Family Urgent Response System can Change the Lives of the Most Vulnerable Kids
A Q&A with Susanna Kniffen, Children Now Senior Director of Child Welfare Policy
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What is the Family Urgent Response System?
The Family Urgent Response System, or FURS, is made up of a hotline that kids in foster care and their caregivers can use to get immediate trauma-informed support when they need it, and local mobile response teams – comprised of compassionate, trained professionals – that are available to provide face-to-face, in-home help during critical moments. Both the statewide hotline and mobile response teams would be available to children and families 24/7.
Why do we need it?
Kids in foster care have experienced significant trauma from abuse and neglect, as well as from being removed from their families. Adapting to a foster home can be challenging. Children may be confused about what’s happening in their lives and find themselves in an unfamiliar environment. And, blending a new family can be challenging. The bonding process can take time and be difficult. So, it is important that we can provide as much support as possible to children and their caregivers.
While caregivers have the best intentions, there can be instances in which misunderstandings happen and feelings are hurt. At times, these situations can escalate. Without a proper trauma-informed support system available 24/7, law enforcement is sometimes the only resource available, and their involvement does little to foster a healing and safe environment. These situations can result in further trauma for the child and inappropriate criminalization.
By creating a response system that is available to both children and their caregivers, we can ease tense situations as they arise, with the help of trained trauma-informed professionals, and try to keep children in stable homes where they can grow and thrive.
What current supports exist for kids in foster care? Without FURS, what options do they have?
While kids and families can contact their social workers or other professionals that are part of their team when issues arise, these individuals aren’t always available to provide immediate support. Being able to speak with a person who can immediately provide trauma-informed support and understands the unique needs of children and caregivers involved with the child welfare system, can make all the difference in strengthening the delicate bonds of a new family.
It’s also important to recognize that it can be a challenge for young people to connect with trauma services, and we want to make it easier for them to get the support that they need, when they need it. Our current system isn’t designed to provide real-time, 24/7 access to support and FURS bridges that that gap. FURS also helps connect children and families with longer-term services in their community.
What is the biggest impact that FURS can have for kids and families in foster care?
Improving stability. Instability can negatively impact a child’s ability to form healthy relationships, mental health and brain development, and academic achievement.
Our priority is to improve stability for children and caregivers in these new family units. Our kids have already dealt with so much trauma and uncertainty, and we want the environment in which they live to be one where they can heal and thrive. By connecting them with the services and supports that they need, rather than moving them from home to home or into institutions, we can create that stability.
How can a system like FURS help a foster family?
While a statewide response system has not yet been established in California, there are some local mobile response programs currently working with kids and caregivers in foster care, with positive results.
One example is that of Nina, an eight-year-old, who was placed in the care of a foster family due to severe domestic violence in her home. The transition proved to be challenging for Nina as well as her foster mother, Jeanette. Jeanette was unsure of how to calm Nina down when she was screaming, hitting, and threatening to run into traffic. Jeanette contacted the mobile response team, and a team was sent to their home to help both Jeanette and Nina navigate the situation. The mobile response clinician sat down with Nina, and asked her to draw pictures describing her feelings, a process that helped de-escalate the situation. The clinician also worked with them using gentle play and therapeutic games, and provided guidance as to how similar situations could be alleviated in the future. The mobile response team collaborated with Nina’s assigned child welfare worker and other people who supported Nina. Through these contacts, the mobile response team identified that maintaining a connection with Nina’s biological grandmother, in the form of phone calls, reduced her anxiety and calmed her behavior. Nina’s caseworker then worked with Jeanette to increase the amount of contact Nina had with her grandmother, which helped Nina to stabilize in the home.
FURS also proposes to ensure that children and youth can be the ones to initiate contact with the hotline, which is critical to helping young people feel heard and supported.
For example, Damian, a 16-year-old young man, has been living in foster homes since he was 12. After recently transitioning to a new placement, Damian contacted a mobile response team for help when he was feeling upset and frustrated. The mobile response team helped stabilize the situation without the involvement of the police and created a plan with Damian to support him in staying safe for the night, including going to sleep. In the days following Damian’s call, the mobile response team collaborated with Damian’s child welfare worker, attorney, and the behavior specialist working with him to support Damian’s existing treatment team in meeting his needs on an ongoing basis.
These existing mobile response teams are positively benefiting the children whom they serve. Due to funding limitations, however, some may currently restrict their hours and limit their capacity to provide services. Additionally, many caregivers, youth, and children are not aware of the programs that do exist because there is no statewide hotline available for them to call to receive phone support and referrals to mobile response when in-person support is needed. FURS ensures that both of these critical components are part of a statewide coordinated response system.
In New Jersey – where a coordinated response system with a statewide hotline and mobile response teams has been available to all children and families for more than a decade – the data is very impressive. Over 17 years, 95 percent of children and youth seen on mobile response calls have remained in their homes.
What can the public do to ensure FURS is available in California?
If you are affiliated with an organization, you can sign on to The Children’s Movement campaign to ensure this Response System is included in the 2019-20 state budget.
And while individuals cannot sign on to the letter, if you feel strongly about this issue, we encourage you to contact your assembly member and/or senator to advocate in favor of this Response System.
Are there other ways to kids in foster care?
There are so many ways to get involved!
Individuals can donate to non-profit organizations in their community that support kids and caregivers, sign up to become a mentor to a young person and provide support and advice, or even become a foster parent.
Susanna Kniffen leads the organization’s work on child welfare and foster care issues in Children Now’s Sacramento office. During her time at Children Now, Ms. Kniffen has successfully collaborated with policymakers, advocates and stakeholders to develop policies and programs to help vulnerable foster children and youth heal from trauma and thrive. Her work has focused on a broad array of topics, from system improvement to education to health, to positively impact the lives of youth in care. In partnership with stakeholders, her efforts have helped to secure many resources and supports for foster youth.
Previously, Ms. Kniffen worked as a Legislative Aide in the State Capitol, managed public policy efforts at Casey Family Programs related to child welfare and foster care, and worked for Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, where she developed a public policy agenda on issues pertaining to child abuse and neglect prevention, the juvenile justice system, and the child welfare system.
Ms. Kniffen holds an MPA from the University of Southern California and a BA in Government from Claremont McKenna College.