Specialists Help Open Parents’ Eyes, Foster Reunification

Family Engagement Specialist James Burrows sees his interactions with parents whose children have been removed from the home as almost like a chess match.

“Every step I take is calculated, and there are so many variables in play, with the Bureau (of Milwaukee Child Welfare,) the courts, the system; but we just continue to work with the family to bring about positive change,” he said.

James Burrows
James Burrows

“I tell them very directly, ‘This is what the court wants to see and what we can do to show this.’ These are not just conversations; it’s all very planned out.”

The end goal is always reunification or some form of permanency for the children. And along the way, the children’s safety and well-being are of utmost concern.

James and other Family Engagement Specialists are referred by and work closely with the families’ case managers. They provide more intense and more frequent interactions with families and their children and share what they learn about the families’ progress with the case managers.

Family Engagement Specialists follow what is called the Visit Coaching Model, which focuses on the parents’ strengths, the children’s needs, and barriers to success. They conduct visits with the families and their children either in the home or at SaintA’s Family Center, depending on which place is most safe and conducive to achieving forward movement. Duration often starts with two hours twice a week and is altered as the cases dictate.

“We address parents’ diminished capacities and empower them to be the primary caregiver we hope they can be.”

Things are not always easy in the beginning.

“The parents come in frustrated, with people telling them what to do,” James said. “The last thing they want is another person telling them what to do.”

So creating relationships and building trust are critical, he said.

“It’s important to let them vent in the one-on-one meetings we have before and after our visits, and for us to show compassion to someone who feels the system hasn’t given much to them.

“And they won’t want to work with someone they don’t like, so it’s important to build a positive relationship.”

In the beginning, James will sit back and watch the interactions between the parents and their children. He looks for things such as how they engage with the kids, whether they pull out a phone and let the children do what they want, whether the kids are cranky and the parents seem to pay no attention, etc.

“That first couple of visits, I just kind of feel things out, and make sure things don’t go horribly wrong,” he said with a smile.

But sometimes he needs to let things go to the edge, he said, while always ensuring safety. He gave an example of a family of three children. The youngest, who was in SaintA’s Residential Treatment, is 7, but functions at a 3-year-old level. James held the visit with the mother at SaintA, so the Residential staff were near to offer assistance if needed.

“I knew that if things escalated, this boy could be very destructive, but I needed to watch how the other kids and Mom responded to him.”

As the case progressed, the boy learned how to redirect himself, and Mom learned how to help him with that, James said.

James achieves that kind of progress with the Visit Coaching Model, which starts with a simple illustration parents are given before their first visit. It shows a big umbrella, with clouds above it and boxes below. Parents are supposed to put things in the clouds that are barriers, then list in the boxes their strengths and their children’s needs.

Parents often have difficulty filling in the elements, James said, so he works with them. Listing their strengths may be particularly hard, so he encourages them to consider even the smallest things, such as their ability to sit down and talk with people, their willingness to be active and engaged with their kids, their ability to gauge how far away a child who has wandered off is, so that they’re always able to keep an eye on the child.

“I might say, ‘I think it was great that you called them over to eat and they ate with you,’” he said. “You have to start with the small stuff. I tell them, ‘I want you to win, to get an A+ on each visit.’ Soon they realize that those positives add up, and they add up quickly.”

The list of kids’ needs often is challenging beyond surface needs such as food, a place to sleep or a new pair of shoes, James said. “But we need to go deeper.”

He’ll often go over the referral and discuss what happened to the children in the past, then ask the parents if they think some resulting behaviors will come up again and what the children might need to combat that.

“We go over this every 60 days, and after time, they may clarify the needs. They’ll say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I didn’t see that in the beginning!’”

The parents’ perceived barriers to success also often are tough to name, James said.

“These can be as small as the bus ride over here or getting a meal together before they come. This builds a base that allows us to have more difficult conversations later.”

James conducts pre and post one-on-one meetings with the parents, at which they evaluate visits before and after they happen. These meetings allow the hardest conversations, he said.

“The pre-visit gives them the opportunity to re-visit things after time has passed since the previous visit and to discuss their plan for today. I can ask them things like, ‘What if the issue or action from a previous visit comes up again?’”

The post visit allows immediate reflection and planning for the next visit.

“Even when they are critical of what went on, we can talk about the things that really went well. I also like to leave them with homework, to have them come up with a plan, to leave them in a thinking space.

“I tell the parents, ‘You know your children best. I’m just another brain, and we’re brainstorming.’”

With these individualized visits, “they come to view you as a support and in turn respect your help and your insight.’”

James gave an example of how that played out. He started working with a mom who had three boys, all of whom are in treatment foster homes because of their high level of need and all of whom are very impulsive.

The first visit with the mother was chaotic, he said, with the kids running all over the place. As the youngest got upset, things escalated. He began growling and biting the other kids and James. Because this was unsafe for the other children, visits with the mother were split, with the two boys and the youngest visiting separately.

Mom had to be discharged from the program because of her lack of follow-through, he said, then the father was referred to James, still with split visits.

“Through my ability to build a positive relationship with Dad, and to allow him to vent in our one-on-one visits, for him to get praise and support when he was frustrated over the actions of the kids, I was able to get Dad to process the kids’ needs and to understand that all their actions have a need behind them.”

The father had said he was not consistent with re-directing his children and there never had been structure in the home. James focused each visit on following a strict structure and teaching Dad to give the children firm re-direction.

“At our last visit, Dad said, “I’m seeing the results. This structure we put in place? It’s working! The boys are seeing a new dad and they’re learning to respect that.”

James soon will bring all the boys together for visits with their father because of the progress he has made.

“This feels great, because even though it’s the progress the parents are making, we play a pivotal role. I can say the Visit Coaching Models is what makes a difference.

“In the end, we just hope the parents are able to take the steps to bring their children home.”

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