Foster Care Vocabulary Explained - Ralph Rowland

If you haven’t been touched by the Child Welfare System in one way or another it can be a shock to find yourself looking at a steep learning curve when you first engage. Two years ago, I left the Community Engagement team at Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission to become the Community Engagement Director at Olive Crest. I discovered that there are many similarities between engaging homelessness and addiction and engaging child welfare. Many of my existing relationships with church leaders overlapped into this area as well, but perhaps the biggest adjustment was learning a whole new vocabulary associated with child welfare.

The system is complex and constantly evolving and deciphering the insider language full of abbreviations and acronyms, of which there are many – DCYF, CASA, RDS, just to name a few, takes time. Sometimes when I didn’t know I did my best to fake it or ask someone who would excuse my ignorance. It isn’t just acronyms but terms that indicate you speak the cultural language as well. I noticed a lot of people associated with child welfare used the word “kiddo”. This was not a phrase that was in my vocabulary, which I soon picked up was code for foster child and is a clear indicator that you speak foster care. I try using it, but it doesn’t slide off my tongue well.

The church’s work in foster care brings its own set of terms and I have learned by trial and error that there are some terms that work well for some groups, but not for others. The mandate to care for the orphan and the widow out of scripture in James 1:27 has popularized the umbrella of ministry many churches call Orphan care. Caring for children whose birth families can’t or won’t care for them is caring for “the orphan” but is it being a good neighbor? Is it being a good witness to just stop there? One thing I have seen is that this phrase does not always build a bridge to the Department of Children, Youth & Families (DCYF) staff who are working diligently to reunite kiddos (ha! I can type it) with their families. And with reunification the goal, caring well for kids in foster care may mean selecting a ministry title with a focus on offering hope in reunification.

The ministry designation that seems to honor both the work that churches pour into helping care for children from hard places as well as the state in their efforts is Family Advocacy Ministry and is taken from our partner agency, Promise686. The name implies a helpful purpose and can fit a variety of vulnerable children and family situations including kinship, safe families, and bio or primary families.

Putting language to our work in serving families can feel complex at times. As we seek to communicate the vision and values of this work it pays to go the extra mile and make sure everyone is familiar with the vocabulary and not make assumptions. The other day I was trying to explain a foster care initiative to someone and I could tell by the confused look on their face I was using language that was not familiar. I was confusing them and as one Christian leader reminded me, “people will not follow you into confusion. ”

So, lets do our best to be clear and simple.

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