On Wednesday, June 17, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and its co-sponsors, in partnership with POV, hosted a National Reunification Month reception and policy discussion at the Capitol Hill Visitor’s Center in Washington, D.C. Segments from the documentary Tough Love (POV 2015) were shown to highlight the challenges and opportunities for parents seeking to reunite with children in foster care.

The event brought together a diverse range of groups and individuals working on and affected by the child welfare system, from those on the policy-side, to organizations addressing the issues on the ground, to social workers and service providers, parents, filmmakers and more. Hasna “Hannah” Siddique and Philly Toribio, two of the parents featured in Tough Love, were also in attendance for the event.

The evening kicked off with a reception and opening remarks from Norris West, director of strategic communications at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Scott Trowbridge, staff attorney at the American Bar Association. Senator Grassley spoke passionately about the importance of supporting families, and championed those involved for bringing the issues to light and working to create positive change. Trowbridge brought up the importance of National Reunification Month as an opportunity to reflect on what needs to be done, and get feedback from those affected by the system. Trowbridge emphasized that not everyone has to work as a politician or a professional to make an impact. Even offering words of support to families makes a big difference. “Thank you, good job, you rock…I promise you, the families we work with don’t hear that enough.”

After viewing a segment of Tough Love, director Stephanie Wang-Breal moderated a panel discussion with Judge Patricia Clark, the Family Treatment Court judge featured in Tough Love, Laura Bernsten, senior human services advisor to Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Mark Greenberg, acting assistant secretary at the Administration for Children and Families. “I knew nothing about the child welfare system prior to making this film,” Wang-Breal began. She came to the story after finishing her first film, Wo Ai Ni (I Love You) Mommy (POV 2010), which follows a young girl in China who was adopted by a Jewish family from Long Island. At screenings, audience members repeatedly asked Stephanie why a family from another country and culture adopted the girl, when she had a Chinese foster family who wanted to keep her. The question urged Stephanie to examine our own domestic foster care adoption system, and what she saw was that Americans seem to have a great deal of sympathy for mothers abroad who do not have institutional support to care for their children, but less sympathy for parents in the United States, often assuming abuse or neglect.

The policy discussion examined the challenges faced by both families and professionals, and the potential for preventative services to help families work through issues like housing, poverty, substance abuse, mental illness, etc. Said panelist Laura Bernsten, “The foster care system is not a partisan issue on Capitol Hill. There is bi-partisan interest in moving something that pushes the system towards a prevention system and away from just a foster-care system.”

The panel agreed that there is no easy answer or perfect formula, but understanding what families go through, and trying to prevent them from needing to enter the system in the first place is critical. Judge Clark pointed out that a number of families would benefit from moving funding up front to preventative services. She suggested that the audience imagine how the situation might have been different if Hannah had been offered a parenting class at 19 years old, instead of immediately losing custody of her children. “Fundamentally, if we could do more on the prevention side, we would be facing fewer circumstances with all the challenges of reunification,” said Greenberg, and the Administration for Children and Families has put forward a proposal to congress to provide funding to states for preventative services, and services for families post-reunification.

According to Bernsten, Senator Wyden, a ranking member of senate finance committee, which has jurisdiction over Title IV-E of the social security act (which pays for federal foster care), recently introduced a discussion draft for a Title IV-E funding stream for family support services before they enter the foster care system. This would not only fund and reimburse states for foster care services but, for a period of time, also reimburse states for services geared towards family stabilization that “triggers when a family is at imminent risk of entering into foster care, rather than when they enter foster care.” It would also expand the foster care service array to families, to support steps towards reunification.

“Determining the right thing to do is not always straight-forward,” cautioned Greenberg, explaining that reunification should be considered in the context of the overall goals of the child welfare system like safety, permanence and well-being, which might not all be in accordance with one another. Judges face complicated and challenging decisions as they try to address all of those goals in child welfare cases. Judge Clark explained that the courts see two kinds of success: 1. Reunifying parents with their children and 2. Placing a child in a permanent home through adoption. Bernsten also brought up the benefits of community-based programs that are run through health care professionals and/or parents who have been through the system, to provide primary prevention to families before they are in danger of entering the system. Bernsten explained that training and empowering the child welfare and foster care workforce to understand what families are going through is crucial. Judge Clark agreed that addressing what is going on with the whole family, and providing support and interventions for the entire family structure will have long-term benefits and go far in preventing families from being separated to begin with.

To help parents find local resources and navigate the system, POV and the Tough Love team developed a state-by-state parent resource guide. You can access or add to the Parent Resource Guide here.

For more photos from the event, visit the POV Flickr page.

A huge thank you to all the partners who made the event possible: The Annie E. Casey Foundation, Center for Asian American Media, National Association of Drug Court Professionals, American Bar Association Center for Children and Law, National Center for Housing and Child Welfare, Advocates for Family First, National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, National Court Appointed Special Advocates, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Tough Love will have its PBS national broadcast premiere on POV on Monday, July 6th at 10pm (check local listings).

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POV Staff
POV (a cinema term for "point of view") is television's longest-running showcase for independent non-fiction films. POV premieres 14-16 of the best, boldest and most innovative programs every year on PBS. Since 1988, POV has presented over 400 films to public television audiences across the country. POV films are known for their intimacy, their unforgettable storytelling and their timeliness, putting a human face on contemporary social issues.