The Family-to-Family strategy

Although the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) and foster care agencies have been in contract for over a decade to ensure that the Family-to-Family strategy is implemented, New York state’s foster care system is still waiting for this to happen.

In 1992, the Annie E. Casey Foundation presented the Family-to-Family strategy, which encourages healthy relationships among the three members that form this triangle, namely foster parents, foster children, and their biological parents. At that time, ACS made all foster care agencies in New York state sign a contract which required them to apply this model immediately upon their respective foster families. However, the execution of this model has not been observed so far.

The need to build bridges

The need to build bridges between foster parents and biological parents is especially important because Office of Court Administration statistics show that about 85 percent of cases in NYC family courts are based on neglect, and not abuse. Moreover, in cases of neglect, it is the parents’ situation, and not the parents themselves, which is the problem and so communication with parents does not have negative affects on children.

Family-to-family connections “common sense” today

Executive Director, New York State Citizens’ Coalition for Children (NYSCCC), and author of Another Mother: Co-Parenting with the Foster Care System, Sarah Gerstenzang has been working to encourage interaction among children, their natural parents, and foster parents for several years. “Humans are built one way. They need to maintain the connection,” she says. “It has become an accepted standard. It’s not an experiment anymore. It’s sort of common sense. Connections with all parts of the family are becoming increasingly common.”

Child Welfare Organizing Project (CWOP) head Mike Arsham sees the Family-to-Family strategy as an effective way to bring foster children closer to their natural parents. “Without any hesitation, biological parents would welcome it,” he says. They would like to meet with their children somewhere other than a cubicle, in an informal setting. They would like to tell foster parents how to do their children’s hair and what food they like. They would see it as an opportunity to get involved in their child’s life,” he adds.

Is the model workable amidst resistance between biological and foster parents?

In a system where biological and foster parents have inherently disliked each other, the question arises as to how possible is it to implement this strategy. “Definitely, initially there is a lot of anxiety between biological and foster parents,” says Gerstenzang. “This is because when your children are taken away from you; it’s not what you are choosing. In some way, your life is out of control and it’s natural for parents to feel angry. Also, some times, biological parents feel judged by foster parents.”

But, not having a workable bond between biological and foster parents has very negative effects on the child. “It’s as complex as a child’s parents getting divorced,” she says. “The children have no control over the situation. It’s really terrible for a child to be between two parties that don’t get along with each other.”

Research shows some bonds are simply unbreakable

A report by Children’s Rights which found that if the case worker does not encourage foster parents to meet with their foster children’s biological parents, the three parties still ended up seeing each other behind the case worker’s back.

Ambiguity at ACS

John B. Mattingley is credited with designing the Family-to-Family model while he worked at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. In 2004, he was appointed as the Commissioner of ACS and is currently serving in the same position. Ironically, even though the model’s creator himself has now been ACS’s Commissioner for over five years, the rigid implementation of the model is yet to take place.

“The ACS usually gets away with saying that they’re working on it,” says Arsham. “Finding good foster parents is hard these days, so the authorities don’t want to put pressure on the existing foster parents to practice this model.”

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