By Vicki Spriggs
Chief Executive Officer of Texas CASA
Texas CASA recently held our inaugural Collaborative Family Engagement (CFE) Symposium, and was joined by more than 150 CASA and CPS representatives who are currently part of our CFE initiative. As I listened to Kevin Campbell, the founder of Family Finding who has been our partner in this work from the beginning, he said something that got me thinking.
“The kids you say you love… their parents were those kids.”
In other words, many of the parents who have had their children removed by CPS were, just a few years previously, in CPS care themselves. We already know this to be true – we’ve heard time and time again that abuse and neglect is a cycle. But if this cycle is ever to be truly broken, we must shift the way we look at families in the system.
Here’s something we can probably all agree on: most people love their children and want to do what’s best for them. Now here’s something that might be a little more challenging: the parents of children in CPS care are no exception.
So many of these parents have grappled with things like generational poverty, mental illness, addiction, their own experiences with foster care – their own trauma. They desperately want to do what it takes to get their children back home, but they lack the knowledge, skills, resources, stability and support to make the necessary changes. The issue is, our child welfare system has historically been better designed to treat the symptoms – remove the child and create a service plan for the parents – rather than to proactively and holistically work to break the cycle by supporting and building families to health.
We make the mistake, for example, of ignoring the context of each family’s situation: single mothers, time and time again, are mandated to attend weekly therapy, without considering that they might be working two jobs to keep food on the table. We also often think the worst: a child asks to visit their uncle and we dismiss them, assuming “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
More than just family finding, as Kevin put it at the symposium, Collaborative Family Engagement is about “Family seeing, justice doing and dignity giving.” It’s a collaborative partnership between CASA and CPS built around an unceasing belief and trust in the inherent power and love of families. It’s turning our assumptions, and the traditional way of doing business, on their heads. Recognizing that families, no matter their circumstances, love each other and are deserving of dignity, respect and a voice. Giving the opportunity for those who care about the children in a CPS case, whether family, friends, teachers or neighbors, to engage with the family and support the child and each other during this time of need.
I know this is not an easy shift to make. Many of us were taught at one point or another to think that the family from which the child is removed is the “root of all evil” and should not be worked with at all, or minimally engaged at best. But Kevin also stressed the importance of “holding more than one truth.” Sometimes, it is true and valid that a child’s parents are dangerous, and that they have hurt the child in the past. It is also often equally true that those same parents recognize that they made mistakes, and do not want to hurt their child again – and that there are other members of the family who also love the child and will step up to help. It is time for all of us who work with these children and families to embrace these gray areas, rather than keeping things black and white; welcome the “messiness” of family dynamics; and dive in headfirst to the practices of engaging the family and supporters to build a true community of healing.
April is Child Abuse Prevention Month. This is the month the CASA community historically uses as a platform to highlight the positive difference made by CASA volunteer advocacy in the lives of children. The best way to acknowledge the importance of Child Abuse Prevention Month and meaningfully contribute to breaking the cycle of abuse is to create strong supported families, children and communities. Training CASA volunteers, who have huge hearts and a strong desire to be a voice helping the child find safety and permanency, to fully understand the complexities of the challenges of the children and families we serve, is a never-ending task that requires extensive, appropriate and on-going training. To start, Texas CASA has redesigned the pre-service volunteer training curriculum and updated our online educational presence to incorporate a “whole child/whole person” mindset that promotes a variety of tools to address the multiple issues entailed in high quality advocacy.
We have also expanded the concepts of CFE to acknowledge that the family, not just the child, has experienced trauma. As a result, we now encourage a trauma-informed approach when working to help restore the child, family and supports. We know, and Kevin reinforced, that we need to acknowledge that what happened to us, and in this instance, the members of the child’s family and their support community, matters.
The trauma children experience when separated from the only family that they know is devastating. Our hearts break for them; that’s why we are all in this work in the first place. We all want children to be safe, loved and appreciated for who they are. This means, as much as possible, we should fully explore who they come from – their family and existing family supports – as the first and best option. After all, who knows and understands children better than those who are connected to them by blood, time and experience? A core belief of CASA is that every child deserves love and opportunity – isn’t every parent, grandparent, cousin, aunt, uncle, family friend and anyone else connected to that child deserving of that belief, too?
Many of the children we serve, like those who came before them, will have children of their own. If insanity is doing the same thing the same way and expecting a different outcome AND we know that the majority of children in care will find a way to reconnect with their bio-family when they leave care AND many youth in care will drop out of school, be un/under employed, experience physical and/or mental health issues, not go on to college… then it is past time to approach how we do what we do in a different way. A way that the research tells us strengthens Texas, and Texas families, for the future.
If you are not currently involved with CASA, I ask you today to consider how you can play a part in making a difference in the lives of our most vulnerable children. Are you ready to take the first step towards becoming a CASA volunteer? Visit BecomeACASA.org to learn how you can speak up for a child who needs you. You can also support the work of Texas CASA by making a secure online gift that will benefit the local CASA volunteer advocacy programs across the state.