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Shared Family Care in Milwaukee - 2002-11-30

Across the country, a number of cities are trying a foster care experiment. Under "Shared Family Care," not only children, but birth parents, move into the foster home for help and guidance. The aim is to teach these parents the skills they'll need to raise children on their own.

Nettie is a 27-year-old single mom with a one-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old son. In February, the three moved into Asia Mahmoud's small apartment, (begin to bring up nat sound) in a modest, middle income neighborhood on Milwaukee's north side. They function as a family, whether watching TV or cleaning up from breakfast…

"So Nettie, if you'll do the dishes, I'll take the garbage out... Okay…"

The two women are taking part in a pilot project that began in Milwaukee this year. The goal is to keep birth families together whenever possible and provide an alternative to regular foster care, where children and parents are split up either temporarily or permanently.

It's been a positive experience for Nettie. She says she's learned a lot from her mentor, who she calls Ms. Asia. "She helps me with everything," she says. "Basically everything. Every part of their life that they need help in. Like if the baby gets a cold. What to do if the baby gets a cold. How to have positive fun instead of negative fun..."

After being released from jail a year ago on marijuana possession charges, Nettie learned about Shared Family Care while visiting her children in regular foster care. Tired of living with friends in inner city drug houses, Nettie decided to clean up and make a commitment to parenting.

But life under another woman's roof wasn't harmonious at first. Nettie says it took her some time to adjust to strict household rules. "No men. No sleeping on the couches," she says. "Take care of your kids. No dirty household. No smoking around the children..."

It wasn't easy for Ms. Mahmoud either. A widow with four grown children, she had to get used to a full house again. Not only does she have to teach Nettie's children how to behave, she has to teach Nettie, a grown woman, how to be a responsible adult and parent. "She pulled her stunts," she says. "She wanted to disappear and go to the store for a long time. She'd say 'I'm going to the store. I'll be right back.' About an hour later, she'd be back."

The development of Shared Family Care is partly the result of long standing problems with regular foster care in Milwaukee. A few years ago, social worker Rebecca Jacobi heard about something similar to Shared Family Care in California.

Since the California program was then in its third year, and had produced some favorable results, Ms. Jacobi decided to try it in Milwaukee. After 45 applicants were screened, five families began moving into their foster homes in January. "We were hoping for three specific outcomes, which is shortened length of stay, reduced recidivism, as well as cost neutrality or at least lower cost of foster care," she says. "All three of those outcomes are showing very positive trends."

But Shared Family Care isn't for everyone. Three of the five birth mothers dropped out of the program... including Nicole Gatza. The 24-year-old single mother and recovering drug addict moved into a foster home with her one-year-old son in April, but moved out in August. She says it was hard to get used to all the rules, and she felt isolated. "I like the outdoors. I couldn't really take my son anywhere. It had to be supervised," she says. "I had to do everything with the foster mom. Go where she went."

Ms. Gatza and her son now live with her mother, where she says she feels more comfortable. As for Nettie, she and her two children are getting ready to move out of Asia Mahmoud's home. Nettie now has a full time job, which she'll have to juggle with parenting, child care, drug counseling and college courses. But she insists she's better prepared, now that she's learned how to be a better parent.