by Farrah Mina
When long-time foster parents Darlene and Curtis Bell learned they would soon welcome four children into their Brooklyn Park, Minnesota home, the couple took a crash-course in preparing traditional Nigerian pepper soup and fufu. Within 24 hours of arriving at the Bells’ home, the siblings were eating the hot and spicy broth accompanied by the dough of cassava and yams.
Learning about the children’s favorite foods from their Nigerian mother provided critical information to make the siblings feel welcome and comforted. To prepare the dishes, the husband and wife team reached out to Nigerian friends and neighbors, who in turn became part of easing the children’s transition into foster care.
“The kids were just overjoyed that they had this network of aunties that knew their language, knew their culture, were a part of their culture and that me and my husband were connected,” Darlene Bell said. “It was huge for the kids.”
The Bells are pioneers of the “comfort call,” an initial phone call between foster parents and a child’s family where they exchange vital information, including: Does the child have a nickname? Do they need a nightlight to sleep? What triggers or soothes them?
In sites across the country, the Quality Parenting Initiative (QPI), is working to ensure that first phone call becomes the norm rather than the exception. Launched in Florida in 2008, the initiative is based on a simple premise: youth in foster care deserve excellent parenting. Since its inception, the framework has been implemented at 80 locations throughout the country.
Its primary aim is to set expectations and assist all those responsible for children in care — relatives or foster parents — who, in turn, become professionals in parenting. Conversations, like those between the Bells and the children’s mother, are key to the approach despite the divide caused by an out-of-home placement.
“One of the things that makes child welfare so dysfunctional is the fact that it’s a war of all against all,” said attorney Carole Shauffer, former head of San Francisco’s Youth Law Center and co-founder of the initiative.
“When people work as a team they are more effective and lay the groundwork for better relationships with the children they are caring for.”
Changing the culture
QPI challenges the child welfare system to not simply prevent harm, but to ensure positive practices, like comfort calls, are an expectation. In the Bells’ home state of Minnesota, the initiative helped make comfort calls the law. Since November 2020, social service agencies in that state have coordinated the comfort calls, formalizing a practice the Bells have utilized throughout their 30-plus years of foster parenting.
It’s helped them support parents whose children are in foster care and establish a more positive rapport in a relationship that’s often fraught with tension and mistrust.
“A lot of times the families don’t need a handout,” Darlene Bell said. “They just need a hand.”
Though the majority of children in care will reunify with their family, QPI trains temporary caregivers to see themselves as a member of a team — emphasizing that reunification, not adoption, is the primary goal.
But that doesn’t mean foster parents just come and go in a child’s life, said Shauffer, a 40-year child welfare veteran. Shauffer maintains that forging a permanent emotional relationship — not simply a legal one — with the child is key.
“We support foster parents who are willing to do this incredible thing of actively loving children in their homes who are in a time of real difficulty,” said Kirsten Anderson, executive director of AspireMN, a children’s advocacy group involved in bringing QPI to Minnesota. That role is an urgent one, she added, so the children can get back to their families.
Roughly 15 staff members with San Francisco’s Youth Law Center support the initiative’s 10-state network. The group provides training as well as site support and helps develop the practices and policies the initiative relies upon.
In 2021, researchers at the University of Maryland found that the quality parenting approach helps foster parents address their biases toward the children’s parents as well as the power imbalance between caregivers.
The group’s findings, based upon an evaluation of three sites concluded, “QPI holds great promise for strengthening foster care because it acknowledges the perspectives of birth and foster parents and explicitly focuses on equitable participation in the process.“
Amplifying lived experience
QPI is rooted in the understanding that designing new practices and policies must be informed by those intimately familiar with foster care. That means addressing a central fact: Indigenous and Black children are disproportionately overrepresented in child welfare cases.
According to 2018 data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Center, Black children represent just 14% of the population yet constitute 23% of the children in foster care. And despite making up less than 1% of the overall population, Native American and Alaskan Native children represent 2% of the children in foster care.
All too often, Black and brown children move into white foster homes, far from their kin and communities.
Shana King, 47, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, is among those displaced by foster care. King spent some of her teenage years in foster care and, for a time, lost her own children to the child welfare system.
King now works with the QPI team to ensure non-Native foster parents are trained in cultural competency. She hopes children no longer have to experience what she and her children went through — a pattern that follows centuries of removing Indigenous children from their homes and tribes and forcing them to assimilate.
As was common practice in government-run Indian boarding schools throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, when King’s son was placed in a white foster home, his long hair was cut.
During her time in foster care, King said she felt a deep longing for the cultural practices she had grown up with: smudging with sage, going to powwows, eating fry bread and living among other American Indian families.
“I never got that ever again until I was an adult, until I was able to reach out and do that,” King said. “So that cut off every piece of my identity as a Native person, not being able to do those things.”
In Minnesota, Darlene and Curtis Bell are also working with QPI teams to diversify foster families. To recruit and enlarge the pool of potential foster parents, they’ve given presentations at Black churches and continue to gather data to determine how often foster parents of color are matched with children of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.
“That’s one of our biggest hopes that we can achieve,” Darlene Bell said, “to get more homes that are culturally specific to the children that are in placement.”
King believes her entire life might have been far less disrupted if the initiative had been available during her time in foster care, some three decades ago. Her mother might have come to understand that her foster parents were there to support her. Her foster parents might have been more invested in preserving her relationship with her kin and tribes.
“I truly believe if QPI would have been around when I was a kid,” she said, “I’d have family.”
Farrah Mina is a Minnesota-based reporter covering child welfare. Before joining The Imprint, Farrah worked as a data reporter at the Kansas City Star. She is a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota and an alum of the Emma Bowen Foundation and Dow Jones News Fund program.