina for at least six months.

At last check, the family has had mixed progress. Although the children are thriving under their grandparents' care, their parents have not made much progress in dealing with their substance abuse. (To learn more about action meetings, see "Benefits of 'Action Meetings'".)

Wayne County

Wayne County, North Carolina has "preplacement committees." Unlike Catawba's action committees, Wayne's preplacement committees meet to consider every intake. Because they must make a speedy determination about the safety of the situation at hand, they do not have time to involve members of the community or other agencies. These committees usually consist of the worker who conducts the intake, his or her supervisor, two FFK staff members, and, when they attend, the family involved.

The primary advantage of these fast-moving groups is that they bypass the "traditional" routing of a case from CPS to foster care. As Bonnie Gillenwater, Wayne's Families for Kids program coordinator explains, "With pre-placement committees we avoid the time lag we had before. Now we can have services in place for the family almost immediately."

Gillenwater tracked the success of these groups for their first month of operation and found that they were able to keep as many children at home as they placed.

When asked about family involvement with these committees, Gillenwater is both realistic and optimistic. "Transportation seems to be a real barrier," she says. "So far only a small number of families have shown up for pre-placement committee meetings." She conjectures that part of this may be the newness of this type of meeting—pre-placement committees just began meeting in August 1996.

"Our vision is to get to the point where each family comes knowing that they are welcome and they do have a say. We hope to get to where each family comes up with its own plan" Gillenwater says. "I don't think we're far from that point."

1997 Jordan Institute for Families