Forestdale, a child welfare agency located in Queens, New York, is working with other foster care agencies to ensure that every family in the foster care system has equal access to quality care.
Working on the frontlines, nonprofit organizations like Forestdale help families stabilize after traumatic events and navigate the services available. They ensure children are protected and have opportunities for future growth.
“When a child is removed for whatever reason from their family home, our job is to work with the family to get the child back home. Or when this option is unavailable, to find extended family to care for them or move toward adoption. The ultimate goal is to safely discharge them from the system,” says Darya Moser, Director of Best Practice Initiatives at Forestdale.
But in New York City, with two oversight bodies and court involvement, this job can be difficult. Without the right attention, it can focus too much on concrete tasks that are necessary for compliance and not enough on the type of interventions that improve a family’s future prospects.
More for families
Both governing bodies institute their own policies and procedures, designed to protect children and encourage their well-being. Built as safety supports for families, they are yet opportunities to work more holistically, meaning working to promote growth while meeting bureaucratic mandates.
It is critical to make sure that there are safe sleeping arrangements or food on the table. But it is equally important to help children bond with their caregivers, so the child has security for years to come.
Government oversight tends to monitor safety and compliance. But Forestdale, other NYC foster care agencies, and the NYC Administration for Children’s Services want more for families - security, good health, academic success, and overall, long-term child wellbeing.
About a year ago, Forestdale and a consortium of NYC agencies started asking a pressing question. How can we help caseworkers comply with all the legally mandated tasks and fundamental safety concerns, while simultaneously empowering them to provide holistic care for the child and family?
Advocates for a solution
Forestdale believes that child welfare is about taking on a challenge, heart first. This means providing every family they are assigned with quality care and taking measures to heal their trauma, not just document it.
“We work with people who have themselves experienced a disproportionate amount of trauma as children - who have often survived generations of racism, exclusion, and abuse - and are now parents,” explained Darya. But with caseworkers tasked with the impossible feat to memorize volumes of complicated policies, this fact gets forgotten, and the services provided often miss the target.
Aware of this pressing social issue, this consortium took on the initiative of advocating on behalf of the families. They hoped at first to find the resource that they needed. But when those efforts failed, they decided to create it themselves.
“What we needed was a consistent, centralized hub. One that could help caseworkers navigate those important policies and procedures, but also remind them to say essential things to parents. Things like your children are safe with us, we’ll figure this out,” says Darya.
They designed a comprehensive, future-focused casework approach that incorporates all the court and mandatory safety checklists. But the challenge was less about creating the content, and more about finding the right cloud-based platform to house this information and make it accessible to the hundreds of caseworkers working in NYC.
Lacking a playbook
Their first iteration was a document-style manual which was soon abandoned.
“I didn’t feel comfortable sharing a document. For people to print it out and for it to sit on their desk and never to be looked at,” Darya told us. “Social work doesn’t happen behind a desk, it happens out in the field, at the families’ homes or the courthouse. Those are the places we needed this resource to reach.”
Unwilling to make another printed manual that would sit on a shelf gathering dust, the group set forth to create a living resource.
They would build an open-source product that they would share with any and all other foster care organizations to promote best practices in the field. It would be a Wikipedia dedicated exclusively to social work theory, foster care policies, and New York specific procedures.
To do this, Darya needed a tool that would be digestible for her to own and manage. She started searching for a cloud-based way to make these policies more widely available and accessible. That’s when she found Trainual.
A holistic guide to casework
Trainual provided a cost-effective solution that Forestdale could quickly migrate content into, seamlessly update when necessary, and share with other organizations. “That’s the exciting part about Trainual,” Darya says, “the ability to share this content at the click of a button.”
The final product is a single, searchable resource and training hub that any worker in the foster care system can use to quickly reference in the field.
It places more than 100 mandated tasks into a searchable 4-stage model of sound, holistic casework that is designed to help families achieve long-term success and stability. And it is updated as swiftly as the policies within it change.
With it, caseworkers would be trained to not only check that there are safety bars on the apartment windows, but to provide client-families with a transparent explanation of the system, how they can help, and what services are available to the family.
Taking on the challenge, heart first
Since creating the resource a year ago, the consortium has piloted and is now implementing Trainual into operations among fellow foster care organizations city-wide.
However, the group wants to know the full potential of what they created. They are identifying ways to measure the impact this resource has made so far. And they hope to have metrics on practice consistency, caseworker empathy, and the long term impact on children and families as soon as possible.
But even with hard data still pending, Forestdale has undoubtedly streamlined how caseworkers navigate the bureaucratic labyrinth and radically improved the quality of service to NYC families in crisis.
With Trainual, Forestdale has created and is sharing the means to provide equal access to quality care. And they are already seeing caseworkers get back to the heart of what social work is: helping people heal from trauma and become the parents that they want for their children.