Seeing the Whole Picture by Working with a Child’s Family

Jun 21 2017

By Steven Olender

National Reunification Month is celebrated in June each year and recognizes the people and efforts happening around the country that make it possible for families to stay together.

“Without understanding where a child comes from, you don’t see the whole picture of that child’s life,” explains Child Advocacy Specialist Diana McCue. To that end, CASA starts every case by working with the people who know best where a child came from, the family. Starting with the Early Family Engagement process, a substantial aspect of CASA’s role is to gather history and information from immediate and extended families of children on a case and to nurture bonds between the family and children. Our primary goal on a case is to reunify families, when it is safe and in the child’s best interest, and that means working with them to identify and meet their needs so that they can safely parent. In the instances that we can reunify, engaging extended family provides a support system during this difficult time and beyond. If reunification is not possible, we turn to the extended family as our first and best option for healthy placement and connection.

Regardless of the eventual outcome of the case, though, it is imperative that volunteer advocates work with family. Family can always be a resource in building that clear picture, able to provide memories, context and connection. They are the best equipped to identify real and fictive kin who could act as placements or supportive adults for a child. “Even if a family member was a source of abuse or neglect, that relative could hold the key to healthy connections a child could have with family,” Child Advocacy Specialist Karen Goldapp explains. “They can still be a resource of information about that child’s best interest, and could provide family history and other information to help locate healthy relatives.”

Working with family can be easier said than done, however, as some families react negatively to our involvement. “Put yourself in that parent’s shoes,” says Chief Program Officer Emily Rudenick LeBlanc. “Parents don’t go through a 40-hour training. They just know their kid was taken away and lots of people are coming into their lives, telling them what to do. It’s understandable they’d be angry.” There are myriad factors at play in how a family reacts to us. They may be responding to a negative interaction they’ve had with a caseworker or attorney in their past or to social dynamics beyond our control. While it may not seem rational for a parent to be uncooperative with the person advocating for their child’s best interest, it is understandable. We cannot expect people in a highly charged, emotional situation who don’t have the training and understanding we do, to act in the same manner we would.

Ultimately, whether or not a family likes or cooperates with CASA does not change our job. “They can not like us and still be what’s in the best interest of a child,” explains LeBlanc. To better work with families, she subscribes to what empathy researcher Brené Brown calls “The Hypothesis of Generosity,” that, in any circumstance, one should assume the most generous motivations behind a person’s behavior. “I would encourage anyone interacting with families to always come from a place of empathy,” LeBlanc says. “If we start there with parents and see their behavior as them doing the best they can with the tools they have, then our focus can become asking what tools they need to do something differently, instead of coming from a place of judgment.”

The degree to which a family interacts with a child varies by case and by family member. While some family is best suited to being a source of information, it is generally in a child’s interest to maintain some connection so that they can have grounding and understand where they came from. This can involve family as a placement or for visits, or it can be as simple as sending pictures or letters. The kids we serve want and need love and affection and they want connection to their families. “It’s very surprising for some volunteers that kids who have been abused or neglected, sometimes in horrific ways, still want to be with their parents and love their parents,” explains McCue. “That bond and attachment is so strong that it’s not always something we see as rational, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real.”

Investing the time and effort to nurture a relationship and connection to family, even if the only safe interaction is through sending pictures and letters, is a powerful way to help kids in a system that isn’t built to offer deep connection. “We know instinctively and we know through science and research that adding relationships is the healthiest thing, rather than taking relationships out,” explains Goldapp. Children without connections struggle to have higher levels of functioning, she says, because they are lacking a sense of connection and belonging, basic needs. “We have kids who, after years in care, are isolated. It is misguided to think therapy alone can cure a person – therapy can be very helpful,” she continues. “But in therapy you learn how to have good communication skills, how to have positive relationships. Who do you have to practice healthy communication and healthy relationships with, if you do not have consistent life-long relationships? For some of our kids in residential treatment centers, who have been isolated from healthy connections, this is a concern. You need connection to practice therapy.”

And if there is no safe level of interaction between the child and the family, just knowing more about where they came from can instill a sense of connection in the child. As adults we sometimes think we are protecting kids from hard truths, but children who aren’t given the chance to understand their history are often left with unresolved feelings of rejection and confusion. As they grow older, they may act out as they struggle to reconcile these feelings. “Sharing the very difficult truth with children of the reality of their situation – in an age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate way – can actually be more healing than the absence of truth, which often leaves children with feelings of secrecy and shame,” says Goldapp. “A child knowing the circumstances of a relative, especially a parent, can be far healthier than not knowing. A child who knows their parent is homeless or struggling with mental health or substance abuse can process the loss of their parent, rather than feel they are to blame for the disconnection.”

Working with parents and family can be time intensive and daunting, but, in the end, it’s in a child’s best interest. “Sometimes you are paying interest for the future,” says McCue. “For little kids, it may or may not be something they ask for or are very aware of… this work with the parents. They may not be, but as they grow up, you may have maintained a connection or provided something they can look back on as they get older – You are giving them a chance at their family.”

If you’re a volunteer and your kids aren’t well-connected with their biological families, talk with your supervisor about how to start the process of reaching out and creating positive family connections