By Ishmael Behrhorst
I remember driving back to New Orleans for the holidays to visit my family each year. As soon as I saw the great oak trees hugging the streets, I knew I was closer to home. While driving, the fog would reveal shotgun homes one at a time as if I was in some sort of mystery novel. The bonus, singing along to classic Christmas tunes over the radio while maneuvering through the giant potholes. Nothing brought me greater joy than experiencing these moments. Nothing mattered more than being home for the holidays.
I can’t imagine being away from my family during the holidays, but that’s the reality for so many children who are a part of the child welfare system. It is estimated that on any given day there are nearly 443,000 children in foster care in the United States (Children’s Rights). Imagine the journey that a child may experience when they are separated from those moments that make them feel right at home. This can be one of the most difficult times of their lives. CASA of Travis County is committed to those children who are on their journey to reaching a safe, permanent home. That is why we make it our top priority, when it is safe, to connect children to their communities, families, and culture.
"His favorite moments include 'when families reengage against all odds and rebuild their family structure.'"
Last year, 79% of the cases CASA helped to close reunified children with their parents or placed them permanently with relatives. CASA’s longest-serving 22-year volunteer, Jack Murray, says that his favorite moments include “when families reengage against all odds and rebuild their family structure.”
Since 2013, CASA has offered two innovative programs to ensure that our advocates have an opportunity to connect children in the child welfare system with relatives. CASA’s Early Family Engagement program focuses on keeping children connected to their families from the very beginning. By engaging with the family early in the case, volunteers can help reinforce relationships between kids and relatives that can continue even after the case has ended. Jessica Chihuahua, Innovation Team Program Manager, says that her work helps build rapport with parents and adults involved in a case from the very beginning: “It is the foundation and we are the frontlines when speaking to adults on a case. Sometimes children are terrified of another adult coming into their life, so we aim at building trust with both to ensure future family engagement.” This early engagement with relatives opens up temporary or permanent living options for children outside of foster homes and can encourage reunification by surrounding parents with family support.
Another way that CASA supports children is through the Family Finding program which aims at helping children reach permanent homes faster through extensive research into family connections. In a conversation with Family Finding Specialist Elizabeth Throop, she said, “I wish people knew how easy it was to find people. And how easy it is to find healthy people who want to be involved within the family network.” In her work, Elizabeth sees a huge benefit when research is conducted to ensure that a child remains connected not only to relatives but also to their culture and heritage.
"We know that healthy connections are the number one resiliency factor for healing trauma.”
Senior Director of Program Innovation, Catherine Jones, leads the two programs at CASA. She shares that, “being in care and in the system can be really traumatic for children. One of the main reasons why Early Family Engagement and Family Finding exist is to make sure that kids who have been traumatized by removal remain connected to their families, relatives and fictive kin. We know that healthy connections are the number one resiliency factor for healing trauma.”
While many of us are taking time off this holiday season to enjoy friends and family, there are still children in our community who need us. As we approach the New Year, we have a clear vision for the future: to provide a volunteer advocate for 100% of the children in need in our community who need us. We cannot do this alone. We need your support this upcoming year to keep more children closer to home for the holidays.
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2019 Innovation December