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Child welfare systems around the world are facing a similar crisis - a lack of foster parents, overburdened social workers, and distressingly negative outcomes for the children and young people these systems are designed to serve. The idea of community-based care has been left out of the equation, despite the old adage – “it takes a village to raise a child”.

But what if there was another way? We had an opportunity to sit down with Fernando Clara, Mockingbird’s Director of Practice Innovation, to discuss the MOCKINGBIRD FAMILY™ model of foster care delivery, and what potential it has to solve the root causes of this foster care crisis. MOCKINGBIRD FAMILY™ brings a group of 6 – 10 foster families together in a Constellation, with experienced foster parents at its center, called a Hub Home. Hub Homes provide training, support, and respite care for the families in their Constellations. MOCKINGBIRD FAMILY™ is being implemented in the US and around the world.

Q: From your perspective, what are the challenges facing child welfare systems?

A: Everywhere across the world, unfortunately, a number of foster families do not get the resources or supports they need. In most cases, foster parents are providing care alone. And when they have questions or concerns, it’s on individual social workers to provide those answers. Overburdened with huge caseloads, these social workers don’t have the capacity to provide that support, leading to high foster parent turnover.

Even before COVID, child welfare agencies across the country were challenged with retaining their foster parents. In the United States, 75% of newly licensed foster parents stop taking placements within two years. That means that most child welfare agencies lose between 30% - 60% of their foster parents, annually. Imagine trying to recruit and retrain about half your work force every year. That wouldn’t be a sustainable business model anywhere, and yet, that is exactly what every child welfare agency in the country does.

I think the most important impact of this is that children and youth experience high rates of instability. They are either moved far from their community or have multiple placements. Often both. Moving around interrupts their education. It makes it difficult to stay connected to their extended family, their siblings. And we know that this has a negative impact on their futures based on the, well, devastating outcomes for young people who experience the system.

Q: What is the idea behind MOCKINGBIRD FAMILY™, and what makes it different from traditional foster care models?

A: Well, the reality is that Mockingbird Family has been around since the beginning. People everywhere have been raising children within an extended family network for thousands of years. So, the idea and concept of raising children within a large community is nothing new. People know how to build community. They know how to create their own families. It is these bonds that are allowed to develop within Mockingbird Families, unlike in traditional foster care and within institutions. The idea was to create community within child welfare, which is completely opposite to the way the majority of child welfare agencies practice. I think, in a general sense, that’s what makes the program successful.

Q: Can you tell us about those successes? What are you seeing?

A: The thing about MOCKINGBIRD FAMILY™ is that it provides the resources and supports to foster parents and children in real time - when they need it. Say there was an emergency placement, when a child needs to be placed in a foster home quickly. Kids often just get dropped off at a foster home with no school records, no extra clothes, and no medical information. Within a Mockingbird Family, this is completely the opposite. Our Hub Homes are experienced foster parents, so they know the school enrollment process. They have resources so they can provide clothes to the youth in care. And, because they are attached to a liaison who can get answers from the agency, medical information is never too far away. These are all simple, yet concrete supports that retain foster parents and gives young people stability.

I think, too, because they are part of a Constellation they have the support of 6-9 other families who are going through the same thing and who are willing to help. The Hub Home supports their Constellation when needed, and the families support each other.  I’ve heard many times that often the best part of MOCKINGBIRD FAMILY™ is the community it creates.  Foster parents have a community of folks who are willing to listen to their trials and tribulations without judgement. Instead provide encouragement to continue. And that is what we really want. Because family never gives up on family – that is what this way of doing things is all about.

Mockingbird Family started here in Washington. In partnership with the Department of Children, Youth, and Families we’ve established 17 constellations. We’ve been able to show that MOCKINGBIRD FAMILY™ works with a 93% foster parent retention rate. We’ve been able to demonstrate that placement stability is higher for children in constellations. What this all means is that MOKINGBIRD FAMILY™ is doing what it was intended to do – create families and community.

Q: I know Mockingbird Family is being adopted all over the world, can you talk a bit about why our global partners have chosen MOCKINGBIRD FAMILY™, and what have we learned about its efficacy in their communities?

A: Our international partners have chosen Mockingbird Family because they realize that what they have been doing, similar to the United States, is not working. They continually lose their foster parents and children are unfortunately moving around from placement from placement.

We’ve also learned that family and community transcend oceans, laws, and boundaries. That once a community is established it cannot be undone. For our partners who have been able to take this to a huge scale, like in the UK, they’ve been able to demonstrate that by implementing MOCKINGBIRD FAMILY™ they’ve been able to provide a completely different type of foster care. Evaluations demonstrate that foster parents are staying, and children and youth feel that they are part of community.

Q: What opportunities does Mockingbird Family offer for indigenous communities and communities of color?

A: I think it stands out because the values of Mockingbird Family align perfectly with the values of both indigenous and communities of color. Those of unconditional care - that families and friends are bonds for life. And also community-based care. That children and youth should be able to stay close to their families and culture. Even if they need to go into foster care they are able stay in their community. I think one of the most exciting things is that our partners in Canada, the Nuu-chah-nulth community and in New Zealand, Te Roopu Awhina ki Porirua, are implementing MOCKINGBIRD FAMILY™ to bring their young people back home, back into their community. Because like in the US, native young people and youth of color are removed from their homes at disproportionate rates to white children. They are using the model to bring their children back to their native communities, back to their culture.

And I think that is a big strength of MOCKINGBIRD FAMILY, that of cultural relevancy. Within MOCKINGBIRD FAMILY™ we value and honor the traditions and customs of our families and youth. It is crucial. So everyone within MOCKINGBIRD FAMILY™ strives to keep youth connected to that. We take that into account when designing our constellations. Where are kids being removed from their homes? That’s where we need a Mockingbird Family, a Constellation, so we can keep the most kids in their communities.

For more information on MOCKINGBIRD FAMILY™, tune in to Through the Lens of Lived Experience on Oct. 15th. Fernando and Ariel Metekingi from Te Roopu Awhina ki Porirua will discuss the opportunities MOCKINGBIRD FAMILY™ presents for the future of culturally relevant foster care.