Across from Highway 880, a non-descript five-story beige building with few windows sits on the corner of Broadway and 4th Street in downtown Oakland. This building houses the Alameda County Social Services Agency and for years it was the place where many foster children and their biological parents would have to meet if they wanted to visit each other.
“It’s a county building so that means there is a sheriff standing there with a gun,” says former foster youth Ashley McCullough, who is now 24-years-old. This was the place she had to come to visit her biological family while she was in foster care and she describes the place as intimidating and huge. “You have to go through a metal detector and you’re behind a big glass door and you sit in hard metal chairs,” she says.
These visits are sometimes among people who are anxious and emotionally fragile, and often between people who haven’t seen each other in awhile. Having to navigate those bureaucratic surroundings and inhospitable conditions didn’t help many of the family visits feel comfortable or conducive to talking openly.
McCullough left foster care in 2005 when she “aged out” of the system after turning 18. Now she is a youth advocate fellow where she serves on several steering committees and advisory panels about foster care. Recently, part of her position has been to help give input on a new foster care visitation center in Alameda County called the Gathering Place, which had its grand opening on Wednesday.
The first center of its kind in the county, and one of only a few in the entire United States, the Gathering Place is on the forefront of a new way of arranging family visitation for youth in foster care. Located in an office park in East Oakland, the outside of the building blends in with other nearby offices. But inside it feels much more like a home.
Each room of the Gathering Place is designed for a different age group and they all have soothing pastel color schemes in soft hues of green, blue and yellow. There are comfy couches and chairs in all rooms and there’s also a children’s library, kitchen, family bathroom, arts and crafts room, dining room, living room and parent resource room. Instead of having to just sit and talk, families are encouraged to do normal household activities together, like play games, read stories, do homework and cook meals.
“In here, it’s meant to feel like a house,” McCullough says. “It helps normalize life for children. You can’t underestimate what it feels like to be normal.” She said that when children grow up in foster care they carry a stigma of being different so anything that can help make their lives seem more ordinary is extremely helpful.
The Gathering Place was created by a partnership between Alameda County Social Services Agency, Department of Children and Family Services, Alameda County Behavioral Health Care Services and Alternative Family Services. The central goal of the center is for children and families to have the opportunity for ongoing, healthy and interactive visitation.
“In the main activity room, we have the Wii console,” says Kair Gebauer, program director for the Gathering Place as she led a tour of the new facility on Wednesday. “Because all games we have are meant to help with interaction.” In addition to the Wii, there are also playing cards, board games and all sorts of toys.
This doesn’t mean that the visits are unsupervised though—there is full-time staff on hand to either help with a therapeutic visit or a supervised visit. In the room set up for younger children, a two-way mirror was installed, so a supervisor can watch without invading the family’s space. “We make visit plans with each family and we are here to give support,” Gebauer says. “We want the visit to be successful.”
In Alameda County, 1,587 children are in foster care, but just five years ago that number was 3,085. Robin Luckett, division director of the department of children and family services for Alameda County, says that when the county reached that all time high, officials decided something had to be done to reduce those numbers. The department decided to launch an aggressive reform agenda designed to reunify more foster care youth with their biological families and admit fewer children into the system.
A lot of the reform had to do with financing. Typically, the county’s child welfare department is funded by how many children are in foster care, but a few years ago Alameda County opted to be part a federal title IV-E Waiver project. What this meant was that the county was to receive one lump sum of money for a five-year period—but it was a gamble. If the county’s caseload of foster children increased, welfare department officials would have had less money to spend per child than before; but if their caseload decreased, they’d be able to save money and reinvest it into other projects.
By decreasing the foster care system’s caseload by 50 percent down over five years, county officials were able to use the extra funds for preventative services like the Gathering Place, which allows for easier and more frequent family visits. Luckett says that the more visits a family has, the more likely they are to reunify. “What we wanted was to create a place where a relationship can be maintained,” says Luckett. “Families that see each other maintain relationships and we hope that reunification rates in our county go up.”
The Gathering Place has flexible hours for working parents—it’s open six days a week and on Monday through Thursday it’s open until 8 pm. It’s located near an AC Transit bus line and a BART station for people to get to easily. It is also near a shopping area, so foster parents can run errands while the youth are visiting with their biological parents. It serves all ages—from birth to 18—and families can visit as often as they want.
“You can come every day if you want,” says McCullough, who is now a Stanford graduate with a degree in sociology and has dedicated her career to working in foster care and education. “Frankly, nothing like this existed before.”