Healing Families: A Community Effort
LSSI’s Family to Family Program

Eye on LSSI, Spring 2005 ( Download PDF of entire publication)

Elizabeth Richmond has seen many changes in the 12 years that she’s been a licensed foster parent through Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI).

The most dramatic and most encouraging change has taken place in the last three years with the introduction of Family to Family, an Annie E. Casey Foundation initiative that involves community collaboration and a goal to heal families involved in the child welfare system.

“I wish there would have been a program like this when we first started fostering,” says Richmond, who has adopted three of her foster children. “We wandered into [fostering] clueless. We were smart enough to know it was about a little bit more than love, but we had no idea how complicated it would be.”

Family to Family was designed in 1992 and first introduced in Alabama, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland and parts of California. In 2002, a pilot program was introduced in Illinois at two sites in Cook County, as well as in Rock Island and Peoria. LSSI has been involved from the beginning with the program in Rock Island and Peoria.

The program is based on neighborhood and family-centered principles with the goal to keep children in their neighborhoods whenever possible and to speed reunification of families.

“The philosophy is really different now,” says Richmond, who works part-time as a Family to Family coordinator with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). “We were recruited to be foster parents at a time when it was about rescuing children. The Department’s goal today is to heal the family and return the children home. That’s not always possible, but that is the goal.”

The four key strategies are:

  • Recruitment, training and support of foster families;
  • To build a wide range of community partnerships to create a supportive environment for families in crisis;
  • Family Team Decision-Making, which brings together not just foster parents and caseworkers, but also birth families and community members in child placement decisions; and
  • Self-evaluation using hard data to drive decision-making.

LSSI is actively involved in all four of the core strategies. In Peoria, Portia Hoyle, an LSSI foster parent recruiter, chairs the Family to Family Recruitment, Training, Licensure and Support Committee, while Darla Kovanda, who handles foster parent and staff training for LSSI, co-chairs the Self-Evaluation Committee. Other LSSI workers serve on the Team Decision-Making and Building Community Partner committees.

“I think LSSI, of all the private agencies, has stepped up the most,” says Richmond. “They are very active on the committees. They’re wonderfully supportive and also really willing to challenge things along the way to make people really think through what they’re doing. It makes me proud because I’m licensed there, even though my role is more from a DCFS point-of-view at this point.”

Family to Family brings together a number of public and private agencies, including Catholic Charities Diocese of Peoria, Counseling and Family Services, Children’s Home, Illinois Mentor, Lifeline and Camelot (a private agency that works with older at-risk children).

“It’s a huge collaboration of many people, and we all work together,” says Portia Hoyle.

Hoyle’s committee in Peoria has been working hard to recruit and maintain foster families in three targeted ZIP Code areas from which the majority of children come into the child welfare system.

“Our focus is to keep the children in their neighborhood, so they don’t lose all ties with friends and schools and things of that nature,” Hoyle says.

LSSI has always had a foster parent support group, but Family to Family has expanded the effort. Foster families and their children are invited to monthly meetings held at different times and locations to accommodate everyone and that feature speakers on topics suggested by the parents themselves. Refreshments and daycare are provided.

“What I’m hearing on a consistent basis is they like the presenters, the location and the day care,” Hoyle says. “They get a few hours that are just for them. They’re really taking advantage of it, and that’s a good thing.”

Another key part of Family to Family is the team decision-making meeting (TDM), which is a new way of determining a child’s placement.

“Before Family to Family, the DCFS investigator and supervisor would have gotten together and by themselves made a decision about the child’s placement without input from the family or the community,” notes Bessie Rush, the Family to Family community liaison.

A TDM pulls together the birth family and anyone who can be considered part of their support system with a facilitator and a community partner.

“They basically sit down around the table and discuss all the strengths of the family and identify what other strengths are needed to prevent the child from coming into care,” explains Kovanda.

“It’s a very positive time when everything is brought out on the table, and everyone participates in the evaluation. It might include the parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, a pastor. And we always try to bring in someone from within the community but outside the family who can provide services to the family for whatever issue they’re facing.”

Having participated in many TDMs, Richmond and Rush say the meetings can get emotional and sometimes even volatile.

“But I have seen a lot of success stories,” Rush says. “I’ve seen community partners take young mothers with no real family support under their wing. What happens is the neighborhood social services becomes the extended family.”

So far, about 42 community service partners have joined in the program to help families in crisis, Rush says.

Richmond still gets teary-eyed thinking about a recent TDM that involved a young couple with a new baby and an older child already in foster care.

“They really hoped to take this baby home, but we couldn’t do that, so the foster parent who had the other child agreed to take the baby home,” Richmond says. “We had some pretty heated moments where the parents were angry that they couldn’t take the baby home.”

An agreement was reached after about 90 minutes, however, and the team went to the hospital, where the baby was, to finish up some paperwork.

“The dad got up and disappeared. He had gone around the corner to the nursery and gotten permission from the nurse to show us his baby girl,” Richmond says.

“It was amazing. If you can take from a dad his baby, and he still feels so proud and feels so supported and respected that he feels like we’re there willing to help and wants to show you his baby, I think that is such a different way of doing business. It’s all about healing families,” she adds.

Another powerful part of the program is the “ice-breaker meeting” in which birth parents and foster parents meet face-to-face.

“They meet and talk about the child’s likes and dislikes. Does he like Cheerios or Frosted Flakes? Does he sleep with a light on or off at night? Does he hate or love his math teacher?” Richmond explains, “Having that information helps the foster parent make the child so much more comfortable. It also hopefully begins to eliminate the issue of the birth parent thinking that somehow it’s the foster parent’s fault.”

Rush has seen very positive things come from ice-breaker meetings. She cites one mom with a drug problem, who was upset and making threats before she met with her child’s foster mother and realized that the woman was taking good care of her child.

“Her fears subsided,” Rush adds. “It’s just a wonderful process. I hope this becomes the norm. Not just in Peoria, but all over the country.”

Because the program is fairly new in Illinois, data is still being collected to evaluate its effectiveness, says Kovanda. However, figures do show that the number of children coming into the foster care system in Peoria County has declined from 396 in 2000 to 128 in 2004.

As always, more volunteers are needed to help this program succeed. Hoyle and Kovanda could use more community support in providing refreshments and door prizes for the foster parent support group meetings. They can be reached at 309/671-0300. Rush has many volunteer opportunities available and can be reached at 309/682-4621.

“I believe we’re lucky to be part of this pilot program, and I absolutely want it to continue,” Rush says. “I’ve seen a lot of success stories. This program is making a difference in the lives of children and keeping them safe.”