Meet the Expert: Ann-Marie Faria
AIR early childhood development and education expert, Ann-Marie Faria, Ph.D., focuses on quantitative research in early childhood settings, drawing on her experience as a former kindergarten and elementary school teacher. She leads a variety of research studies at AIR, focused on documenting and improving quality in the early childhood mixed delivery system. In 2019, Ann-Marie became a licensed foster parent in Washington, DC.
POSITION: Principal Researcher
AREAS OF EXPERTISE: Early Childhood Development and Education, Child Welfare Systems, Social and Emotional Learning
YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: 18
Q: What trends in early childhood care and education should people pay attention to over the next five to 10 years?
Ann-Marie: For the past five to 10 years, we’ve been really focused on the quality of instruction in prekindergarten. Now, with the new Preschool Development Grants funded by the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services and Education, we’re seeing more of an emphasis on the various pieces that go into early childhood development, beyond just the childcare settings. The field is expanding their view of the whole child, which is promising. AIR is working with four states as they implement these grants.
A lot happens before children turn 4 and enter prekindergarten and that involves pediatricians, home visiting, early special education intervention, and family programming. I think over the next five to 10 years, we’ll see a broadening focus that captures the whole child and addresses systems-level change.
Q: One of your projects is evaluating the Safe Babies Court Team approach, which aims to move children through the foster care legal system more efficiently. What should people know about the foster care system?
Ann-Marie: I think there are two commonly held misconceptions about foster care that are really important to talk about. The first is that the families who enter the system—bio families, first families, birth families—are often viewed negatively or even vilified. But those moms and dads are simply people living with stress and without the supports they need to parent. Many parents whose children enter foster care are themselves victims of childhood abuse and neglect, and often were in foster care as children or youth. We need to think about how to support both generations with trauma-informed approaches that humanize families.
The second misconception involves negative stereotypes about foster families, specifically who they are and why they do this. All the foster families that I’ve come to know are loving, caring families who want to support children and their birth families. Our role is to provide a safe and loving home to a child while their family works to build up their support systems and ultimately reunify with their children. Fostering is an act of love and compassion, and I think the negative stereotypes make it more difficult to serve as a foster parent.
Q: Why is this study significant, and what has it shown so far?
Ann-Marie: This is a really exciting study because experimental evaluations in the child welfare world are rare—it’s hard to find rigorous evaluations that tell us what works in this area. On average, children spend 19 months in foster care, and the Safe Babies Court Team approach, created by ZERO TO THREE, aims to reduce that time, as well as improve the long-term well-being of children and families in the child welfare system. Under the approach, there’s a specific support team, including a judge, a community coordinator, and others representing the family.
Our research so far has shown positive findings in communities that adopt the Safe Babies Court Team approach, specifically that children exit foster care sooner and that fewer children experienced the recurrence of neglect or abuse.
Q: What are the biggest challenges facing foster children and parents?
Ann-Marie: We say this all the time, but the system is broken. There are challenges at all levels. But the biggest challenge is that the social workers—the frontline service providers—are overworked, underpaid, and undervalued. Their case loads are high, and they’re juggling many different families, each with unique needs. Their job is not easy. Burnout is real, and it’s heartbreaking to watch a burnt-out social worker making really important decisions for children and families.
Q: You were inspired by your research to become a foster parent. Can you describe your experience?
Ann-Marie: I’ve been a licensed foster mom since June 2019 and have had three kiddos enter my family and then be reunited with kin, which is such a wonderful experience. It's taught me so much about love and grief and loss. But these experiences also really helped me to understand the challenges that birth families and foster families face. I’ve had my heart broken more times than I can count, not just for the children that I’m loving on while they’re in my home, but also for their families.
If someone’s reading this and is interested in becoming a foster parent, I would encourage you to go to an orientation session and speak with current foster families to learn more. We hear all the time, “I could never do it; I’d get too attached.” The truth is, if you’re not getting attached to these babies, you are not doing it right and you shouldn’t be a foster parent. Every child deserves that unconditional love, especially children who have experienced childhood trauma. As a foster parent, you will love and learn to let go, but the foster parent experience brings so much joy into your life.
Q: How has the experience of being a foster parent changed your perspective on your work?
Ann-Marie: Being a foster parent has made everything real. Data and averages and numbers now represent kids and families for me in a way I didn’t understand before. I have more compassion for the families. The negative outcomes we see are also heavier for me because I can picture my kiddos having to go through a recurrence of abuse or neglect, which is my biggest fear. And I have to say that, while there are wonderful, best practices in place in the child welfare system here in Washington, D.C., I do still get frustrated because I see what can be done with the Safe Babies Court Team approach.
Q: What book do you think everyone should read, and why?
Ann-Marie: Three Little Words by Ashley Rhodes-Courter. It’s a memoir of her experiences as a child in foster care, her path to permanency and safety, and how she gave her foster parents a run for their money for many years. There’s also a follow-up book describing her experience as an adult, building her own family and becoming a foster parent herself.