Families sometimes break down

By Ferrell Foster

Families come in a variety of forms, and they serve varied personal and social services. One of the key functions of family is to nurture the growth and development of children by providing for a child’s basic human needs.

We all know, however, that some families become unable to provide the needed care for a child. When that happens the state steps in to protect the children, as it does in other circumstances where vulnerable persons are at risk.

A number of things can happen when the state intervenes; one is by arranging foster care — a place to provide needed care to a child for a time. Kids may be placed in a number of possible settings — a relative’s home, a licensed foster home, or residential psychiatric care.

Foster care placements have been rising in many counties in Texas. In 2020, 1,181 McLennan County children were placed in foster care, a figure which has risen steadily over the past 10 years; there were 465 placements in 2011. These numbers reflect all children in the varied types of housing.

The placement number reflects the number of children in care at the beginning of the year and those who enter care during the year, said Anna Futral, executive director of CASA of McLennan County. On any given day there are about 700-800 McLennan County children under state supervision with relatives, licensed homes, or other residential facilities.

The rise since 2011 is staggering and should get our attention. Yes, our population has risen, but it has not nearly tripled, as have the placement numbers. This tells us that a lot of families are struggling to care for their children.

Are we any different from counties of similar size?

The rate of placement in McLennan County is 18.36 per 1,000 children. That means 1.8 percent of our children are needing state-supervised care. This is a higher rate than in similar counties — 16.5 per 1,000 in Bell, 4.21 in Brazos, and 7.6 in Jefferson.

The need for care points to a challenge on the family-of-origin side of the equation, but there is also a challenge on the foster care side. Last year, there were 17 licensed homes for foster care in our county. These homes typically house no more than two children.

“Many/most kids do get placed with relatives, which is a good thing,” Futral said, “but for those that don’t have safe relatives to be placed with, they are placed in licensed foster homes. But with so few licensed homes here locally, many children end up outside of McLennan.”

This resulted in only 35% of McLennan County children being placed in the county in 2020. That’s pretty consistent with other similar counties — 36% in Bell County, 35% in Brazos, and 33% in Jefferson. Lubbock County, which is similar in size, placed 51% within their county.

Enough of the numbers; you get the picture. Families need help, and the children in those families need help. Leaders in McLennan County have come together to pursue solutions — stress on the plural “solutions.” These things will not be improved overnight, but we have a lot of good people who care about pursuing that improvement.

If you would like to be involved, contact me at [email protected].

The data was compiled by Jeremy Rhodes of Prosper Waco from the Texas State Department of Family and Protective Services Data Book.

Ferrell Foster is senior specialist for care and communication with Prosper Waco. He is also acting executive director of Act Locally Waco.

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email Ferrell Foster at [email protected].

There are children in our midst who need our help

By Ferrell Foster

Doing family is not easy. Families have struggles. Anyone who grew up in a family — all of us — know this truth. But sometimes those struggles become so difficult or dangerous that children need to be protected. That’s when the state steps in, and that’s when the whole community needs to step in, as well.

Forty-two leaders in McLennan County met Sept. 24 to form a new strategic working group — the Families & Foster Care Coalition. Waco Mayor Dillon Meek provided the impetus for this meeting, asking Prosper Waco to convene those who are working in varied sectors to address the challenges faced by families and children in foster care.

Texas is in the midst of a crisis related to foster care, and Waco is no exception. Children are having to spend the night in local Child Protective Services offices because there are no places to take them. This is not the fault of CPS and its workers; it is caused by inadequate human, community, and financial resources.

Local leaders, however, are committed to disrupting the status quo; they believe we can do better if we work together. It is uncertain exactly what varied actions this new coalition will pursue, but we are rising up to make a difference. 

Anna Futral, executive director of CASA of McLennan County, has agreed to chair the coalition’s steering committee. Anna has been seeking such community-wide action for some time and is well-prepared to lead. (CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates. CASA trains volunteers to advocate for abused and neglected children in the foster care system.)

It is tempting to think of these issues as only a state government matter, but government agencies are not families, and these kids need families and all the care that should go with such relationships.

State-approved families that can provide foster care step into the gap. They become a child’s new place of safety and nurture for varied amounts of time as issues with the families of origin are worked out. But foster families and families of origin need support from community networks.

In addition to the state agency services and families providing foster care, there is a critical legal system to protect the rights of children, parents, and other relatives. Judge Nikki Mundkowsky and Judge Gary Coley are two who seek to guide this court system with eyes on both legal matters and human concerns.

Then multiple attorneys provide the proper legal representation to the children and families. 

In short, it is a multifaceted system that seeks to look after the needs created by families and children in crisis. In Greater Waco, leaders realize we need a more cohesive response to the situation. We need more communication, planning, and implementation. We also need more people and organizations to work together for these children and families.

If you or your organization would like to become involved in this collaborative effort, please reach out to me via email — [email protected].

As an African proverb says: It takes a village to raise a child.

Ferrell Foster is senior specialist for care & communication with Prosper Waco. He is also acting executive director of Act Locally Waco.

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email Ferrell Foster at [email protected].

United Way releases report: ‘Are the Children Well?’

By Tiffani Johnson

United Way of Waco-McLennan County is releasing a child well-being report. It is a research study to support the improvement of well-being for McLennan County’s children and families.

The McLennan County Child Well-being Movement is facilitated by United Way and is a partnership of 25 organizations or local residents. Collectively, this movement has identified community priorities to measure the well-being of children and their families. The research has found that roughly 14,000 McLennan County children are believed to be living in communities with low or very low child-well being scores.

Over the past seven months, the Child Well-being Movement has surveyed or interviewed over 600 parents, direct service providers, community members, stakeholders, and advisory committee members in an effort to better understand the child well-being landscape. This includes residents of varying race ethnicity and zip codes within McLennan County.

“The most striking theme we saw from the community conversations is that there are a number of underrepresented communities that have vanished from civic conversations as some have come to believe that their voice is unwelcomed”, stated Tiffani Johnson, senior director of impact and engagement. “The Movement is committed to championing the inclusion of residents within these communities to take part in decision making affecting their health and well-being.”

The organization’s CEO, Wendy Ellis, stated: “We want to extend our sincere thanks to Waco Foundation for funding this work, and for their initial first steps taken with the 2009 Childhood Quality of Life Index report.  There is a long-term, demonstrated commitment from this community at-large to truly understand how our children and their families are faring. Our production of this 2020 report is just one step in the journey. We will now move into the next phase of the work, which is to invite those who lent their voice for this research back to the table so that we can collectively build our community’s action plan.”  

The City of Waco is one entity that has had a seat at the table from this work’s inception. Deputy City Manager Deidra Emerson said: “COVID has only compounded the disparities and inequities in our communities of low or very low child well-being scores. The City applauds the McLennan County Child Well-being Movement’s effort to truly listen to what the communities have to say. If we are going to implement sustainable change, we need to give sincere credence to the voices of those we seek to serve.” 

To learn more about the research findings and key partnerships, visit www.unitedwaywaco.org

United Way of Waco-McLennan County strengthens the community by mobilizing resources to measurably improve lives. We envision a community where all people have the education, health and financial stability needed to achieve their full potential.

Tiffani Johnson is senior director of impact and engagement for United Way of Waco-McLennan County.

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email Ferrell Foster at [email protected].

Mental Health in the Time of Corona Virus: Helping Children Cope Emotionally


From your Heart of Texas Region MHMR (For more posts in this series, click here: Mental Health in the Time of Corona Virus)


Children are being flooded with information about the Coronavirus (COVID-19) from a variety of sources.  This is a unique situation that may leave parents questioning what to say to their children and how to address the possible emotional fallout from this concerning and anxiety-producing time in our society.

Children need to have important, factual, and appropriate information. They are likely receiving information from peers, adults, social media, and news outlets. We know that not all of this information is accurate.  Parents should provide accurate information in an effort to reduce possible confusion, fear and anxiety and to provide reassurance.  Be careful not to provide too much information and keep it at a level that the child is able to understand.

Remain sensitive to your child’s mood, behavior, and any noticeable changes in regular patterns such as sleeping and eating.   Some children keep their thoughts and feelings to themselves, while others act out their emotions. If you notice changes in your child, encourage them to express their feelings so you can explain and provide support. This provides safety and security for your child in the midst of difficult feelings and emotions. 

Continue to have as much structure in the day as your time will allow. Life as your children know it has been disrupted probably more than any other time in their lives. They are not attending school, they may not be seeing friends, sporting events have been cancelled or postponed, and they may be staying home more. Structure can decrease the amount of anxiety a child may be feeling, and give them a sense of control.

Provide children with practices that decrease the chances of getting the virus. Inform your children of the Center for Disease Control’s recommendations on what safety steps can be taken to lessen the spread of the virus (e.g., washing hands frequently, using wipes to clean surfaces, not gathering in large groups, keeping distance from others, using proper means to cover mouth when coughing or sneezing). This will offer children a sense of control over the spread of the virus.

Be aware of your own responses to COVID-19. Children take signals from their parents. Try to be aware of how you are feeling and your own experiences around COVID-19, and how this can affect your child. Speak to a friend, spouse or other trusted person to talk about your concerns and anxieties.  Don’t wait to feel overwhelmed by your worries to speak to others.  Having ongoing discussion with others will help you with your own anxieties and in not feeling you are alone in your concerns.


MHMR Mental Health Hot line – 254-752-3451 or 1-866-752-3451 – 24 hours a day. For questions related to substance use challenges, call 254-297-8999. Call 911 for a life-threatening crisis. 

Cultivating A Child’s Gratitude

By Kimberly Trippodo

Thanksgiving 2017 is in the books… even though the “official” day is past, this is still the season of giving and thankfulness.

As a social worker, I consider Thanksgiving a mental wellness holiday, in which mindfulness, gratitude, and positive cognition are prioritized. I work in Special Education; and I am a parent to thoughtful, explorative, kind young man with Autism. Two years ago, around Thanksgiving, I set out on a quest to do a better job of teaching the concept of gratitude to the children with whom I work. My own child was overstimulated by gift giving, which made gratitude during the exchange of gifts even trickier to teach. In turning to the research, obviously and without question, teaching children gratitude is something which requires the adults to demonstrate consistency, lifestyle change, and even a heart shift.

Gratitude Must Be Modeled

A clear theme in the literature emerged and moved me. The key facet to teaching gratitude turned up time and time again as modeling gratitude (Hammer, 2012 & Kupferschmid, 2015). It’s simple but convicting. Maybe my gratitude is not where it should be, which sets a tone for the children around me. I made an effort to count my blessings…yes, out loud. My husband and I thanked each other for the smallest things, to the point of possible ridiculousness. Something happened to my heart: a joy, a lightness, and humor (which I sometimes forget to have) emerged.

Gratitude is an active skill. To be able to look at challenges and say, “Yet I find a reason to have joy and to be thankful,” takes practice, as well as the ability to tolerate distress and develop solutions to overcome. Think about any maneuver learned in an athletic setting. The easiest way to learn a skill is to watch it done by someone more skilled than you and practice it until it becomes a habit.

Gratitude can be even more easily taught when rituals are made of the modeling. Rituals allow extra practice and folding into routine for our children with intellectual or developmental delays. Community service, volunteering, and charitable giving are great rituals to teach gratitude for what one has and the joy of helping others in need. Sharing what one has can diminish materialism (Hammer, 2012).

Many families in my life have dinner table activities such as “Name a high and a low,” which create ritualized discussion of gratitude nightly. The wonderful thing about this approach is it allows for authentic connection and communication to happen in general. Families who engage in this practice are not saying, “we only accept you if you sugarcoat your life.” Families instead allow children to come as their real selves–happy, sad, the range of emotion, and let it be known that their family can handle that conversation. Still, we teach children that even in the challenging times, we can find a reason to be grateful.

Gratitude Happens in Safe Environments

According to research, the other piece to teaching gratitude to children is to give them secure relationships in which to be vulnerable, in which to fail, in which to figure out who they are. All those pieces of knowing themselves, figuring out adaptability, and having healthy relationships with others reduce anxiety and create comfort and safety, so a child can have the space necessary to reflect on gratitude. The more present-minded, mindful, and unhurried we allow our children to be, the more room there is for gratitude to become a part of their thoughts and lives.

Any of us can think about times in life we felt ostracized or rejected. The precariousness of unstable relationships can make failure much scarier. Now, add the helplessness of child’s inability to care for themselves and the need for survival.  Abuse, neglect, or trauma make gratitude much more difficult, for very understandable reasons.

The hopeful thing we know from the literature (Ludy Dobson and Perry, 2010 and DuFrense, 2012) is it just takes one stable adult, showing empathy to a child, to build their sense of safety and coping skills in the world. I work in schools, and while many children have secure relationships and loving families, not all of them do. We can all choose to be an adult who shows up in a consistent and warm manner, not allowing a child’s behavior to change the warmth with which we approach them, any of us can be that one secure relationship.

We have a huge responsibility to our kids. Inspiring gratitude takes more than saying, “be thankful,” to our children. It takes adults devoted to living in a state of gratitude. It is our job to model gratitude and foster safe relationships for the children in our lives. With practice, children can understand and even make a habit of this skill.


Kimberly Trippodo is a Social Worker for Waco ISD. In her spare time, she enjoys writing, anything from fiction, to poetry, to policy analyses, to blog posts. Her other modes of creative expression are culinary concoctions, her violin, and community events. She incorporates art as an expressive outlet in her work with students. She loves all the social and cultural growth happening in Waco, and most weekends, she is out and about in Waco, enjoying the city with her husband and son. You may reach her at [email protected].

 The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these asirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email [email protected]pirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email [email protected] for more information.

References:

Baumgartner, Audra. 2013. “Teaching Kids Gratitude and Empathy Year-Long.” Pediatric Safety. https://www.pediatricsafety.net/2013/11/teaching-gratitude-empathy/

DuFrense, Susan. 2016. “Safe Adults & Creating Compassionate Schools Parts 1-4” Living in Dialogue. http://www.livingindialogue.com/

Hammer,  Connie. 2012. “Growing Gratitude in Children With or Without Autism.” Parent Coaching for Autism. http://parentcoachingforautism.com/growing-gratitude-in-children-with-or-without-autism/

Kupferschmid, Sarah. 2015.  “Gratitude, Autism, and ABA.” Behavioral Science in the 21st Century. http://www.bsci21.org/gratitude-autism-and-aba/

Ludy-Dobson, Christine and Perry, Bruce. 2010. “The Role of Healthy Relational Interactions in Buffering the Impact of Childhood Trauma.” Working with Children to Heal Interpersonal Trauma: The Power of Play. https://childtrauma.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/The_Role_of_Healthy_Relational_Interactions_Perry.pdf

 

Meals for Kids and Teens Hitting Our Streets This Summer!

By Kelsey Scherer, Child Hunger Outreach Specialist

Since we know that Waco children and families struggle with hunger throughout the school year, we also know that hunger – like any other complex issue inextricably linked to poverty – doesn’t take a summer vacation. That’s why programs like the Summer Food Service Program, which we know locally as free Summer Meals for Kids, are critically important in our community. Waco ISD’s Child Nutrition Services has served free Summer Meals for over twenty years in partnership with school campuses, local churches, and nonprofit organizations, but this year, they’re doing things a little bit differently.

For the first time ever, Waco ISD’s Child Nutrition Services will be launching a new mobile meal program called “Meals on the Bus!” The program will address the longstanding barrier of inadequate access to transportation that has, for many years, been cited as a top reason that children are unable to visit summer meals sites and receive a nutritious meal. By bringing the meals directly to groups of kids at select locations, parents and advocates won’t have to worry about children crossing busy streets or traveling far from home in order to have access to a free lunch.

Two Waco ISD buses have been retrofitted with the collaboration of Waco ISD and STS, and will be fully equipped to serve hot meals to up to 40 children at a time. Children will line up and receive their meals inside the bus, where they will be able to sit in the bus seats and enjoy their meal safely and in the comfort of an air-conditioned space. Targeted stops will include apartment complexes and areas with high densities of children who could benefit from the meal. The site list will be announced soon, but several great partners, including the Waco Public Library System, are on board. Like any traditional Summer Meals site, this program provides limitless potential for partnership with churches, community organizations, state agencies, and others, who have the desire and flexibility to provide summer programming and enrichment to children on-site. Waco ISD will also operate many traditional, non-mobile sites throughout the summer, as always.

9-food-on-the-move-logoThis summer, you will also see Waco’s newest child nutrition program sponsor, CitySquare, launching their mobile Food on the Move program in Waco and beyond! The fact that this summer, Waco will be graced with the presence of not one, but two, food sponsors trying out new meal service models speaks to the willingness of groups to collaborate and coordinate services on behalf of Waco children and families. It also reflects the strength of growing efforts to innovate and come up with creative, strategic solutions to challenges within this space. CitySquare has done an excellent job of coordinating dinner meal service to over 900 children daily at participating afterschool programs in Waco since January 2014.

Both of these programs have been in the planning stages for several years, but additional energy, fresh resolve, and technical assistance were brought to the table when the CHAMPS grant, sponsored by National League of Cities (NLC) and Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) and funded by the Walmart Foundation, was awarded to the City of Waco’s Parks and Recreation Department. The specific goal of this grant is to increase the number of children who participate in the federally-funded Summer and Afterschool Meals programs, and we have already seen those numbers increase through afterschool meals as a result of the work of this team (of which I am, of course, a totally unbiased member). I am thrilled that our city is being proactive in launching a new model for meal service that has potential to positively impact the wellbeing of children, teens, and families. I am encouraged that we have already seen similar programs be enormously effective in other Texas communities, and I look forward to helping these leaders try out this model in our own community, tailoring it to the specific needs and desires of our neighbors. I can’t wait to see all that will come of these unique partnerships, and see new partnerships and collaborations formed around these great programs.

Keep your eyes peeled for Waco ISD’s “Meals on the Bus!” and CitySquare’s “Food on the Move” serving free Summer Meals to kids and teens ages 18 and under in early June, and an advertising campaign beginning soon. If you want to get involved by supporting a Waco ISD or CitySquare site through volunteers and activities for kids, or helping spread the word, please contact Kelsey Scherer at [email protected]u or 254-300-7801.

kelseyKelsey Scherer blogs for Act Locally Waco about Food Security and related issues. She is a Child Hunger Outreach Specialist at Texas Hunger Initiative’s Waco Regional Office. Kelsey is also a team member for the CHAMPS grant.  The CHAMPS project aims to equip city leaders, anti-hunger groups, and the broader community to more effectively combat child hunger with the help of summer and afterschool meal programs.