A life raft for black families

Family-preservation efforts meant to improve foster care

Linda Topinka, African American Family Preservation and Resource Committee
Linda Topinka, African American Family Preservation and Resource Committee

On Aug. 12, 224 Linn County children and youths were in foster homes after being removed from their own parents’ custody. Of that number, 79 — more than 35 percent — were African-American, in a county where about 4 percent of the population is African-American.

That disparity — on Aug. 12, African-American children were four times as likely to be placed in foster homes and four times as likely to remain there longer than children of other races — is being attacked by the Department of Human Services, agencies that work with DHS and local African-American volunteers.

“What this suggests to us is, we need very seriously to improve,” said Marc Baty, DHS service manager for the 14-county area including Cedar Rapids.

Members of Cedar Rapids’ African American Family Preservation and Resource Committee are often frustrated by the pace of improvement, but they’re guardedly hopeful, too.

“If you just commit yourself, you can get something to work,”said Linda Topinka of Cedar Rapids. “It’s not smooth, but we’re working together, and I’m pretty pleased with that.”

Topinka is a founding member of the family preservation committee. The group, now numbering eight, first met with representatives of Cedar Rapids police, schools and DHS in spring 2006.

Five years later, some changes to DHS procedures have been adopted. For one, African-American parents faced with removal of a child now have the option of meeting with committee worker Vickie Clark.

Clark, the committee’s administrative coordinator, said the state can do a better job maintaining family connections when a child is removed from a home. She noted the Aug. 12 statistics show just 25 percent of African-American children placed with relatives, compared with 72.5 percent of whites.

“I don’t know if the effort is sometimes made to make that contact” with relatives, Clark said. “It just kind of falls through the cracks.”

Valarie Lovaglia, DHS social work administrator in Linn County, said caseworkers try to locate a family member when removing any child. DHS records indicate this works less often with African-American families.

Clark also wants more African-American foster households.

“Instead of letting them go 10 blocks away, they’re sending them to Benton County,” Clark said, adding she worked with one Cedar Rapids family whose child was placed near Oskaloosa.

Minority foster households is a very small pool, said Lovaglia.

“Kids are going into homes that are well-meaning but don’t have the cultural connection,” said Latasha Massey, community projects coordinator for Johnson County Social Services.

Massey said Club Kavi, a Johnson County group formed in 2008, has made recruitment of minority foster households its priority, an effort that has brought in about 20 in the Interstate 380 corridor.

“We kind of looked at it a little differently than the Cedar Rapids group,” said Massey. “They’re looking more at the prevention, the front end. We decided we were going to own up and say that DHS is needed because there are kids getting hurt. We recognize they are already in the system. We may not be able to reduce that number right away, but maybe we can make that a little easier for the kids.”

DHS also has partnered with Seattle-based Casey Family Foundation. Through its Breakthrough Series Collaboratives, the foundation and its partners address “intractable” child-welfare issues by applying new practices, often quite simple ones, on a local scale.

“You just look at what small changes you can do and carry it out,” said Ana Clymer, who supervises family-DHs meetings for the Partnership for Safe Families, “What barriers can we look at and address with just a small change?”

One small change: When a child is removed from a home, a meeting is held the next business day between the parent, child, foster parents and DHS. Clymer or Ashley Hopkins, minority family representative with the Partnership for Safe Families, also attends the meeting.

“That’s what my position is there for, to help with the relationships between the families and the DHS,” said Hopkins, whose job is funded through a Casey grant.

Begun with African-American families, that practice is being extended to all families with children in foster care.

“I think having that other avenue, some place they can go, has made it a little easier for them,” said Karl Werner, truancy/hearing officer for Cedar Rapids Community Schools and a member of the family preservation committee. “Just knowing you have somebody’s support makes all the difference.”

Clark met with 36 families in the year ending July 1 and conducted case reviews within 30 days of

a child’s removal. The committee also held a community meeting and two youth think tanks. The committee’s activities are funded through a $75,000 DHS grant for community-based programs.

The groups’ efforts may be showing some modest dividends. For the seven months ending July 1, the rate of confirmed abuse or neglect cases involving Linn County African-Americans dropped by about 50 percent compared with the seven-month period ending May 2010, said Brad Richardson, adjunct professor at the University of Iowa School of Social Work and research director at its National Resource Center for Family Centered Practice.

“I had a supervisor once who said it takes five years to figure out what you’re doing. Then you can start making a difference,” said Werner. “We’re about there, now.”

For more information on the African American Family Preservation and Resource Committee, contact Vickie Clark, (319) 651-4795 or


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