A day spent with Barry Chaffkin

One of the things that Barry does is train people in foster care. He works with everyone from agency staff and foster parents to legal professionals. Yesterday I joined him for two trainings in order to learn more about the foster care system and also to see Barry in action (he is a really great trainer). Unlike other trainings I’ve been to, Barry dispenses with PowerPoint entirely. He is generous with his jokes and his compliments, but also knows how to give constructive criticism and a good-natured ribbing. Best of all, Barry knows how to establish his authority without being arrogant or falsely modest about the depth and breadth of his experience. He builds rapport instantly by greeting each person as he or she walks into the room, and also having everyone make introductions. Each person gave his or her name, job title, and a question or problem they needed solving. Like a good teacher, he relies heavily on the knowledge that is already in the room (he calls everyone his co-trainers) while driving just a handful of important points that he wants everyone to walk away with. Although Barry has people doing exercises every now and then, the training feels like one giant conversation where every moment is potentially a teaching point. The biggest lesson I gleaned from yesterday was that great social workers (at least in the mold of Barry Chaffkin) are tenacious problem-solvers who can approach every person they encounter with an open mind and an empathetic heart.At Children’s Village he ran a session on best practices for social workers in foster care. The room was quite mixed. In the crowd of 30-40 people, there were case workers, health care integrators, supervisors, assistant directors and directors, and community hosts who open their homes to birth parents who want to visit with their children. Barry really worked to get everyone to step outside their bureaucratic mindset of having to put out fires and push cases through the system by getting them to take a step back and see things through the eyes of birth parents, foster parents, and the children. He pointed out that kids are bound to act out and that persistence and routine is really the key to success with them. Similarly, if you prepare the expectations of birth and foster parents for certain incidents (i.e., kids tend to cry a lot after visiting with their birth parents because of the trauma of separation), then people are more likely to look for solutions rather than give up on the kids. He gave a very good example of how the system often sets these families up to fail by pointing out that the practice of two-hour visits with birth parents and children would feel unnatural to anyone. He asked everyone when the last time they sat with their kids for two hours in the confines of a small room with the expectation that everyone would be fully engaged. Someone pointed out that it’s much worse when a parent has more than two or three kids, because inevitably someone feels left out or restless, and soon you have a room full of kids crying or acting out. Barry said that statistically agency visits are the least successful, so case workers should try as much as possible to schedule visits out in a park or home, where the environment feels more conducive to a family-like setting.

The other major point that Barry had people work on was to acknowledge and (as much as possible) let go of their biases. He said that birth parents tend to be judged unfairly, and this is especially the case when they are incarcerated. Except in the most extreme cases of abuse, parents have a right to see their children regularly. Barry also reminded everyone that the role of foster parents is to foster the relationship between children and their birth parents, while providing the parenting that the latter cannot give in the meantime. Children in foster care get very confused if they are made to take sides with one set of parents or another, so it is best when everyone involved can act as a team in their best interest. Even though Barry sketched out an ideal scenario that often doesn’t play out in real life, he communicated very concrete principles that can guide anyone toward that ideal in a very practical way.

After a quick lunch, Barry and I headed to Leake & Watts for a cultural competency training. They have a cultural assessment tool that they wanted him to evaluate and help them use effectively, but he started at square one by asking what culture meant to them. Answers ranged to include language (English vs. Spanish; verbal vs. non-verbal; generational or regional slang), religion, traditions/customs, music, food, family dynamic (hierarchy between parent and child; how you discipline kids–whether corporal punishment is accepted), socio-economic status, dress, speech, gender and sexual orientation, carriage and demeanor, the culture of foster care, and race and ethnicity. Barry said that in the best case, we get a perfect cultural fit between the child’s birth and foster families, but he said that it’s not always obvious what that fit is until you really get to know all the players involved. He gave the example of religion, where a birth family might say they are Catholic, and their child is matched up with another self-declared Catholic family. But one family might be regular church-goers and the other not. And if going to church or being part of a youth group is really important in that child’s life, then the agency first of all needs to be made aware of that, and second, it needs to find a way to make it happen. Barry pointed out that no superficial checklist will draw that sort of information out of the kid, so it is the social worker’s responsibility to take the time to talk to the kid and really get to know him or her.

After spending some time talking about the importance of comfort food to kids and the subtleties of racial and ethnic distinctions, Barry led a group exercise where he had four volunteers act as parents. He gave each one a set of mardi gras beads in different colors: purple, gold, black, and blue. Each of the parents had to choose co-workers to be kids in their families. As the selection process progressed, he asked those who remained seated how it felt not to be chosen to join a family, and one woman admitted that she felt kind of left out or unwanted. He also asked the parents if they even consulted with their existing children whom to add to their families. Like real-world families, some parents did what they wanted without checking in with their kids, while others went out of their way to consult with their family members. Barry pointed out that placements are most successful when foster parents talk to the children already in their homes about taking another child in.

After everyone had been assigned to a family, he gave everyone fifteen minutes to decide, as a family, on their religion, music, family tradition, food, and geographic identity (place of origin or location). He asked everyone to pay attention to the process of how they made their decisions. Three families made a real effort to compromise on everything, and it worked out with two groups, but one group felt like no one was happy because everything was, precisely, a compromise. Another group decided that they would be the ideal foster care family, so they decided to move to Hawaii together and everything worked out between them. At this point Barry announced that he was playing the role of CPS. He approached the purple family and declared the parent incapable of caring for all six kids. He asked which kid should leave? The “oldest” kid decided that she should be the one to leave, and everyone seemed satisfied with that, but Barry said that some groups really fight to keep all their kids. And when she joined the blue family, he used it again as a teaching point for how she should be integrated into the new family, while keeping her purple beads. In the best case, everyone should be both blue and purple to provide the best cultural match for the child.

After giving everyone a short break, Barry summarized the major points he wanted everyone to keep in mind: that you need to talk to children in foster care about their everyday lives to really get to know their culture; that you should be mindful of cultural differences; and that you should, nevertheless, be wary of generalizations and treat everyone as individuals. He stressed that even kids as young as four can be brought into the decision-making process. Following both sessions, people went up to Barry to thank him personally and also request more trainings. I recommend his trainings to anyone involved in the foster care system.

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