sherree-harrington.jpgMIAMI – Although she was often under the influence of cocaine-laced marijuana, Chartina Askew considered herself a good mother.

But after she had an argument about school with her curfew-defying, teenage son a year and half ago, the Department of Children and Families removed him from the home.

The Neighborhood Partnership Program (NPP), a small Liberty City agency at the Belafonte Tacolcy Center – a non-profit dedicated to helping young people – is working to keep families like the Askews together by dismantling negative misperceptions about inner-city families.The organization helps families become self-sufficient. It has partnered with DCF to help change its relationship with poor, black families.

Although black children represent 15 percent of the United States population, they comprise at least 37 percent of the children on the foster care rolls.

In some states, like New York, more than 90 percent of the children in foster care are black.

In Miami, black children comprise roughly 12 percent of the child population, but more than 70 percent of those in foster care.

Sherree Harrington is the program’s supervisor and one of its biggest cheer leaders.  As a part of the program for the past three years, Harrington has learned that despite appearances to the contrary, families living in Liberty City share many of the same values and goals as those living in the suburbs. 

“The misperception is that people in Liberty City don’t want to do anything. They just want everything from the government,” she said, begging to differ. “A lot of people in this community want to live self-sufficiently. They want better for their children. They want a better education for themselves and their children and they want better jobs. We’re able to help.’’

The nation’s child welfare system began with a singular focus to protect children from abusive parents. The first set of federal laws governing child welfare were enacted in 1935, with the passage of the Child Welfare Provisions of the Social Security Act. 

Ironically, because of legalized racism in the country, black children facing the same kinds of “abusive” situations as their white counterparts were ignored by the child welfare system.

Today, many argue that the nation’s child welfare system has gone from ignoring poor, black families to paying too much attention to them.

Programs like the NPP have been cropping up for the past decade to reverse the trend of black children being disproportionately placed in foster care.  The program is funded by $250,000 from Our Kids of Miami-Dade/Monroe, Inc., a local non-profit contracted by the state to provide foster care services throughout the area.

Although Askew said she sees the DCF intervention as a “blessing in disguise,” (she was not a part of the program when DCF intervened), the NPP program is able to use a case management process called the Family Team Conference (FTC) and strong collaborations with local businesses, schools and other service programs to keep families like hers together.

During the FTC, vital, often pivotal details about the family are revealed. Details like Askew’s ability to abstain from drugs during the entire time she was pregnant with her three-year-old son might not surface during a traditional child abuse investigation that primarily seeks to substantiate suspicions of abuse.

The FTC is a “strength-based meeting” in which the family is in charge of identifying their problems and, more importantly, ways to resolve them. Team members may include immediate and extended family members, DCF employees, service program workers or other people whom the family deems supportive – and can help the program hold the family accountable. 

“The people around the table set ground rules for the meeting; and we start off by identifying the family’s strengths,” Harrington said. 
Harrington said the process works.

“Last year, we preserved 114 families,” she proudly announced.

DCF agrees. Bruce Baskin is the DCF program administrator in charge of several protective investigative units, including the one that partners with the NPP.  The 18-year DCF veteran and former child abuse investigator is sold on the program’s effectiveness.

“It needs to be expanded,” Baskin said, adding that the program helps DCF to prevent removals in many cases.  “Some things are kind of like a borderline, if we didn’t have the NPP and other services, we’d have to remove.’’

Flexibility in how Florida uses federal dollars also factors into the program’s success.

Alan Abramowitz, who was recently appointed the regional DCF administrator for Miami, said that in the last year alone, the number of children removed from their homes has been reduced by 22 percent because of the funding waiver that “allows the money to follow the child, instead of the placement.”

Abramowitz, a strong proponent of family preservation, said “The only way we’ll have success is if parents are our partners.”

The criteria used to select the program locations include communities with high rates of social maladies (high crime, poverty, drop-out rates, etc.) and consequently, high child removal rates. Although NPP statistics for the past three years are not yet available, Baskin said he is certain that the removal rate has gone down in the area. 

“People expect that that area will have a high number of abuse reports, but they don’t,” he said. “Compared to my other areas, the number of removals in the NPP area [is] down,” he added.

Having people who live and work in the area employed with the NPP makes a huge difference, Baskin said.

For example, he said, “A family of five [is] living in a one-bedroom, but that might be all that they can afford. Does that mean that it’s an abusive or neglectful situation?”

His incredulous tone implies that the answer to his question is no.

Said Baskin: “Depending on who’s looking at that, they might see it as not proper living conditions. We try to go in with an open mind [and] focus on one thing:  Is this situation a threat or risk to the child? If the evidence reveals that it’s not, then we let the community take care of itself.’’

Photo by Khary Bruyning. Sheree Harrington, supervisor of the Neighborhood Partnership Program.