When longtime foster parents Darlene and Curtis Bell welcomed four kids into their home in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, they took a crash-course in preparing pepper soup and fufu. And within 24 hours of arriving at the Bells’ place, the siblings were served their favorite dishes.
Learning about the foods they loved from the children’s Nigerian mother provided critical information to help the siblings feel welcomed and comforted. To prepare the dishes, the husband and wife team reached out to Nigerian friends and neighbors. And they, too, became part of smoothing the children’s transition to 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 foster parents make to the children’s parents to exchange vital information. Do they have a nickname? Do they need the light on to sleep? What triggers or soothes them?
The Quality Parenting Initiative (QPI) is making that phone call a norm in sites across the country, with the aim of strengthening relationships between caregivers. Launched in 2008, the initiative is based on a simple premise: kids in foster care deserve excellent parenting. The program began in Florida and is now being practiced in 80 locations in 10 states, including Minnesota and large states like California.
It aims to set expectations and assist all those caring for children in the child welfare system — relatives or foster parents who become professionals in parenting. Key to the approach is the conversation between the Bells and their foster children’s mother: communication, despite the divide of 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 the 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
The approach, referred to as QPI, calls for a culture change. It challenges the child welfare system to not only prevent harm, but to make positive practices, like comfort calls, an expectation. In Minnesota the initiative has helped make comfort calls the law.
Since November 2020, social service agencies in the state have been responsible for coordinating these phone calls, formalizing a practice the Bells have deployed during their 30-plus years of fostering.
It’s helped them support parents who’ve temporarily lost their children to foster care — typically due to poverty, drug addiction, domestic violence or illness — 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.”
The overwhelming majority of children in foster care will eventually reunify with their parents. Thus the initiative trains temporary caregivers to see themselves as a member of a team — emphasizing to foster parents that reunification with the child’s family, not adoption, is the primary goal of a temporary stay in foster care.
But that doesn’t mean foster parents just come and go in a child’s life, said Shauffer, who has worked to improve life for children in foster care for more than 40 years. Shauffer maintains that forging a permanent emotional relationship with the kids — not simply a legal one — 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 support the initiative’s 10-state network, which is a part of the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center. The staff provide training and site support and develop the practices and policies that the initiatives rely on.
According to a 2021 evaluation report from the University of Maryland, the quality parenting approach has helped foster parents address biases toward the children’s parents as well as the power imbalance between them.
“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,” stated the report, which was based on the evaluation of three sites.
A grassroots movement
The initiative arrived in Minnesota almost five years ago through a partnership between the St. David’s Center for Child & Family Development, a Minnetonka-based nonprofit, and private foster care agencies represented by AspireMN.
So far, 10 community-based organizations and five counties in Minnesota, including Hennepin County, are deploying the framework.
Now, foster youth lead presentations and provide training and toolkits to prospective foster families and licensing agencies so that their needs are imparted first-hand.
While some states mandate implementation, “quality parenting” has been spread through grassroots efforts in Minnesota, involving nonprofit community groups, government agencies and individuals.
Kate Rickord, Minnesota’s QPI coordinator, said the voluntary approach has worked in her state. “We have this group who are willing to share a really vulnerable experience for themselves for the greater good of others who may have to walk that path.”
Seven foster care agencies in the state collected data in 2018, 2019 and 2020 tracking outcomes. In 2020, 400 homes using QPI practices were involved, and among them, there were lower rates than in 2018 of “unplanned transitions,” or shifts from one household to another that were not part of a child’s care plan. The number of homes that reported being “culturally diverse” by categories of race, ethnicity, faith, and LGBTQ+ /Two-Spirit identities grew.
Amplifying lived experience
The initiative is rooted in the understanding that designing new practices and policies must be informed by the those intimately familiar with foster care. That means addressing a central fact: Indigenous and Black children are dramatically overrepresented.
In Minnesota, American Indian children are 16 times more likely than white children to be removed from their homes, according to the state’s 2020 out-of-home care and permanency report. Black children are twice as likely to be removed from their homes than white children, and mixed race kids are almost seven times more likely to be removed.
All too often, they 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 the displaced. King lived through foster care during her teenage years and, for a time, lost her own children to the child welfare system.
Now, she 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 kids went through — a pattern that follows centuries of Indigenous children taken from their homes and tribes and forced to assimilate.
As was common practice in Indian boarding schools, when King’s son was placed in a white foster home, his long hair was cut.
And 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.”
Darlene and Curtis Bell are also working with QPI teams to diversify foster families in the state. They’ve given presentations at Black churches to help recruit, retain and train a greater pool of potential foster parents. And they’re gathering 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 said her entire life might have ended up far less disrupted if the initiative had been available during her time in foster care 30 years 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 to her kin and tribes.
“I truly believe if QPI would have been around when I was a kid,” she said, “I’d have family.”