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April 30, 2024

Listening to parents vital to HHS plans

At the recent National Conference on Access to Justice, sponsored by the ABA Center on Children and the Law, a plenary session discussed the 2024 Report on Parent Engagement released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families (ACF).

The largest human services agency in the federal government, ACF administers more than 60 programs, including child welfare, child care and Head Start, human trafficking prevention and refugee assistance services.

Debra Johnson, ACF’s deputy assistant secretary for external affairs and acting director of regional operations, discussed the takeaways from listening sessions held during the last two years with parents across the country. The sessions focused on four key areas:

Parenting children with behavioral health challenges

A recent HHS publication reports that more than 40% of children involved with the child welfare system in 2019 had been diagnosed with behavioral health conditions. The ACF, wanting to work with parents and caregivers as “change agents” in preventing, coping with and recovering from behavioral health challenges, heard from them:

  • Their children experience a range of mental health challenges, including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety.  Many noted that their children’s mental health has noticeably worsened due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Systemic barriers, such as affordability, geography and racial bias, prevent access, trust and connection with mental health systems.
  • Culturally competent and financially accessible care would greatly benefit their experiences with mental health systems.

In September 2023, ACF awarded $20 million to launch the National Center for Child Welfare Competent Mental Health, which will provide technical assistance and training to strengthen coordination and improve the quality of the services it provides to those in the child welfare system and who have experienced adoption.

Supporting fathers

Fathers and paternal caregivers have historically been overlooked and less engaged by human service systems. But as part of ACF’s “whole family approach,” listening sessions with fathers yielded these takeaways:

  • Fathers often feel excluded — both in their own relationships and by human service systems — and want to be fully incorporated into their children’s lives. Many said they want to be more involved in supporting their partners during preconception, pregnancy and postpartum. Some relayed that they are often treated unfairly and judged negatively based solely on their gender, and shared that this bias has a negative effect on their father-child relationships.
  • Fathers want their perspectives to be considered as equally important as mothers and maternal figures.
  • They would appreciate equitable access to resources and services that help them better navigate child welfare and human service systems, develop parenting skills and foster sustainable father-child relationships.

Last June, the ACF “DADication” campaign released a series of public service announcements to highlight fatherhood involvement and to showcase, encourage and celebrate the efforts of fathers to navigate parenting challenges so they can be active and present in their children’s lives.

In addition, the ACF Children’s Bureau developed a training series and discussion guide for service providers to strengthen their engagement with fathers of color, which address myths and biases related to fathers and their relationships with their children, explore strategies for engaging and empowering fathers of color connected with the child welfare system, and provide opportunities to navigate barriers and challenges.

Meeting the needs of Spanish-speaking parents and caregivers

Head Start data from 2022 indicates that 37% of Head Start recipients identified as Hispanic or Latino, and approximately 22% live in homes where Spanish is primarily spoken. Some of the insights yielded at the listening sessions included:

  • The importance of linguistically accessible support and the desire for more Spanish-language information to be available to parents.
  • The importance of cultural competency, which should acknowledge the diversity of Spanish-speaking families, such as the different life experiences of those who have and have not migrated to the United States and the potential cultural loss and trauma associated with migration.

Last fall, ACF awarded nearly $8 million to fund the National Research Center on Hispanic Children & Families to support the needs of Hispanic populations and advance promising approaches to promoting the social and economic well-being among low-income Hispanic families.

LGBTQIA2S+ parents and caregivers and those with LGBTQIA2S+ children

LGBTQIA2S+ children and youth are dramatically overrepresented in child welfare systems and experience homelessness and other hardships at higher rates due to societal discrimination, familial conflict, abuse and trauma. For example, studies indicate about 30% of youth in foster care identify as LGBTQ+ and 5% identify as transgender, compared to 11% and 1% of youth not in foster care, respectively.

  • Youth, young adults and their parents and caregivers all reported experiencing discrimination based on their LGBTQIA2S+ identity that resulted in inequitable treatment and service delivery by some health and human services providers.
  • Transgender youth and parents said they face uprooting their lives to access gender-affirming care and avoid child welfare investigations for accessing this care.
  • LGBTQIA2S+ foster parents recommended ongoing training for agency staff on LGBTQIA2S+ equity, delivered by experts with direct experience with LGBTQIA2S+ families and featuring discussion and collaboration opportunities to support sustainable learning. Additional recommendations included increased peer support from other LGBTQIA2S+ families; equitable agency forms (for example, listing “parent 1” and “parent 2” instead of “mother” and “father”); and increased use of sexual orientation and gender identity data collection on foster and adoptive caregivers.

ACF issued the Parentage Establishment in the Child Support Services Program proposed rule last fall, which will replace the gender-specific term “paternity” with the gender-neutral term “parentage.” The rule will modernize the child support program so it more accurately reflects and is inclusive of the diverse families served, including children of same-sex parents, to ensure all families receive equitable child support services.