Foster care changes aimed at keeping families together, filling gaps

When Judge Lauren Lemmon started her quarterly “Lunches with Lauren,” the goal was to bring a new program to St. Charles Parish aimed at improving the foster care system.

“I have for a long time felt like there’s got to be a better way, but I have not thought of these solutions myself,” Lemmon said.

This came when First Lady Donna Edwards launched the “Louisiana Fosters” initiative aimed at linking government, faith groups, nonprofit organizations, businesses and community members to revamp the child welfare system. Lemmon, along with Judge Tim Marcel, joined the initiative.

“I just think it’s a big deal,” Lemmon said. “My goal is to take this strategic initiative to our local area that focuses on the Quality Parenting Initiative (QPI) that the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) implemented last year to change the way the state recruits and trains foster parents.”

The initiative promotes quality care for children in foster care by redefining expectations and roles of caregivers while strengthening the system and providing resources and tools.

DCFS Secretary Marketa Garner Walters called Louisiana Fosters “a perfect marriage of QPI and the community supports that our foster parents need.”

DCFS served 7,808 children in foster care in fiscal year 2017.

As one of the parish’s three judges in the 29th Judicial District Court who handle a general case load including the juvenile docket, Lemmon welcomed improving the system.

She recounted a case where a traffic stop resulted in children removed from their parents because drugs were found in the vehicle. The mother agreed to rehabilitation and regained her children, but Lemmon said her distrust of the system contributed to an adversarial relationship that could have been avoided with more communication and compassion.

“We should deal with people as they are,” she said. “If we don’t know where these people are coming from how can we know expectations?”

In these cases, children are placed in the custody of the state and there were times when she questioned the reasons for how they were placed.

The preference is to place them with a family member and then foster care if no one else is available. But Lemmon said the latter typically occurs with at-risk populations and this can make it challenging to reunify children with their parents, particularly when issues like substance abuse are involved.

Lemmon also welcomed Edwards inviting faith-based groups as partners in improving the system. Crossroads NOLA, a nonprofit created in 2013, is already supporting foster families in the New Orleans area by helping DCFS find families to care for the more than 4,000 children in foster care. The group collaborates with local churches, government agencies and other child-welfare stakeholders.

“This is exactly what our foster care system has needed, and I am thrilled to see Louisiana be so bold in taking this statewide,” said former appellate judge Madeleine Landrieu, an early champion of QPI in Louisiana and co-founder, with Carver, of the Louisiana Institute for Children in Families. Landrieu is also newly named dean of Loyola University New Orleans College of Law.

Lemmon agreed.

“I think it’s bridging gaps,” she said. “I definitely support it.”

It’s why Lemmon adopted the lunch concept from Judge Blair Edwards’ “Blabbing with Blair,” and brought it to the parish.

She pointed to the late Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity and read it as reason for acting on improving the child welfare system to stop doing the same thing over and over again yet expecting a different outcome.

“The main thing we learned was we needed to keep talking and learning all of our roles better so we can better facilitate the process better,” Lemmon said. “This impacts everybody. Our children are going to school, church and walking the streets with these children. We’re not isolated.”

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