Assessing the Context of Permanency and Reunification in the Foster Care System: Lucas County Ohio Community Development Department . 2.2 Services


Community Development Department. The CDD is made up of four units -- Community Resource Liaison, Parent Education, Day Care, and Community Advocate -- which provide a range of services that are intended to maintain or reunify families.

Community Resource Liaison Unit. The Community Resource Liaison Unit uses resources in the community to help support families to make reunification possible and keep families together. The unit consists of Community Resource Liaison workers who act as liaisons with community resource centers, and staff who specialize in housing. The community centers are multi-service agencies providing recreation, family counseling, health services, and after school programs.

At the time of our visit, two Community Resource Liaison workers were being assigned to work with six local community resource centers. Their role is to ensure that LCCS-referred families are linked with a variety of center services, including respite care, recreation, after-school, parenting, and family counseling.

The housing specialist in the unit assists parents with securing affordable housing--a major barrier to reunification for many families. The housing specialist helps parents locate housing resources in the public and private sectors. In addition, for those parents who need subsidized housing, Family Unification Program Section 8 housing certificates have been reserved for CDD-referred families.

Parents face not only financial obstacles to acquiring housing but also often have a history of delinquent rent and utility payments. Hence, they are unable to get needed references from previous landlords. Although CDD does not usually pay parents' delinquent bills, the housing specialist will work with parents, landlords, and utility companies to negotiate debt forbearance and payment arrangements.

Parent Education Unit. The CDD's Parent Education Unit manages the agency's parenting education program. This parent training program is available to any parents referred by their Children Services worker regardless of their children's placement status. However, many of the children whose parents are referred to the program are in foster care with a permanency goal of reunification. The parenting education program attempts to increase the effectiveness of traditional classroom parenting instruction by adding two components. First, parenting classes are held at two neighborhood community centers in order to facilitate parents' class attendance. From the parents' perspective, the community centers are conveniently located, the atmosphere is friendly, and recreational activities are offered for their children while they attend class.

Secondly, in addition to providing classroom training, the unit's parent educators visit with parents in their homes to reinforce the parenting techniques that are taught in class. During the home visit, parent educators model effective parenting behaviors and coach the parents as they practice the techniques with their children. Although teaching parenting skills is the major task that parent educators undertake, they also provide transportation and day care for parents who need it in order to attend classes.

Parent educators typically begin making visits to the parent's home 2 weeks before the 12-week parenting class begins. These initial visits allow the educator to observe the parents' interactions with their child. At the first class session, additional baseline data are collected from the parent. The parent completes the Child Abuse Potential Inventory (a standardized instrument designed to determine the risk of child abuse), and the parent educator assesses the informal support system to identify people who may help the parent with parenting. Sometimes key members of the parent's support network--siblings, godparents, and boyfriends--attend parenting classes to both provide support and learn new skills themselves. These occasions provide educators an opportunity to assess the impact that these individuals may have on the parent and child. Depending on the parent's level of skill development, parent educators may make follow-up visits to parents' homes for up to six months after the final class. But all parents receive at least one in-home visit following their completion of the class.

Because of the labor-intensive nature of the work, the parent education unit recently expanded from three to six parent educators and each is assigned a caseload of eight to ten families. Parent educators are paraprofessionals and receive substantial training from the agency. Parent educators attend state training on identifying and understanding child abuse and neglect, the legal system and how to give court testimony, risk assessment training, and child development. In addition to this classroom training, the unit supervisor provides extensive on-the-job training.

Day Care Unit. The primary role of the Day Care Unit is to provide protective day care for children while their parents are attending substance abuse treatment, parenting classes, or counseling. The unit currently has a few contracts with community day care centers and approximately 55 family day care homes. Day care homes must meet the state's family day care regulatory requirements regarding health, safety, and capacity. Each family day care home can provide care for up to six children. Last year, family day care providers served 600 children from 300 families.

Although the primary purpose of family day care is to care for children in order for their parents to receive services, from the agency's perspective, the providers serve several additional purposes. Because day care providers have daily contact with the family, the agency trains and relies on them to watch for indications of child abuse or neglect. In fact, day care is often a part of the formal safety plan.

Community Advocate Unit. Although all four CDD units provide services to reunify families, community advocate workers are central to delivering services in families' homes. Families may be referred by the Assessment Department to community advocates for in-home services in an effort to prevent removal of the child from the home. In this section we focus on the unit's provision of reunification services that are delivered in families' homes to prepare for the child's return and then stabilize the reunited family. There are no educational requirements for community advocates. Experience in the department is emphasized, and most advocates in the unit moved into their positions from other service units in the department. Currently, the unit employs 10 community advocates. Each advocate is assigned 8 to 10 families at any point in time. The number of families that an advocate sees varies from day to day, but typically services are provided in each family's home once or twice a week. Last year, approximately 500 families were served.

At the outset, most families are expected to reunify eventually, but the timing of referrals to CDD for intensive services depends on the particular aspects of the case. In most cases, families are referred to the Community Advocate Unit approximately 30 days before the court issues a return home order. Occasionally the unit does not receive the referral until the children have been returned home. An exception to this general referral process is made for families receiving TANF benefits. In these cases, the Case Review Department tries to determine whether reunification is possible in less than 180 days. For these families, returning their children home within 180 days is particularly important because otherwise they will lose their TANF benefits. Once TANF benefits are terminated, parents' circumstances generally worsen and, as a result, reunification may be jeopardized. Hence, if the risk to child safety is moderate to high and the case review administrator believes that it can be addressed quickly, a 180-day reunification is planned and the Family Services case manager refers the case to CDD.

Services provided prior to reunification focus on preparing the parent and the home for the child's homecoming. During the pre-reunification period, community advocates may supervise parent-child visits in the home or community. Many parents have completed parent education classes, and the advocate uses the visitation to reinforce newly learned parenting skills. In addition to continuing to build parenting skills, the advocate assists parents with household and financial problems that need to be resolved before their children will be returned. Advocates will transport and accompany parents to public and private agencies to obtain housing, furniture, utilities, and food, income, and medical benefits. Parents frequently need the advocate's assistance with household management and repairs. In addition to ensuring that parents and their home are readied for the child's return, advocates use these hands-on activities to teach parents how to manage their household effectively and access community services.

Advocates typically provide services for at least 6 weeks after families are reunified. Post-reunification services continue to focus on household management (e.g., budgeting, shopping, and scheduling), and parenting (e.g., appropriate bed and meal times for children). In addition, building the parents' network of community supports is particularly emphasized during the post-reunification period. Advocates will assist parents with enrolling their children in day care, school, summer camp, and after-school programs. Whenever necessary, advocates meet with school personnel and other community professionals on the family's behalf. Advocates also attempt to build the family's relationships with extended family, foster parents, and neighborhood community centers.

Generally, advocates rely on parents to identify extended family members who will provide ongoing support. Grandparents, aunts, and uncles often give parents support during the reunification process. From the child welfare agency's perspective, reliable extended family members who have frequent contact with the parent and child can help to ensure the child's safety.

Although many parents receive a substantial amount of support from their extended families, other parents' familial relationships are strained. Whenever extended family cannot be relied on to support parents, advocates search for alternative supports in the community. For example, community agencies offer parent partners to parents with children under 4 years of age. Parent partners offer parenting and child development education to parents in their homes.

Advocates report that reunification seems to work best when foster parents are included in the process. Shortly before the child returns home, team meetings are held with the foster and birth parents to discuss the child's needs and reunification plans. Foster parents are asked to work with the team to facilitate the child's return home. Although some foster parents are initially hesitant, after they become acquainted with the biological parents through meetings at the agency, they usually very willingly share their knowledge of the child and successful parenting strategies.

Advocates also link parents with one of six community resource centers, multi-service agencies providing recreation, family counseling, health services, and after school programs throughout the county. CDD has contracts with these private, nonprofit agencies to provide space for worker-supervised family visitation, parenting classes, and team meetings. After advocates or other CDD workers have introduced a family to a community center, it is hoped that they will continue to use its services for ongoing support once CDD community advocate services have ended. For example, one young mother living in a rural area with her four children and no access to transportation was connected with a community center that provided transportation, parenting classes, family counseling, parent-child playgroups, and child immunizations. Although the centers offer a range of services, many families are most interested in the centers' recreational programs for children. Other families are less easily engaged in any of the programs that the centers offer. For those families, the community centers' outreach workers will sometimes visit the families' homes and encourage them to participate in one or another program.

Advocates cite parents' mental health and substance abuse issues, and inadequate income, transportation, and day care as the most common barriers to reunifying families. Rarely do parents have sufficient income to comfortably support their family, and many have difficulty finding someone to care for their children while they work. Even though the Department of Jobs and Human Services assists them with day care, parents who work evening shifts have difficulty securing day care.

Another hurdle to be overcome is parents' lack of transportation. Many families rely solely on public transportation and hence have difficulty getting to supermarkets and commercial centers to obtain basic services. Advocates look to parents' relatives and friends to provide transportation, but they are not always reliable. In one instance, a mother cancelled a cab believing that a relative was going to take her child to an immunization appointment. The relative cancelled at the last minute.

Throughout the time that advocates are providing services, weekly case notes and parent interaction forms are completed and given to the Family Services case manager who retains overall responsibility for the case. Although case managers are primarily responsible for case decisions, they rely heavily upon the advocate's assessments of the family's problems, needs for service, and stability. Generally, case managers value the advocates' opinions because they are in more frequent contact with the family, get to know the family better, and are most familiar with resources in the community. In fact, because of the advocates' greater access to information about the family, their input into the decision-making process may determine the case outcome.

In two case examples that advocates provided, their work with and assessment of the family substantially influenced the case outcome. In one instance, the advocate worked with a mother who had a long history of mental illness and substance abuse. The mother's first child had died at birth from substance exposure, and her second child was taken into custody from the hospital at birth. When the advocate received the case referral, the mother had given birth to a third child. It was the advocate's assessment that other professionals on the case tended to overemphasize the mother's mental health history without giving sufficient consideration to her ability to parent. Through her work with the advocate, the mother secured community mental health services, obtained income assistance, and received ongoing support from a parent partner. Largely as a result of the advocate's intense work with the mother and the implementation of ongoing community supports, the family was reunified, and the case closed.

In a second case, an advocate worked with a father whose case history indicated that he had previously been uncooperative and hostile toward agency workers. The advocate's experience with the father, however, was quite the opposite. After the advocate built a relationship with the father, the father made every effort to remedy substandard and hazardous housing conditions--repairing loose flooring and installing protective barriers around the heating source. The father also followed through on referrals the advocate made to mental health and substance abuse services. In addition, he formed a very positive relationship with his children's foster parent and relied upon her for parenting guidance following reunification.