By MIKE MCGEE
The Dallas Examiner
The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services released its annual report, Regional Demographics of Children in Foster Care by Authorized Service Level for Children Age 0-17, in June. The report can be found on the TDFPS website. It indicated that 16,248 children across the state were living in foster care as of May. Of those children 3,821 were Black.
With numbers like this across the state, the nation and even beyond, the organizations The North American Council on Adoptable Children and Children Need Amazing Parents are working together towards a variety of issues and initiatives, but especially on how parents can better advocate for policy reforms.
To that end the virtual conference, Parents as Changemakers: Effective Policy Advocacy, was held July 24 as a way of educating parents, foster parents, adoptive parents and those considering such roles on foster parenting advocacy.
Marissa Sanders, consultant to NACAC and director of the West Virginia Foster, Adoptive and Kinship Parents Network, led the webinar in sharing advocacy strategies.
“The goal of CHAMPS is to source some policy reforms around child welfare and foster care in 20 to 25 states over five years by prioritizing quality foster parenting and ensuring that foster parents are equipped with training and support to help children heal, grow, and flourish,” she expressed.
Sanders, herself an adoptive parent through the foster system, affirmed that there are different forms of policy or system advocacy, from writing letters to officials, to addressing the state legislature, to chanting at the capitol.
“The bottom line is that policy makers can’t fix what they don’t know about, and they don’t know about it if they don’t hear about it from you,” she offered. “If you’re a foster parent joining us today you are on the front line, so they need to hear your experiences.
“The advocates make up the end, so they’re your huge number of people. They’re interested in and monitor several issues at once; so, they might be looking at child welfare, but also education or the environment or the economy or poverty issues.”
They provide the strength-in-numbers approach and offer proof to policymakers that there is a community that cares about a given issue, she added.
An activist is also under the umbrella of system and policy change advocacy, the director confirmed.
“They are passionate and action-oriented. They are persistent and not intimidated, and they keep the issue highly visible in the media.”
Sanders further characterized activists as people who “will chain themselves to something to get something done.” Immediacy, visibility, and an apolitical stance are often the characteristics of an activist working for improvements, framing an issue as a crisis.
Finally, a strategist has a role to play in advocacy as well.
“The strategists know the existing laws. They are aware of the landscape, they understand the system, they have the ability to either write legislation or amendments to bills, or position papers, op-eds, and such things,” the director voiced, noting that they tend to negotiate and develop long-term relationships with policymakers. They attend political events, spend time at the capitol, write policy alerts, and similar activities. Strategists are the ones at the table when there are talks about the language going into a bill, or funding or system structing.
“So, where the activist doesn’t really care who they make mad the strategist is thinking about how to maintain relationships and get what they want to get done,” she added.
They can’t act alone, she underscored; the strategist needs both the advocate and the activist to propel and highlight the issues.
What these different roles can all point to is what Sanders described as identifying an issue and “developing the ask” in order to reach a solution. Examples of issues she used included a lack of foster parent peer support in a jurisdiction, or foster parents not included in the planning team meetings for the children in their home.
“And then figure out where you need to advocate,” she continued.
For instance, if foster parents have a complaint about family court, it would not be effective to approach child welfare services since they have no part in the government’s judiciary.
Collecting data is always important for foster parent advocacy, she remarked.
“Being able to say to a lawmaker ‘peer support helps keep foster parents fostering longer’… those are things that can help them then see why this is so important and make a decision to support it.”
Easily understood language should be used, while avoiding jargon, initials or insider phrases, she suggested.
The director pointed out that gathering support and other partners was important; see who else is “working in this space,” she put it, and act with them.
Another important factor in foster parent advocacy is to put the audience in the issue, she urged, pressing a policymaker with a question such as “What would you want for your child or a child you love?”
Likewise, child-perspective messaging in the ask is especially effective. Language such as “Children are better served by parents who feel supported. Children are able to have more stable placements when their caregivers are well-supported,” is important since the children are the most important people in this system, the director further explained.
“Staying solution-focused is the best path in advocacy”, Sanders emphasized.
“You don’t ever want to just say ‘Here’s a problem, or I’m unhappy about this situation.’ You need to make sure that you have an ask and a solution.”