WILKES-BARRE — Luzerne County Children and Youth Director Rosemary Gallagher told of “one of the most poignant stories” in more than three decades of child welfare work.
“We had a foster family in the process of adopting a 2 year old,” she recounted. They had fostered the girl since infancy and already adopted her siblings. “But the foster mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, the foster father had Multiple Sclerosis. Do we allow this family to adopt?”
A relatively new idea was implemented: They organized a “Family Group” session, with the concept of “family” extending beyond blood relatives.
“We identified more than 25 family and friends,” Gallagher said. “One person flew in from Florida. We had a pastor there. We had a five- or six-hour discussion about what will happen when the mother passes away, and what support will be needed for the father. They put a plan in place for that child and for all the children.”
In the end, because of the broad outreach and the commitments made by those involved, the adoption was allowed.
“Without that program, the likelihood is that the child would not have been adopted,” said Gallagher,
She contracted programs at Family Services Association of Northeastern Pennsylvania, a non-profit organization that is one of several service providers used by the county agency.
“Family Group” is one of the new ideas implemented and refined in the last decade that is reshaping the field of child welfare, FSA Executive Director Michael Zimmerman said.
The result of those changes, some required by law, some coming through research and better sharing of successes, is a decrease in child placement outside the family, a quicker reunification when placement is necessary, and shorter waits when adoption becomes the choice for permanency in a child’s disrupted life, according to a recent report from Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, a child advocacy coalition.
“One thing we do better is work with the entire family,” FSA Chief Program Officer Amy Freeman said. “We reach out not just to the biological family, but to others — the teacher, the neighbor, clergy.”
“I just walked out of (Luzerne County) Judge (Jennifer) Rogers’ Dependency Roundtable,” Zimmerman said. “That’s also a relatively new thing.”
Zimmerman said the roundtables were launched by Judge Tina Polachek Gartley, partly in response to the juvenile justice scandal that centered on former Luzerne County Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan.
During his stint as Juvenile Court Judge, Ciavarella had a record of high placement of juvenile offenders deemed delinquent.
The discussions gather attorneys, parents, guardians, service providers and others involved in child welfare work to “network,” Zimmerman said.
The goal has become to connect families to the services they need to work things out and overcome issues, Gallagher said.
“I was with Children and Youth for 30 years. Back then I think we unknowingly isolated kids from the support system. Beyond dealing with parents, we didn’t get involved with the larger support group,” she said.
Different organizations in the county may specialize in different areas of child welfare issues, Zimmerman said, so FSA “can’t take all the credit” for the improvements cited in the Partnerships for Children report. But the ideas adopted in FSA’s programs reflect a broader trend.
The Family Group program that helped a dying mother adopt one more child is generally a one-time event, Gallagher said. FSA casts a wide net to find and screen those who may help resolve issues, gathers them at a place and time of their choice, and helps identify strengths each person brings to the problem. Then they are largely left alone to figure out a solution.
FSA offers ongoing support through other programs such as the targeted outreach, coordinating specific services to help reunify a family and make those involved follow through on the plan.
Danielle Smith, 29, is going through such a program. Smith sat in a dimly lit unit in a Freeland triple block home and noted the quiet of a house that until last October, had six children from six to 18.
Smith said her stepdaughter, 16, became frustrated with house rules, ran away and ended up at a police station. Police contacted Children and Youth, and suddenly all the children were taken away, put in custody of Smith’s mother-in-law.
“This is the longest I’ve been away from my children,” she said while petting Leo, the family’s 14-year-old black Labrador. I went 19 days without seeing them or talking to them at all.”
Smith was ordered to take a weekly parenting class, undergo anger management sessions and see a counselor every other week.
“I was totally against it when it started,” She said. “But it’s really opened my eyes. I’ve learned so much. I’ve learned different ways of doing things with my children.”
Smith praises the teacher from FSA. “She’s wonderful. She goes over the lessons. If I don’t understand something she doesn’t give me a hard time. If I have questions she explains things. I’m going to miss her when its done.”
And it goes beyond lessons in parenting, Smith said. The teacher has also helped her cope with the separation from her children, one of whom has Asperger’s Disorder, she said. “It’s been hard on the little ones” she said. “They don’t know everything that happened. They know mommy is taking classes and they have to stay with their grandmother for a while.”
Smith is hoping to regain custody of her children soon, possibly in a month or so as she completes her courses. “The silence is deadly,” she said with a smile. “I’m not use to a quiet house.”
Changing the family dynamics is a core goal, Freeman said. “If you don’t make changes to the environment and send them back into it, they just revert to their old behaviors.”
Why has the field shifted so much? Partly because technology allows agencies to learn what others have found works and adopt it in their own programs, Freeman said. One commonly used practice was originally developed in New Zealand while dealing with native Maori.
Finding programs that succeed also became a necessity as money in the field dried up in the last decade, Gallagher added. “Evidence-based practices became the focus in the business,” she said. “I don’t recall if we even did effective outcome measures” in the past.”
“I think there is more emphasis on figuring out what works because funding is harder to come by,” Freeman said. “They only fund programs that work.”