How a weekend of hard work and a box of Star Wars Legos helps kids

Sep 29 2015

By Janet Bogue, Early Family Engagement Volunteer

Wednesday: At 4:14 p.m., there is a soft e-mail chime on my CASA account. There is a new case: could I take it? Court is Monday, only two working days away. For a moment, it feels like an episode from “Mission: Impossible,” and the theme song runs through my head. I start at once, reviewing the legal paperwork for clues about family members, making an initial contact list, and sketching the first branches of a family tree.

After a dinner break, it’s back to the computer for other clues. Facebook is the mother lode. In this case, that is literally true, as I find the mother’s Facebook page. Through it, I identify other relatives and do some cross-checking on their Facebook pages. A few names pop up on the Facebook pages of every family member, and I mark those for further research.

Grateful that the people in this case have less-than-common names, I get help from Google, turning up a newspaper story that identifies some family members, but the Internet search peters out, so I make a to-do list for Thursday and go to bed.

Thursday: By morning, AJ Renold, head of CASA’s Early Family Engagement program, has sent me her database search results. I go through them carefully, triangulating with what I have learned from Facebook and Google. I have more of a family tree and some phone numbers, enough to start interviewing family members. They prove elusive; I leave texts and voicemails and spend the rest of the day doing other things, only stopping by a store in the evening to pick up a Star Wars Lego set for the child. It is an icebreaker, to be sure, but I also want him to have something of his own in his foster home.

Friday: On Friday, I visit the child. He is thrilled with the Legos and – lucky guess – he loves Star Wars. We put the set together, concentrating on the task, and while our heads are bent over a tricky bit, he tells me quietly that he is very lonely. He’s too young to be able to know much about his extended family, but his loneliness tells me how much we need to find them.

Saturday/Sunday: It is a normal weekend, except that I step away from time to time to keep trying to reach family members. No luck on this case. I review everything one more time and put together notes for court, where we’ll talk to the judge about healthy family connections for the child. Then my part will be done. I’ll hand my notes over so the new CASA volunteer can get a running start. But with CASA getting a new case nearly every day, it won’t be long before that e-mail chimes again.

Conclusion: One of the boy’s aunts appeared in court that Monday after Janet’s work reaching out to family and the Judge was able to order that he be placed with the aunt instead of remaining in the foster home. Now he his living with his own relatives and will have a stronger connection to his family during the remaining time that Child Protective Services is involved in his and his parents’ lives.

About Early Family Engagement:

Early Family Engagement (EFE) was started as a branch of our Family Finding volunteer program in June 2015. Since that time we have served 166 children, attended 92 court hearings and, as of the end of August, helped 65 children leave foster care by securing living arrangements with relatives during their time in the care of CPS. Nineteen of our experienced volunteers have joined the EFE team, taking on children’s cases for a short amount of time in the earliest stages of their involvement with CPS to get family engaged as quickly as possible. When Director of Family Engagement AJ Renold developed this program, she saw it as an opportunity to use our most experienced CASA volunteers to gather in-depth information early in a case. Goals include helping children avoid a foster home if there are relatives who can care for them, keeping kids connected to family if they are in foster care, and giving CASA volunteers a head start with better information and better placement options when they take on a new case.

Early Family Engagement Volunteers:

Fannie Akingbala 
Janet Bogue
Kimberly Dugan
John Falvey
Erin Findley
Veronica Fletcher
Karen Goldapp
Flora Gray
Stephanie Gregoire
Michelle Iglesias
Amy Miller
Bob Otto
Ellen Pace
Ana Smith-Daley
Dena St. Germaine
Marty Swanger
Hillary Tanoff
Gayla Thorpe
Judith van Rijt