Oct 04 2018
Earlier this year we were privileged to witness the adoption of a 17-year-old girl, who had been in foster care for 4 years, by a relative. This relative was found and connected with by the CASA volunteer using the techniques our Family Engagement program. The CASA volunteer on the case shared that her one regret was not finding that family member sooner, and that she “will start with family engagement on every case from now on!”
“There are often loving and appropriate family members out there who we don’t know about, and who Family Engagement can connect us with. Whether for permanent placement, visits, phone calls or letters, having a sense of family connection can protect our youth against some of the negative impacts of being in the foster care system,” says Senior Child Advocacy Specialist Diana McCue.
Today, we wanted to share more about our Family Engagement program and the opportunities it can provide to current and prospective volunteers to help children reconnect with relatives and build support and permanency. Whether you want to serve as a Family Engagement volunteer, refer your case to the program, or put some of the Family Engagement tools into action on your case, you can learn more about this important work below.
The Life of a Family Engagement Case
The case: A 15-year-old boy named Edgar has been in foster care for 2 years and is living in a residential treatment center. His parents’ rights have been terminated. Edgar has had minimal contact with relatives for the last year, and Child Protective Services (CPS) says that they have no family leads—they’ve already looked into everyone and no one is both interested and safe. Edgar’s CASA volunteer is named Jenny.
Week of April 30
CASA volunteer Jenny talks with her supervisor about how they don’t have any leads on a permanent home for Edgar, and her supervisor recommends they refer the case to Family Engagement. Jenny and her supervisor meet with Family Engagement volunteer Bianca and her supervisor to discuss the goals of the case. They talk about how Edgar is isolated, with no meaningful connections and no solid plan for permanency. Jenny says, “We don’t want to see Edgar end up aging out of foster care with nobody. We want to find the people who care for this kid.” The team comes up with a plan and timeline to find and engage family members.
Week of May 7
Jenny goes to CPS to revisit Edgar’s case file, this time with an eye towards family connections. She spends a few hours going through the files looking for relatives or fictive kin* who have been involved in any way in the case. She looks for names and contact info and takes notes on their relationship to Edgar.
Jenny also takes Edgar on an outing, so he has a break from life at the treatment center. She lets him know CASA is doing some family finding and engagement work for him and asks him about specific people who have been important to him throughout his life. She asks who he would like to visit him or be a part of his regular support system.
Week of May 14
After Jenny delivers all the information she’s gotten from the case file and from her visit with Edgar to Family Engagement volunteer Bianca, Bianca starts researching. She uses the data that’s been mined and searches across Google, Facebook, other social media, even obituaries to gather more information. She starts building a family genogram** for Edgar. For names she can’t find contact information for, Bianca’s supervisor plugs the names into TransUnion's TLOxp database, that CASA has access to, to secure contact information.
Week of May 21
Now that Bianca has a genogram and a list of contacts with phone numbers, she starts making calls. She’s been trained by the Family Engagement team on how to first reach out to relatives, and she has a specific script she’s working off for each call. Bianca reaches a few supportive relatives who are interested in getting involved. They can’t offer a placement, but would be happy to visit Edgar, or make phone calls or write letters to him.
Then Bianca hits the jackpot when she calls Edgar’s paternal great aunt Mary. Mary says, ”I had no idea he was still in foster care, I thought he was placed with his grandparents on his mother’s side.” Mary hadn’t been notified when this original placement had fallen apart, and she was horrified that he’d been in foster care away from family for so long. She shared that she loves Edgar and hadn’t seen him in a few years but had wondered how he was doing. “I’d love to help,” she says. “How can I help?” Bianca thinks she might offer a permanent home for Edgar.
The Family Engagement team shares all this information with Jenny and her supervisor, who alerts the CPS caseworker so that they can begin the background check process on great aunt Mary and the other relatives who want to get back into contact with Edgar.
Week of May 28
CASA volunteer Jenny and her supervisor speak with Great Aunt Mary over the phone. Since Mary lives pretty far away, they arrange for a local CASA program to do a courtesy visit with Mary in person at her home to check everything out and send back a report. The report is positive!
Week of June 4
Once CPS has concluded their background checks, CASA volunteer Jenny begins talking with Edgar about these family members who want to talk to him. Edgar says he is definitely interested in having the calls and visitors. Family Engagement volunteer Bianca reaches back out to the relatives and encourages them to set up calls or visits. She shares the process they need to follow to visit him at his treatment center.
At the same time, CPS begins planning for a Family Group Conference, so that all these relatives can come together with CASA, CPS and the attorneys to make plans for Edgar.
Week of June 11
Great Aunt Mary calls Edgar and the call goes well.
Week of June 18
During the Family Group Conference, Edgar’s uncle commits to visiting him at his treatment center a few times a month. Great Aunt Mary learns more about what all is happening in Edgar’s life, including what challenges he’s experienced, what his behavior is like, and what he’ll need in a permanent home. After learning all of this, Mary says she’s interested in Edgar living permanently with her. She says she will look into schools and services in her area and will start calling him once a week, with a planned visit from her to the treatment center in a few weeks.
CPS starts the home study*** process for Mary, which is scheduled for the week of July 2.
Week of June 25
Great Aunt Mary and Edgar have a second positive phone call. His other relative comes to visit him and they have a great conversation.
Week of July 2
Great Aunt Mary comes to visit Edgar at his treatment center, and after this, all the parties on the case approve Edgar to go on a trip to visit Mary’s home for the weekend.
Great Aunt Mary’s home study is completed.
Week of July 9
Edgar visits Great Aunt Mary’s home over a weekend and everything goes well. After the visit, he tells his CASA volunteer Jenny he’s happy to be in touch with his great aunt again.
Week of July 16
Great Aunt Mary calls Edgar and they continue building the relationship. Family Engagement volunteer Bianca is following up with Great Aunt Mary who reports that things are going well and she’s so happy to be reconnected with Edgar.
Edgar’s uncle visits him at the treatment center.
Week of July 23
Great Aunt Mary’s home study is approved. Edgar tells Jenny he wants to live with Mary, and all of the parties on the case agree it’s the right decision.
CASA volunteer Jenny works with the Family Engagement team to figure out what resources will be beneficial to Great Aunt Mary to support this transition. They talk with Mary about trauma-informed care and send her videos to watch. They connect her with a local service that provides trauma-informed training for placements, and they find a trauma-informed therapist in the area for Edgar who will also provide individual and family therapy. The local CASA agency says that they can also help the family with getting connected to other community resources that might be helpful to Edgar, such as a mentoring program for teens, summer programs and after school programs/activities for teenagers. Mary has several close family friends in the area who provide support to her. She also has a church community that helps her when she needs it. CASA talks to Mary and CPS about getting at least one of those family friends approved to help out with things such as transportation for Edgar when Mary needs it.
Week of July 30
Edgar does another weekend visit. CASA volunteer Jenny goes to visit Great Aunt Mary’s house while Edgar is on his visit, to observe how everything is going in his new home. Jenny is pleased with how bonded they are and thrilled to see the bedroom Great Aunt Mary has set up just for Edgar in her house. Jenny notes that it feels like Edgar has found his home!
Week of August 6
Preparations continue for Edgar’s move.
Edgar’s uncle visits him again at the treatment center and tells us how excited Edgar is about the upcoming move.
Week of August 13
Edgar moves in with Great Aunt Mary. He starts working with the local therapist, and preps for the new school year to start. Great Aunt Mary is in regular contact with Edgar’s uncle and is committed to having him visit her home in the future.
The case continues
CASA volunteer Jenny continues regular contact with Edgar and Great Aunt Mary. Jenny ensures that Edgar is doing well and also that Great Aunt Mary has everything she needs to help her be a caregiver to Edgar. Jenny continues this regular contact until the case closes after Great Aunt Mary officially adopts Edgar!
CASA’s Family Engagement Program
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 and locate 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.
If interested in becoming a Family Engagement volunteer (whether or not you’re currently a CASA volunteer), or getting the Family Engagement team involved on a current case you’re working on, contact Director of Program Innovation Catherine Jones via email to learn more.
*Fictive kin is a term used to refer to individuals that are unrelated by either birth or marriage, but have an emotionally significant relationship with another individual that would take on the characteristics of a family relationship.
**A genogram is a graphic representation of a family tree that displays detailed data on relationships among individuals. It goes beyond a traditional family tree by allowing the user to analyze hereditary patterns and psychological factors that punctuate relationships.
***A home study is an examination of prospective parents and their home prior to allowing them to foster or adopt.
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