American Bar Association: VPRC’s Executive Director, Trine Bech, honored in conjunction with June’s National Reunification Month

In conjunction with June’s National Reunification Month, the American Bar Association identified several individuals as heroes “for demonstrating the compassion and perseverance, despite the challenges, to keep families together.” VPRC’s Executive Director, Trine Bech, is among those honored.

Trine Bech, Esq.
Trine Bech has touched countless lives through the work she has done for families for over 40 years. Over that time she has served as a front line social worker, an attorney for children and parents, with the Vermont Supreme Court, as the Deputy Director of the Delaware Department of Children, Youth and Their Families, and as the Program Director for System Reform for the City of Philadelphia. She is currently the Executive Director of Vermont Parent Representation Center (VPRC), a legal and social service organization intended to “ensure through advocacy and support that children who can live safely with their parents are afforded a real opportunity to do so.”

Tell me something interesting about yourself?

I was born and raised in Oslo, Norway. As a national champion in track and field and cross country skiing, I was invited to train with the national teams, but at the same time, I received an offer to go to the United States as a foreign exchange student in high school. That is how I first came to this country. After returning to Norway and finishing secondary school and a year in London, England, I returned to the United States to go to school and I stayed.

What made you interested in child welfare?

My first job out of Norwegian secondary school was as a social worker aide in a London public child welfare agency more than 40 years ago.

The most valuable lesson I learned from my supervisor and mentor was – “With all our families: ask them what they think will help them”.

This notion of supporting people who need help was my beginning awareness of the larger national public policy of genuine help for people in need.

What was one experience that had a big impact on the way you think about reunification?

Over the years I saw too many families who had their parental rights terminated either because they were poor, had difficulty communicating with the authorities, or in some manner did not respond to their circumstances in ways acceptable to professionals. This came home to me particularly in 1995, when I was an Annie E. Casey Foundation Fellow. During that time I observed and studied child welfare leadership, long term outcomes and the interrelationships of child welfare law, social work and courts.

I came to the conclusion that in the U.S. we have created a system that all too often feels like “gotcha” to parents.

We believe that we are helping, but we all too often do not move beyond leaving families feeling as if we have heaped shame, blame and judgment on them, rather than supporting them to grow in their capacity to raise their children safely.

What are some strengths of the child welfare system in your area?

Vermont has been a leader in educating the community about child sexual and physical abuse over the past three decades, with a significant reduction in the incidence of these behaviors. As a result, at present in Vermont, 84% of child welfare interventions are for neglect.

We currently have an enlightened prosecutor in our largest county who understands that court imposed, punitive sanctions do not work for families that are in poverty and perceived to be neglecting their children.

He is looking to diverting families away from court to community based multi-disciplinary supports to keep children safely at home.

What are some of the weaknesses?

We have more children in out-of-home placements than any other industrialized nation. We have created a reporting and investigation system that is rooted in identifying abuse. Even when we call the investigations “assessments”, the approach of the investigators is not well suited for understanding and connecting with parents who are involved in neglect arising out of poverty. When you add to this a system where we think that the same people who removed the children can also create the trust necessary for parents to divulge their own shortcomings and needs, one can easily understand why we have an ineffective system. Finally, when our ineffective approaches have not worked, we remove the children from their homes. However, our research shows that the public child welfare organizations are not able to serve the neglected children any better in out of home placements than the parents even without any services.

Describe some efforts you have made to improve child welfare practice in your area?

I have tried to improve the system as a lawyer by providing parents multidisciplinary legal support, building such practice nationwide, and by introducing other attorneys and social workers to the concepts of strength based work with parents. When I was a child welfare administrator, I was part of a team that was able to reduce the number of children in out-of- home care by building permanent guardianship as a new permanency option for those children who truly cannot live safely with their parents and to keep their connections with their families.

What is one thing you recommend in working with parents to increase the likelihood of reunification?

Your relationship with the parents has to start with listening and trust building. From there, using a multi-disciplinary team approach with a lawyer, a social worker, and a family advocate, you have a team that deepens the trusting relationship with the parents. The broad skills and experience of this type of team shows the most promise to prevent children from coming into out of home placements, reducing the time in placement or reducing recidivism. A parent my organization recently served noted in a survey “Having to deal with a State agency is always difficult however, when it involves your child it can be very intense. The DCF made us feel like we were adversaries not parents trying to have a good outcome with a tense family moment. They (VPRC) were very supportive and calm and I feel everyone should have these good people to stand with them should they find themselves facing the DCF.”

What advice would you give to other professionals who work in child welfare? Or to individuals considering working in child welfare?

Working in this field is not about “saving” children but about supporting families and strengthening them so they can be the best they can be. Believing that parents can change, that they have strengths and want to be good parents are vital to successful outcomes.

Being willing to go beyond a job description or the exact letter of a contract is challenging but crucial ingredients to family centered practice. This work is not for the faint of heart and should be done in teams, not alone.

What advice would you give to judges, agency directors, legislators, governors or the president about how to improve the system?

I have come to believe we need to redesign our system using broad public support of our poor families so that poverty does not drive child welfare. Housing, education and income supports have worked in Europe substantially to reduce the number of child neglect cases.

What programs/practices are most effective in helping parents reunify?

When families are told clearly what is not safe in their actions, when they have the opportunity for a long term relationship rooted in trust with a helping person, and when they have a say in the specific services and resources they can access, they can succeed. They need supporters who neither sugar-coat reality nor judge but rather guide them to a stronger place. The multi disciplinary team model for parent legal representation, advocating skillfully both in and out of court, has potential as an effective design for changing practice.

Are there programs/practices that are not effective and need to be changed?

The present model of legal representation in which parents rarely communicate with their attorneys outside of the court is not effective. Nor is it fair to the parent. A private party who hires an attorney would expect and would get much more! Child welfare interventions geared toward changing the behavior of abusive parents are not effective for parents who are not abusive, but are unable to meet all of the needs of their children due to the limitations of poverty and the despair and chaos that accompany it.

What programs/practices need to be added to make reunifications more likely or successful?

Support to parents that begins with a multi-disciplinary legal team can make a huge difference. Having the public child welfare agency build community-based services and supports can also make a difference. The needs of families in poverty cannot be addressed by the child welfare organization and their contracted providers alone. The community based service providers and peer supports must be independent and not tied to the state through the state’s control of contracts that can sustain or terminate the funding of these supports.

What preventive actions do you think would be most effective in avoiding the conditions that may lead to foster care?

First and foremost families must have adequate income and resources to meet their basic needs. In addition, the service providers need to be independent of the child protection agency so that the parents experience the resources as helpful and not as required. Then parents need multi-disciplinary legal advocacy and support from the moment they are reported to the child welfare agency to help them navigate a confusing and threatening maze of conflicting messages and tasks.

Do you think there are any public misconceptions about the child welfare system?

Our child welfare system is largely behind a wall of confidentiality which results in the public not understanding our failed results. With good intentions, we have had decades of public policies driven by the belief that rescuing children by removing them from the families is better for children. We now have more and more evidence, that except for a small percentage of severe physical abuse and sexual abuse where removal is necessary, family support and advocacy create better results.

Is there anything else about you or your experiences that we should highlight?

I have benefited from having a personal and professional relationship with an MSW social worker who has filled in my lack of knowledge, provided a different lens when needed, and who has kept my belief in families at the forefront of the work. I am forever grateful for her wisdom. This work is truly a professional partnership of law and social work. We are also part of the growing appreciation for peer advocacy as a tool in achieving good child welfare outcomes.
Artwork by Shante Bullock
June is National Reunification Month
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