By: Nekoro Gomes
Walking past the many playgrounds, parks and baseball fields scattered throughout Bushwick, Brooklyn, one realizes just how full this neighborhood is of children. At a recent meeting of the local community board, child welfare worker Raul Rubio asks a question that puts the breadth of this youthful population in perspective.
“Let me ask you, by a show of hands, who here doesn’t know someone who is involved in the foster care system?”
Among dozens of people, only two arms go up.
“Foster care is something that touches everybody," says Rubio, who leads a community collaborative called Bushwick Making Children Important, or BMCI. "Somebody in referral could be a family member, someone you know, a neighbor. Your kids probably go to school with foster kids, and it’s something that’s a community-wide issue.”
Rubio arrived at the meeting that night in June to raise awareness about BMCI – one of 11 coalitions in neighborhoods around the city serving as a "demonstration project" for a relatively new networked approach to delivering child welfare services called Community Partnership Initiatives – and maybe even recruit more foster parents. As the liaison between the local network and the city Administration for Children's Services (ACS), which oversees CPI along with the Mayor's Office, Rubio wanted to let people know that only 11.5 percent of Bushwick's children who are in the foster care system and tracked by ACS still live in the neighborhood – a number that his coalition would like to increase.
He directs the audience’s attention to a table toward the back of the room, where a shy girl with neatly braided hair sits with a woman just a little too old to be her mother. The woman speaks up.
“My name is Queenie Butler and I have been a kinship foster parent for almost nine years, this is my youngest right here. ... She's now getting ready to go to high school; my older daughter is in the Marines,” says Butler, 57, as the audience breaks into applause.
“I’m also here tonight to recruit parents for foster care,” she says. "It's hard. But if your heart is in it, it’s easy.”
Butler has lived in Bushwick for 37 years. She began to really invest in the neighborhood she calls home after leaving her job on Wall Street as a computer operator in 1993 and opening up her Hope Gardens apartment to children in the neighborhood as a safe haven for them after school.
But her focus changed from the neighborhood to her family in 2000, when her sister Christine's substance abuse problems put her two daughters in danger of being sent to live with a foster care family in the Bronx.
“I felt that it was unfair for my nieces to be raised somewhere else, because we were all raised with our mother,” says Butler, who stepped up to care for the girls.
The adjustment wasn’t easy. Shonntay, now 19, and Kimberly, now 14, were coming into a neighborhood they knew little about, to live under the roof of a new authority figure. And Christine’s trouble following the terms needed to reunite with her children began to put even more of a strain on her relationship with Butler. Stressed by all the demands, Butler began to wonder whether she would be able to be a kinship foster parent after all.
But caseworkers for the girls at the Coalition for Hispanic Family Services disagreed, providing the encouragement Butler needed as well as keeping the children informed about the plans being made for their care.
“They explained to us step by step where we would be going, or they would give the information to [Butler] and let her relay it to us so it wasn’t like we were blind,” Shonntay recalled.
The Coalition for Hispanic Family Services is now one of more than 40 social service members that make up the Bushwick Making Children Important network. Others include the Brooklyn Public Library, Holy Tabernacle, Audrey Johnson Day Care, and Wyckoff Heights Medical Center – all banded together around four child welfare goals.
The goals of the partnership are: coordinating services between early childhood agencies and preventive services; organizing family conferences with community representatives independent of ACS; facilitating family visits for children in the foster care system; and supporting those foster parents who have decided to open up their homes to children in the community.
Butler’s role within the organization is wide-ranging, both contributing her time as the partnership’s sole foster parent recruiter, as well as helping to facilitate case conferences involving ACS workers and foster parents in the area.
Nigel Nathaniel, director of the city’s Office of Community Partnerships, says the Bushwick CPI has been successful in the areas of implementing community-based conferences and connecting preventive agencies with childcare programs, but less so in the areas of foster care as well as family visitation.
Nathaniel is quick to add, however, that he puts a “high premium” on the good working relationship between ACS and the community, due in part to the networking efforts of the Bushwick CPI.
“That kind of relationship-building creates trust,” he says, “and without trust you can’t do the work" of ensuring children's safety.
In neighborhoods like Bushwick, where almost half of the households include children younger than 18 and the unemployment rate hovers at close to 17 percent, the need for well coordinated social services seems clear.
As a neighborhood, Bushwick has higher-than-average rates of child abuse and neglect, infant mortality and reports for reabuse that are indicated within one year of a child returning to its biological parents, according to ACS statistics.
Meeting the needs of Bushwick’s children and families had familiarized social service agency directors with the child welfare challenges of the area, and in 2002 ACS approached local nonprofits to expand their networks through a community partnership.
The Bushwick Making Children Important coalition would be born more than six years later in March 2008, and the twin tasks of helping the partnership meet its goals with ACS, as well as reaching out to a community distrustful of the agency’s child welfare authorities, fell on the broad shoulders of Raul Rubio.
“It took us a long time to get the ball rolling,” says Rubio of the partnership’s early days. “In the first few months we really didn’t do a lot of home visits or conferencing, but we had already set up an informal network.”
The partnership created subcommittees that reported to each other on progress made in meeting the four child welfare outcomes, and Rubio began to make ACS data on things like open vacancies for children in local Head Start programs available to the public.
But for Rubio, working to recruit foster care parents was another challenge entirely.
“Taking on a foster care kid is the equivalent of having another child,” he says. "It’s just one of those things that no one decides quickly.”
As it turns out, the challenge of expanding the number of active foster parents among community partnerships citywide is not restricted to the neighborhood of Bushwick. “Many [community partnerships] are doing well in terms of recruiting,” says Nathaniel. “Where we have seen a challenge is in bringing them to a point where they become licensed foster parents.”
The process of certifying new foster parents and approving kinship foster parents is extensive. In addition to attending an orientation and filling out a foster parenting application with ACS, prospective foster care parents have to submit to a home study that takes several months, as well as complete an eight-to-10 week training on parenting children in the foster care system.
“Getting a good foster home is like hiring a good staff,” says John Courtney, a program director at the Bridge Builders community partnership for the Highbridge section of the Bronx, another of the 11 CPI neighborhoods.
“You want the best [foster parents] because you don’t want disruptions, you don’t want to transfer children.”
The Highbridge community partnership was one of the first to be launched in July of 2007. Courtney says the group's successful initiatives include the installation of foster parent coaches to assist prospective parents with the application process, plus holding outreach events like a talent show that featured foster care children from the neighborhood last December – which generated 40 inquiries from potential foster parents.
“You might ask what a talent show has to do with foster care, but once they were sitting in their chairs, we talked about the importance of keeping children from Highbridge in Highbridge.”
Next July, the amount of money available to each of the 11 community partnerships will expand from $150,000 to $300,000 as part of a structured agreement with ACS to expand support for the partnerships in coming years.
And with added support for partnership efforts, Queenie Butler hopes to start a sewing class for foster parents, birth parents and their children, which would culminate in a fashion show and Christmas party in December of 2010.
In the meantime, Butler is using her experience with the foster care system to educate prospective parents in the neighborhood, as well as serving as an anchor parent for Bushwick’s Circle of Support chapter—an ACS-sponsored neighborhood group where kinship, adoptive and foster parents work with each other.
For Rubio and the community partnership at large, Butler’s ability to approach people in Bushwick who may be wary of being involved with ACS has been nothing short of a godsend.
“We could be standing on line at a bank, and she’ll turn to someone next to her and say, ‘Have you ever thought about becoming a foster parent?’” he jokes.
For Butler however, involving herself in Bushwick’s community partnership is no different from her decision to ensure her two nieces stayed close to something familiar more than four years ago.
“Once you take children out of the community, the children are lost. To have them in a totally different neighborhood, they don’t respond in school the way they are supposed to.”