CASA of Travis County's Teen Advocacy and Permanency Project (TAPP) provides youth at risk of aging out of the foster care system with a greater ability to achieve success as independent, healthy adults. Without intervention, studies have shown that youth who age out of care have a high likelihood of homelessness, incarceration and poverty in their adult lives. Through specialized advocacy in the areas of education, preparation and healthy connections, TAPP works to combat these trends for youth who often have fewer placement options and may require a high level of care.
TAPP focuses on seeking placement for youth or helping them access extended foster care services, in which certain foster youth turning 18 in CPS care can remain in foster placement and services to ease their transition to independence. At the same time, the program works to address the specific needs of youth and helping to reduce specific harmful behaviors by establishing positive goals and directions for their future. TAPP volunteers and staff focus on building a network of healthy connections to be a support for youth, on connecting them to resources, and on teaching life skills that will empower them to find success in adulthood.
With its Trauma-Informed Advocacy program, CASA of Travis County is focused, in all facets of its work, on helping to improve the foster care system for children who have experienced trauma. This includes the trauma of abuse or neglect, the trauma of being removed from their home by CPS, and the trauma of many other potentially harmful experiences in their young lives. For children whose exposure to trauma overwhelms their ability to cope with what they have experienced, CASA is working to support their individual needs to help them heal.
CASA has learned from the Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development at Texas Christian University to use the Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI), a research-based therapeutic model for children who have experienced trauma, in our advocacy for children from hard places. The majority of CASA's program staff and many of its volunteers are trained in TBRI principles and practices. This training allows them to make the most informed decisions for children who have experienced trauma.
Additionally, CASA is a founding member of the Travis County Collaborative for Children (TCCC) and CASA's Executive Director and Chief Program Officer serve on its Steering Committee. The goal of the TCCC is to accelerate healing and speed to permanency for children in foster care based upon proven principles and practices of trauma-informed care. By being part of the TCCC, CASA helps to ensure that more child welfare professionals, teachers and service providers who work with children in the foster system are equipped with the tools and techniques that help children heal.
A team of dedicated CASA staff has continued working to provide periodic trainings to CASA volunteers so that they are better able to articulate the needs of children who have experienced trauma to judges, caregivers and placements. As a result of this focus, the children CASA serves will have people around them who understand and respond appropriately to the impacts of trauma.
Understanding that connection to family can be a critical component to successful outcomes for children in care, CASA of Travis County began the Family Engagement program to maintain and rebuild lasting family connections for the children we serve. Despite law requiring that family members be notified when a child is removed from parents’ care, extended family members are often unaware a child is in foster care, especially if they are out of touch with the child's family. When relatives are involved, they can support the children and the parents as they navigate what can be a very challenging time. And we know that children who feel connected with their families have better outcomes than those who do not. Family Engagement ’s overarching goal is to help children achieve permanency faster, preferably with relatives, and, even if permanency is not achieved, to give children an understanding of their heritage and the supportive family members and other adults in their lives.
Through detailed mining of case records and extensive research, Family Engagement volunteers identify, locate and contact relatives and fictive kin that have become disconnected from children in care. By reengaging these family members, Family Engagement volunteers can position them as resources in a child’s life, building healthy connections where youth may otherwise have been isolated.
Knowing that children are more likely to end up with family if relatives are engaged early as connections and placements, CASA of Travis County started the Early Family Engagement (EFE) program. EFE utilizes CASA volunteers as the first point of contact for children and families in the days immediately following commencement of a CPS case. The EFE team serves as the primary entry point for all new cases, dispatching trained volunteers to conduct in-depth interviews with children and relatives in order to evaluate a child’s specific needs and to build relationships that will serve as the foundation for a productive case.
EFE volunteers are charged with introducing and explaining the work of CASA to relatives and placements and building a positive and productive relationship. In doing so, they are able to gather substantial information at the beginning of a case, ensuring that all decisions are informed by more complete knowledge of the children and family in question, and that the court can address a child’s immediate needs at the earliest possible time. EFE also lays the foundation for long-term family engagement, with the goal of identifying and engaging relatives early in the case. This provides the opportunity for better placement options, meaning that children are more likely to be placed with relatives instead of in a foster home and to remain connected with family if they are in foster care. EFE volunteers support biological families working toward reunification by aiding in the development of service plans for parents and give CASA volunteers a head start with better information on family systems and better placement options when they take over the case.
CASA of Travis County is deeply committed to infusing the ideals of diversity and inclusiveness into every aspect of our work. By training staff and volunteers and offering programs to address disparities and challenge biases, CASA strives to develop cultural humility and awareness in working with children and families from different backgrounds.
CASA also works alongside other community stakeholders to address racial disparities in the child welfare system to ensure positive child outcomes. CASA staff and leadership continue to evaluate the organization’s practices and culture to ensure CASA is a diverse and inclusive institution and actively recruit volunteers from diverse segments of the community. In 2012, CASA of Travis County was awarded the "Award of Excellence for Inclusion" by National CASA for this work.
CASA of Travis County is appointed by judges as the official "education advocate" to school-aged children in addition to being appointed as guardian ad litem. Advocates meet with counselors, teachers and school administration to closely monitor a child's educational progress and to help schools better serve children with behavioral issues or specific education needs.
For children with special education needs, being an education advocate means attending meetings with the school to create an Individualized Education Plan, which determines what modifications and accommodations the school must make to meet the child's specific needs. It also means working with a child's lawyer when their rights aren't being met in an education setting.
CASA volunteers whose children are placed in a shelter or residential treatment center can complete extra training and be certified as a surrogate parent. By completing this certification, volunteers gain the ability to request special testing and meetings to further advocate for a child's needs. For children who change placements and schools, a surrogate parent helps ensure the child does not fall behind during the transition by advocating about behavior or methodologies that work for the child, and to connect new schools with old ones.
CASA of Travis County is a partner in the Travis County Family Drug Treatment Court, a specialized program for families whose primary factor in child neglect is substance abuse. The Drug Court program strives to keep children with their parents by surrounding the family with support services and by requiring greater oversight.
A voluntary alternative to traditional CPS cases, the Drug Court program is available to a limited number of parents and is staffed by a small, dedicated group of stakeholders who meet regularly to discuss case progress and options. The program includes extra resources (such as inpatient treatment and housing), and greater court time allow.
Through the Crossover Docket, CASA of Travis County is one of the few CASA programs in Texas which serves youth with co-occurring CPS and juvenile justice cases in both court systems. Court proceedings and hearings in the Crossover Docket have been streamlined so that youth and their families do not have to experience multiple repetitive hearings and so that the judges have more comprehensive information about issues in both the CPS and juvenile justice cases. Travis County schedules these crossover cases in one court venue to include the parties of both the foster care system and juvenile justice system to address the issues together as well as utilize the resources of the two systems. This not only provides a clearer picture for the judge on the case, but also presents more options for services and placements.
As judges can look holistically at theissues, and as there are more parties looking out for the needs of the youth, Crossover Docket cases tend to have better outcomes for kids than traditional adult or juvenile justice cases. CASA volunteers who work in the Crossover Docket engage directly with juvenile justice judges, stakeholders and professionals and can access further resources for youth through the juvenile justice system. CASA of Travis County is being appointed to advocate for 100% of youth on the Crossover Docket.