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Partnering with faith communities to recruit families

Marisele Esperance

Marisele Esperance is a quality assurance supervisor for the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families and a graduate of the AdoptUSKids Minority Professional Leadership Development (MPLD) program.

Marisele talked with us about how her participation in the MPLD program helped her efforts to recruit more families of color in her region.

What made you want to participate in the leadership development program?

I’ve been working in child welfare for more than 22 years, and I’ve seen plenty of cases that I thought should have gone differently and systems that I wish would change. But you get busy with day-to-day responsibilities, and it never feels like there is time to focus on the bigger picture.

I applied for the MPLD program because it sounded like a great opportunity to focus on something that had been on my mind for a while and be intentional about improving outcomes for children and families of color.

Was the program what you expected?

Yes—and then some! I have a new family. I have colleagues across the country who have the same background as me—personally and professionally—who I can learn from and share ideas with.

And I have a new understanding of disparity and disproportionality in child welfare. I’d taken courses on these topics in graduate school, but it was a more general conversation about how the problem exists. Doing a hands-on research project brought these issues to life and gave me tools to address them.

What was the focus of your research project?

I supervise a team of foster home recruiters, and about three years ago, one of them started focusing on working with faith communities. She was very successful at not only bringing in new families and helping to create new programs to provide additional support services to foster parents—support groups, in-home babysitting, respite care, meals for foster parents.

Most of these partnerships were with faith-based organizations whose members were primarily White. For my action research project, my mentor and I decided we’d replicate this successful program to work with African American and Hispanic faith-based organizations.

What were the biggest lessons you learned through the project?

Almost from the start, I learned that the best—and sometimes the only—way to engage an organization is to identify a liaison. Our outreach efforts have been most successful when someone in our foster care and adoption community—a staff member, an intern, a foster family—is associated with the faith-based organization that we are trying to collaborate with.

We’ve also been successful when a well-respected leader from another faith group reaches out for us. Recently, the leader of one of the biggest Hispanic faith-based organizations in Boston spoke to another group about the need for foster parents. There are foster parents in her congregation, so she has that first-hand knowledge of foster parenting and was able to speak powerfully about the need.

We’ve also learned that faith leaders need to be in the driver’s seat. We give them tools and information they need, and examples of how they can support this work. But ultimately, they decide how their community can best support this work. This means that each collaboration and partnership looks different.

We’ve had some great success, but I can’t say that this has been an easy process! A final important lesson is that this is a long game. Some faith-based organizations were very open from beginning. Others keep telling us to come back later….and then later again! Which we will. Because it’s all about building trust. And being persistent.