At Graham Windham, we’ve learned that the best ideas come from our kids, families and team. Where there are good ideas here, the source is likely one of our youth, parent, foster parent or staff roundtables. (That is where we do our best thinking at Graham.) Where there are not-so-great ideas, those are probably mine alone.
Stick with young people and parents. Our aspirations with kids and families require that we go beyond the rigid confines of our current system. We too often end help right when it is needed most — when permanency is achieved or a young person ages out.
We have a special obligation to stick with the approximately 2,000 young men and women over 18 in our system. Many of these kids have been let down by our failure to ensure they have family. Our system’s permanency practices are steadily improving now but weren’t good enough for kids who have grown up in our system. Our housing policies continue to incentivize aging out. As a result, a staggering 20% of kids in foster care in NYC are over 18. Yet in a city of nearly two million kids, this is an imminently solvable challenge.
Our young men and women are very capable. Not only can they succeed, they will succeed with family and the right ongoing coaching that goes beyond their time in care. We know it from our Graham SLAM program, which sticks with young people until 25, and from what we’ve observed at other programs run by a number of organizations in our field. We don’t ask kids with means to make it through early adulthood, when life’s course is set, without support; how can we continue to ask our kids to do that and expect anything different than the negative outcomes they too often suffer through?
Let’s develop solutions and make a special commitment — with high expectations and high support — that goes beyond the bounds of foster care and that demonstrates to our kids that we care about them as individuals, regardless of their status in care.
Let’s do the same for parents, many of whom once were our kids. Parents need real support before and after a case is open. The Family Enrichment Centers are a promising idea. Parent advocates and family coaches have shown their efficacy in helping families after care ends as well. By sticking with kids and parents, we can give them all a shot to succeed.
Prioritize a culture shift for staff and foster parents. All that we seek to accomplish relies on the good people who commit their life’s work to kids and families. We need to build a healthy system culture for our staff and foster parents. High expectations and high support are the right formula here, too, but we need to recognize that the support we currently offer still trails expectations by a wide margin. More can be done to protect and support staff through the emotional and physical dangers of this work. Valuing their safety allows them to create a safe environment for kids and families.
In addition, many staff and foster parents seek career pathways that allow them to grow professionally and make a living wage without having to stop working with kids. There are amazing people — child care workers, child protective specialists, case planners, healthcare integrators, waiver service providers, family and youth coaches and foster parents — who want to commit their lives to doing honorable work directly with kids and families. Without regular wage increases like those that exist in education, too often our staff are forced out of the important work we do as a system in order to make ends meet. Let’s find ways to do right by our teams, creating viable direct practice career pathways and treating them with the respect with which we ask them to treat our kids and parents.
Focus on outcomes to minimize the burden on staff. We are here to make kids’ and families’ lives better. On any given day, you’ll find too many staff — our most precious resource — across the system doing everything but being with kids and families. Documentation, especially good court reports, impacts lives. However, we’ve gone overboard. Requiring an ethnography for every contact only distracts from the reason we are here. We honor compliance over humanity too often. We may complete the next assessment, but have we really seen and understood the child in front of us? One way through this is to focus on the outcomes. Let’s build on the work ACS has been doing to prioritize outcomes, hold each other mutually accountable and minimize the burden on staff so they can focus on what they care about: what really matters for kids and families.