How Multi-Agency Alliance for Children Convenes Nine Organizations to Provide a Web of Support for Foster Children, Teens and their FamiliesBart Zino, January 2015
GCN member Multi-Agency Alliance for Children (MAAC) imagines itself as a shopping mall, where foster children and their families can come and receive specialized, wrap-around services from nine individual organizations. But in addition to opening the lines of communication between groups to offer more steady services for their clients, they are also finding their own voice in advocating on behalf of foster families on a larger scale.
The contemporary U.S. foster care system has come a long way since the introduction of the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997. According to the most recently available data from the Department of Health and Human Services, the number of children in foster care has decreased significantly over the last decade, as has the average length of stay.
In Georgia, where there were more than 8,600 children in foster care last year, GCN member Multi-Agency Alliance for Children (MAAC) has played a significant role in helping children with high-level needs find stable, capable foster families by providing placement and wraparound services.
Established in 1996, MAAC is not a placement service in the traditional sense; instead, the organization is a collaborative effort between nine member organizations that each offer specialized services and support.
“Our approach is to utilize our agencies and our partner agencies to help provide better, more comprehensive services for kids so they can get what they need and not just whatever they can get,” said MAAC Executive Director Heather Rowles.
Rowles compared the organization to a shopping mall, with MAAC’s nine member organizations comprising the “anchor stores.” Children in a traditional foster care program might only be able to benefit from the services of one organization, but through MAAC they have access to all nine.
“We can do a lot of things that one agency wouldn’t necessarily be able to do,” Rowles explained. “If a youth is in a group home, for example, and the goal is to get them to a foster home, we can provide respite or behavior aid services, or add incentives for family visits. We also are there in times of crisis, so if a youth needs to move or is ready to step down, we can facilitate all of that movement and coordinate the care for the youth as they’re going through our system.”
A Voice for Children
At the center of MAAC’s approach is its emphasis on what Rowles calls “youth voice.” When she was named executive director in 2004, Rowles recalled meeting with every child that was referred to MAAC and talking with them about their wants, needs and goals in life. She wants to ensure that children–and especially teenagers–have a seat at the table, a practice that continues to play an integral role in how MAAC facilitates its programs today.
Reaching the right conclusion comes with certain challenges, considering that MAAC’s nine-member clinical team – the committee responsible for processing new referrals, assisting with transfers and advocating for youth needs in general – also plays a major role in the decision-making process. Naturally, there are times when the group has to work through differences of opinion. In those cases, Rowles says it’s important to make sure everyone feels heard and appreciated, provided that they ultimately stay focused on MAAC’s core goals.
“I think that as long as we’re keeping the youth at the center of what we’re doing, it will help us keep the collaborative and everybody focused on the overall goal, even if we may not agree on how to get there,” she said.
MAAC not only makes sure youth voices are heard, but through EmpowerMEnt—a youth advocacy group for young people who have experienced foster care housed at MAAC—they work with youth to advocate for themselves. MAAC understands, and takes seriously, that often times a youth’s greatest asset is their own voice.
MAAC’s children-first approach has not gone unnoticed. In 2014, the organization was recognized for its advocacy work with a Big Voice for Children Award— one of the industry’s most prestigious honors.
“We don’t necessarily have the look or feel of an advocacy organization, so this award was very big for us to recognize the advocacy effort we do provide,” Rowles said. “Some of that is just in educating and teaching young people how to advocate for themselves.”
Staying Ahead of the Curve
Of all the services MAAC offers, however, the most valuable benefit it provides may not be a program at all. In a system saturated with government and nonprofit organizations – with many barriers to communication between organizations – staying informed about all the different systems at play has given MAAC the unique ability to adapt in even the most volatile circumstances.
For the youth that it serves, this also means a greater level of consistency over the long term. According to MAAC’s most recent annual report, 80 percent of MAAC staff have been with the organization for more than two years, with many here even longer. The report also showed that staff spent an average of 8.3 hours per week on the phone with youth and their families and traveled more than 200 miles per week.
In an industry where a child’s foster parents, school or even therapist is in a constant state of flux, that consistency can be very valuable as he or she moves through the system.
“We provide a level of continuity that you don’t get anywhere else,” said Sandy Corbin, MAAC clinical director. “I had lunch last week with a 24-year-old who I’ve known since he was 13. We’re kind of like a conduit: you’re never really alone in the world.”
Rowles tries to create a similar culture with the MAAC staff, which she describes as the organization’s most important asset. Leading by example, Rowles has an open door policy (“literally,” she says) and strives to incorporate input from the staff when making major decisions.
Her collaborative approach to leadership has been undoubtedly shaped by her experience in the Georgia Center for Nonprofits’ Nonprofit CEO Peerspectives executive leadership program. Rowles says that she has stayed in touch with her peer group since completing the program in 2014 and enjoys being able to discuss challenges that arise and share in the group’s successes.
Now, in 2015, she says she’d really to see MAAC take all of the things it learned last year and build on that momentum.
“Working in child welfare can be very tough, but we need to be able to do the work, have fun doing it and feel like we’re accomplishing something,” she said. “We strive to make sure that we have the kind of environment that’s a fun place to work, where we celebrate the successes and help support each other in times of struggle.”