When people get together and talk about raising kids, sooner or later the same observation is made: “Parenting might be the toughest job in the world. In an ideal world, we might all be required to earn a license to do it!”
Parents and caregivers of children in foster care do need to earn a license before they are approved to care for the more than 2,000 Milwaukee children currently in foster care.
The University of Wisconsin−Milwaukee Helen Bader School of Social Welfare is a key player in helping to provide safe and caring homes by providing training for licensed foster parents in Milwaukee County as well as Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare (BMCW) staff.
“There is no question that being a foster parent is challenging! It takes a great deal of patience and hard work,” says Julie Brown, director of UWM’s Child Welfare Partnership for Professional Development (MCWPPD). “But no foster parent is asked to do this hard work alone. Ongoing training is just one of the supports offered to foster parents.”
Revised parent training program debuts this fall
Sept. 1, 2009, marks the launch of a substantially overhauled foster parent training program designed to provide foster families with what they need, when they need it.
The university-state-Milwaukee child welfare partnership began in 1993, when UWM began offering a master’s degree track for Milwaukee County child welfare staff. In 2001, the School of Social Welfare became the provider of training and development for the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare (BMCW) staff. In January 2007, UWM also took on the training of foster and potential adoptive parents. State dollars and federal matching dollars fund both programs.
“Milwaukee urgently needs more foster families who can provide safe, loving, stable homes to children and families in need,” says Brown. “Homes for adolescents and sibling groups are particularly needed. Because maintaining family connections is critical to a child’s well-being, foster families need to work with birth families to help the child stay connected until he/she can return home.”
The training program has been revised to provide information incrementally to parents undergoing the licensing process. “We’re trying to provide training and support in a just-in-time model − as much as you can when you are administering a program for a thousand-plus people,” explains Tiffany Meredith, curriculum and instruction manager at UWM’s MCWPPD.
The redesign was based on lessons learned during the last two years by UWM staff and listening sessions with groups of stakeholders including foster parents, BMCW staff, foster youth and birth parents. “We tried to find out what has made foster parents successful so that we can train to what works,” says Meredith.
The first sessions will provide basic information about licensing rules, regulations and requirements − why the agencies do what they do. “Next, the new plan supports foster parents with skills and strategies that will help them get through the first time they have a child in their care,” adds Meredith.
And because children in foster care are such a diverse population – coming from varying ages and backgrounds and with a wide variety of needs – subsequent sessions will have different training tracks based on the specific children foster parents care for, such as infant/toddler, school-age and adolescent training tracks.
The new program includes a more deliberate effort to help foster parents build support networks, because one thing that parents talk about a lot is the importance of relationships with other foster parents.
“Most children have experienced some degree of trauma resulting from the circumstances that brought them into care,” explains Brown. “Others have more complicated physical, emotional and/or behavioral needs. All need consistent, loving care until they can safely return to their birth families or some other permanent arrangement such as adoption. The majority of children in care are reunited with their birth families.
“While we are trying to align the coursework with people’s needs at the moment, we also are focused on building depth and mastery,” Brown adds.
Community partners provide valuable support
Brown created a broad-based community advisory group that includes members from the BMCW, UWM faculty and staff, community members and service providers, such as the Children’s Service Society of Wisconsin, the agency responsible for licensing foster care parents. “This group has provided input, labor, ideas, advice and oversight for the last 2-1/2 years.”
Cathy Swessel is director of foster care and adoption services for the Children’s Service Society of Wisconsin. “The UWM training partnership provides high-quality training for Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare foster and adoptive parents. The staff members are responsive to the ever-changing needs of our families, and I appreciate their collaborative approach to this important work.”
Under the direction of Gwat-Yong Lie, associate professor of social work and principal investigator for the project, these cooperative relationships also have benefited the School of Social Welfare faculty and their research. That connection has opened the door to a number of research projects that faculty have pursued on various aspects of child welfare in Milwaukee.
“We’ve been able to make the theory/practice link concrete,” Brown says. “For example, we’ve had faculty come and teach classes to our staff and provide research-based advice on designing the foster parent training program.”
Although the foster parent training receives great “word-of-mouth” recommendations from those who have taken it, new foster parents may not recognize the need for classes until after they take them.
Meredith says she often sees a shift in attitudes by the end of the classes and hears comments such as: “This was really helpful,” and “I got to meet some people who are going through the same things I am.”
Brown says one of the indications that foster parents do realize the benefits of the classes “is the fact that we continually get requests for more training in specific areas. If people weren’t getting something from it, they wouldn’t be asking for more!”
In addition to service agencies and the foster parents themselves, government agencies at the city, county and state level recognize UWM’s ongoing efforts to expand and improve the training.
“The UWM training partnership has worked tirelessly in providing innovative training to new and experienced foster parents in the Milwaukee area. The training partnership has excelled in its efforts to be responsive to training needs, whether those needs are identified by child welfare professionals, foster parents or the community at large,” says Mary Pat Skelly Bohn, interim director of the BMCW.
“Additionally, the partnership has strived to collaborate locally and statewide in curriculum development and continues to remain flexible on when to offer training. The UWM training partnership helps BMCW support foster parents and helps foster children be successful.”