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Improving foster care starts with the family

CMU center partners with Chicago-based organization to strengthen parent-child relationships

Contact: ​Jeff Johnston

​Nearly 428,000 children in the United States are living in foster care, according to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families.

To help maximize the foster family experience, trainers and researchers from Central Michigan University's Center for Children, Families and Communities are working with Chicago-based organization Safe Families for Children to evaluate and implement a program that will develop stronger relationships between foster children and foster parents.

"If there's one thing you can do to help a child, it is to help build the parent and child relationship," said CMU psychology professor and CCFC director Larissa Niec. "Strengthening such relationships protects the child on so many levels."

The CCFC works to improve the well-being of children and families through research and mental health interventions, and Safe Families for Children is an alternative foster care agency where children are brought in by their biological parents who are experiencing challenging economic times and need assistance in keeping their children safe.

The two organizations are working together to facilitate, teach and measure the effectiveness of intervention techniques used within foster families. This will broaden the impact of the Parent-Child Interaction Therapy currently used within the CCFC, said Niec, who is one of only 20 professionals worldwide certified as a PCIT Master Trainer to provide expert PCIT training and consultation.

Through two daylong workshops in October and January, Niec and her team of CMU students trained approximately 50 host parents on incorporating innovative intervention strategies into the relationships with the children temporarily under their care. In addition to training the host parents, the goal of this project is to empower them to help train the biological parents in order to have a long-term impact on the children's well-being, Niec said.

"We're developing new ways to reach families more effectively," she said, explaining her team has created in-person and online training programs.

Students learn while strengthening the foster care system

Among the CMU trainers and researchers was Irene Brodd, a first-year clinical psychology doctoral student who served as a coach in the training sessions. She said such opportunities are why she chose to pursue her doctorate at CMU.

"Being able to get to the training sooner is a unique thing to do as a first-year doctoral student," said Brodd, who earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees at universities in California. "In addition to the training, I get to learn from the older students and then help the students who are developing their skills."

Brodd now is working with graduate and undergraduate students, such as Southfield senior Sydney Tappin, to review and evaluate the data collected in Chicago and determine which intervention strategies are most beneficial. Tappin is majoring in psychology and child development, and she echoed Brodd's appreciation for opportunities to learn from other students and see the impacts of various therapy programs through her work at the CCFC.

"This is part of my internship for child development, and I'm so much more equipped for my own career," said Tappin, who hopes to have her own practice and work to improve the lives of children. "There definitely are ways to get involved here at CMU, but you have to be active and put yourself in those situations."

Niec said the collaboration with Safe Families for Children — located in 70 cities in the U.S., United Kingdom, Canada and other countries — advances the CCFC's goal to improve the well-being of children and families worldwide. The CCFC already has working relationships with related centers in countries such as Germany, France and the Netherlands.

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