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AIA Change Agents: Family Options IV

fcanThis post is part of an on-going series called AIA Change Agents where we get to know each of the direct service programs funded by the Children’s Bureau under the AIA Act. In this segment, we sat down to chat with Linda Coon, Project Director of Family Options IV in Chicago, IL.

1. Tell us a little about Family Options IV.

Family Options IV is a program of legal and social work services for HIV-affected families with children. Legal services work to achieve permanency solutions for families, including adoption, kinship adoption, standby guardianship, or short-term guardianship. So, for example, Family Options’ legal services have helped caregivers, suffering from numerous medical issues and incapable of providing care, with planning guardianship of their children. In-home social work services have helped clients to achieve permanency by aiding clients in strengthening stability-promoting protective factors in their lives. Family Options also performs extensive outreach and advocacy for HIV-impacted clients, such as educating policymakers about these families’ unique needs, conducting community trainings, and reaching out to educate potential clients, including parents in correctional settings. The program strives to provide a broad family-focused continuum of care for HIV-affected families.

2. How have advances in HIV care affected future care and custody planning?

HIV care advances have allowed clients to live healthier and longer lives, often while taking fewer medications than before. Provided that the client has access to good care and adheres to his or her medication, this vastly improved prognosis means that clients now have a chance to plan for their future before they are faced with an emergency situation. Family Options gives clients the latitude to plan for temporary or more long-term custody of their children, free of charge and in a safe environment free of HIV stigma.  Regardless of HIV status, all parents should have a plan for their children given unpredictable circumstances, and because HIV-affected clients are still more likely to have periods of time where they may not be able to care for their children, permanency planning remains crucial despite these medical advances. As we like to say, ‘You just never know.’

 3. Tell us about your clientele.  Is there a particular family that sticks out in your mind?

Our clientele are HIV-affected families with children throughout the state of Illinois. While the majority are from the Chicago area, many also come from downstate Illinois. Most are African-American, Latino/a, or multiracial, and all live in poverty. Many live with the isolation and stigma that comes from being HIV-impacted, and a significant percentage are at risk of, or have a history of, child welfare involvement when they are first referred to Family Options. One family that sticks out in my mind is the family of Ms. M (name withheld for privacy). Ms. M has long been rehabilitated from her history of drug use. Her case made headlines after FCAN educated state policymakers about her story, resulting in the Restoration of Parental Rights Act that allowed parents in Illinois, whose rights had been terminated, to have these rights restored when it was in the child’s best interest to do so. Ms. M was able to have her parental rights to her children restored after losing them so many years earlier, and has become a fantastic advocate for parents who have really turned their lives around.

4. What would you say is the most challenging aspect of the work you do? What about the most rewarding?

The most challenging aspect of our work is that the limitations of funding right now do not allow Family Options to serve as many individuals as it could if it were funded at higher levels. There are families out there who are not receiving HIV care and are waiting for services. Unfortunately, HIV care has experienced systematic cuts across the nation. This means that we are not serving as many individuals as we could be serving, and addressing this disparity is easily the most challenging part of our work. The most rewarding part of our work is when we are able to advocate on behalf of our clients to policymakers, who then impact our clients’ lives by creating new legislation. When Ms. M got her parental rights restored, for example, that was a great day for Family Options and for parents across Illinois.

 5. If Family Options IV were to have a mascot, what would it be? 

I’m fairly certain our mascot would be a clown. The reason for this is that we have a clown who attends statewide family retreats that our agency holds. She is universally known by our clients for her kindness, compassion, and mirth. Last year, members of our AIDS Walk Team dressed up as her. She symbolizes the loving and safe environment that FCAN provides for its clients, as well as the compassionate spirit behind our services.

 6. Question 6 was intentionally left blank. What question were you hoping we’d ask? What would you like to tell us that wasn’t covered?

I was hoping you would ask about how we measure successful outcomes with our clients, and also what initiatives we have coming up! I’ll answer both briefly. We measure successful client outcomes using several different research-based evaluation tools, which measure protective factors in clients’ lives, as well as indicators of past trauma, indicators of current mental health, and indicators of family stability. We have a professional evaluator in charge of all of this, and the evaluation tools are administered by our social workers and then submitted to him for analysis.

As for the recent policy initiatives, we advocated on behalf of Illinois students to keep their HIV status from being mandatorily shared with their high school principals. Universal healthcare precautions, as well as a need for confidentiality and equal treatment, made the former Illinois law unfair to HIV-positive children. That law also discouraged HIV testing in youth, who are the group with the steadiest rising infection rate. So we worked on educating the public about the flaws in the HIV Principal Notification law here in Illinois, and it was repealed last year.

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