A large family reunion, complete with a photo booth and thumping music, recently took over a picnic shelter at Alderbrook Park.
In the next shelter was a smaller party of people bound not by blood, but by circumstance.
The hosts of that party, Laura and Ron Darland, head a group of foster families in east Vancouver. For the last year and a half, they’ve been among the first in Clark County to use a foster care model that rallies the support and community of surrounding foster families. Private foster care agency Catholic Community Services began using the hub home model, otherwise known as the Mockingbird Family Model, at its Vancouver office in March 2018 and claims it addresses some major issues in the system, namely foster parent burnout and retention.
“Foster parents often feel very isolated. It’s a job you essentially end up doing all by yourself all of the time. You just get tired,” said Laura Darland, who’s been a foster parent for about a decade. “You don’t have a lot of options for babysitting.”
The Darlands’ group of foster families is called a constellation and their house in Vancouver’s Parkside neighborhood is called a hub home. It’s where families in the constellation gather for group dinners and trainings. The Darlands also provide respite care, relieving foster parents when they need a break or when there’s an emergency.
“Some foster parents forgo vacations and breaks because they don’t want to send their foster children just anywhere,” said Annie Blackledge, executive director of the Seattle-based Mockingbird Society.
There are three constellations in Clark and Cowlitz counties and 17 throughout Washington. The state has used the Mockingbird Family Model on a small scale since 2004, but it’s been slow to grow. It’s been more quickly adopted in other places, such as the United Kingdom, where there are constellations organized around schools.
“I wish this would’ve been available when I was a kid,” said Blackledge, who was a foster child. “I think this is the way foster care should operate.”
Her organization advocates for youths in foster care and looks to improve their experience in the system. In the last legislative session they did work around decriminalizing the act of running, and expanding youth voices on the state Department of Children, Youth and Families Oversight Board and the Office of Homeless Youth Advisory Committee. Blackledge’s ultimate goal is that the Mockingbird Family Model would become the standard way foster care is delivered in Washington.
Measuring costs, benefits
Although Department of Children, Youth and Families Secretary Ross Hunter finds Mockingbird’s work “incredibly compelling,” he wants to see more analysis of the outcomes its model produces.
“I really need to understand what are the impacts on the variables it intends to change,” he said.
The model costs more money upfront than regular state care. It’s unclear whether paying for a hub home saves money in other parts of the system, such as placing unhoused children in a hotel, sending them out of state when there aren’t available homes, or recruiting and retaining foster parents. Measuring success is difficult, he said, because investments made toward children’s stability often aren’t realized until they reach adulthood.
Hunter acknowledged that his department has a lot of work to do to improve foster care. The overwhelmed state agency has come under increased scrutiny for removing more children from unsatisfactory living situations than it is capable of housing. As of January, there were 8,951 children in out-of-home care, including 522 children in Clark County.
“I still have too many people staying in offices overnight. I have too many hotel stays,” he said.
The number of foster parents and caseworkers hasn’t kept pace with the number of children in state care. In the last legislative session Hunter’s department asked for funding for 154 additional caseworkers and received funding for 10.
As caseworkers receive larger and larger caseloads, it creates a “spiraling situation” where children are in the system longer. Eighteen months is the median length of time a child is in foster care.
The Legislature funded eight constellations using the Mockingbird model and the state absorbed another three that were privately funded. Hunter doubts whether hub homes solve the problem of children having trauma and the foster system being hard on them. He said children not entering foster care in the first place is ideal, but if they have to be in the system, then being part of a constellation seems better.
The Washington State Institute for Public Policy in December 2017 published a report on the hub home model. It concluded that youths in hub homes may have higher rates of placement stability, but they are more likely to run and typically take longer to return home, become adopted or otherwise “achieve permanency” than youths in state care. The report suggested that foster parents using the Mockingbird model are likely to remain licensed longer.
The data have limitations and it’s possible that foster parents who elect to be in Mockingbird constellations differ in important ways from those who don’t; they may, for instance, take on clients with more challenging cases.
That’s the situation at the local Catholic Community Services office.
Erin McConaghy is the foster care agency’s Mockingbird liaison. She said her office is the first in the state to use the Mockingbird Family Model with youths in therapeutic foster care. These children participate in behavior rehabilitation services because they have greater behavioral needs. Many have been in foster care longer than they’ve been in their biological homes.
“They have behaviors because of their trauma,” McConaghy said. “They’ve moved around so much that those behaviors just kind of escalate because they haven’t found ways to attach or ways to repair relationships.”
She argues that being in a hub home environment gives foster youth more stability and a chance to learn to repair relationships because they’re part of a community. If they move foster homes within the constellation they’ll still interact with their former foster parents in social settings so they can build connections over time.
Having a community benefits foster parents, too, McConaghy said. Parents can troubleshoot, vent or otherwise get advice and mentorship; this makes caring for these children less daunting and less lonely. McConaghy has seen foster parent recruitment grow at Catholic Community Services since it adopted the hub home model 1 1/2 years ago. Before using the model, the agency had seven foster homes serving seven to 10 youths. Now, there are 20 foster homes serving 12 to 16 youths (with the capacity to serve 20 or so).
Respite is also a major component.
“You can’t work the entire month, including weekends, without a day off. That’s kind of what it feels like for our foster parents sometimes,” McConaghy said.
Laura Darland described her role as being on call. Whether it’s a planned vacation or an emergency, foster parents can drop off their children to stay at her home for however long is needed. But her help could be something as simple as picking up a kid from school.
“That helps a lot with keeping people in good standing at their jobs,” Ron Darland said.
A few days off
One morning in July, Connie Ryley dropped off two teenage girls she was fostering at the Darlands’ house, so she could take a five-day vacation to visit her mother. Ryley has been a foster parent for 16 years and likes the switch to the Mockingbird Family Model.
In the past, when she needed respite, her foster kids were sent wherever there was space. Now, they go to a place they know well with people they know well: the Darlands.
“All right, I’m going to take off. Call me if you need anything,” Ryley said to the girls, who hugged her goodbye.
They’re familiar with the house and knew where their bedroom was. One of the girls gushed over the Darlands’ dog, Pugsley, and joked that she would sneak him into her bag when she went home. The teenager, whose name was withheld for privacy, sat at the kitchen table with Laura Darland and filled her in on her life. She talked about a cool car she saw, a big spider that Ryley had to kill the other day and said she wanted to bake brownies and hang out in the backyard.
When she was in state care, she rarely saw people repeatedly. With Catholic Community Services, she sees her peers more often. On the last Friday of every month, there is a dinner at the Darlands with all of the families in the constellation, and throughout the summer there are other events, such as the Alderbrook Park gathering.
“You’re not stuck with them, but you get to know them,” the teen said. The Mockingbird Family Model is “more fun because it’s more of a community.”
The idea of the Mockingbird Family Model is to create natural support people — substitute relatives of sorts — for foster children and parents. For the Darlands it required taking essentially a group of strangers and turning them into trusted friends.
“And now we’re making pickles together. That’s how close we are,” Ron Darland quipped.
During the party at Alderbrook Park, a private park in the woods east of Hockinson, Darland was in demand among the kids in attendance, who were pushing him on a tire swing and taking goofy photos of him through the portholes of a play ship.
A biological mother also attended the event, using the time to visit with her children and see other adults model parenting. Laura Darland would like to see more of this — what she describes as the full extent of the hub home model.
“We’re all on the same page here, and we’re all trying to accomplish the same goal. That’s to get these kids home,” Darland said.
McConaghy agreed that having biological parents attend events can help make the transition back home much smoother. There are also ways to use the hub home model to prevent a child from entering the foster care system. To her, the Mockingbird Family Model is the best solution she’s seen in her years of working in foster care.
“As a foster parent, you’re just a step in a kid’s journey,” she said. “Oftentimes, with our kids that’s at the darkest point, maybe in their lives, that they’re experiencing, but you get to be that bright light during that time and kind of help them through this dark time so that they can have more success in the future with a permanent home.”
A teenager who’s been in the foster system for seven years also endorsed the model, or at least the temporary home it’s created for him: “Compared to the other foster families I’ve been in, this is probably the best.”