“Family seeing, justice doing and dignity giving.”
These three concepts are at the core of Collaborative Family Engagement (CFE) according to Family Finding Model Author Kevin Campbell, one of our key partners in bringing the initiative across the state.
CFE takes family finding beyond just finding. It recognizes that the families of children in foster care, no matter their circumstances or past actions, deserve dignity, respect and a voice. CFE operates from the understanding that these children do better when they can stay meaningfully connected with their biological families. It works toward family reunification as the first and best option, whenever safe and possible.
This process takes time, it’s difficult and it can be unpredictable – but it is worth it, because of stories like Lauren’s.
Lauren* had been in and out of foster care for years due to her parents’ ongoing struggle with substance use. She was closed off and didn’t trust easily. She was angry about being removed from home, and would often voice that she wanted to go back home with her mom, but unfortunately, it had not been a safe or stable option.
CASA volunteer Karen Foyil was appointed to serve Lauren when she was 13. At the time, CASA of Liberty/Chambers Counties was in the first year of their CFE rollout, and Lauren was the first young person at their program to receive CFE efforts.
As Lauren’s advocate, Foyil worked hard to build a trusting relationship. She visited her in her placement as often as she could. Lauren loved horses and competed in barrel racing, and Foyil would often go and watch her perform.
“She never got extremely close, but when there were issues, she would talk to me,” said Foyil, reflecting.
Foyil and the rest of the CFE team were able to engage Lauren’s parents, her grandmother on her father’s side, and a few others for the first family meeting. Mom and Dad both expressed wanting Lauren back in their lives, but they hadn’t been completing their services. Dad lived with Grandma, which meant Lauren wouldn’t be able to live there.
Despite the challenges, Foyil and the CFE team didn’t want to give up on finding Lauren a kinship placement just yet. Lauren and Foyil completed a CFE tool together, called a Connectedness Map, to see if there was anyone else in her life – teachers, mentors or others – who cared about her and may be able to get involved. One of the people she pinpointed as a supportive person from her past was her horse trainer, Donna, so Karen invited her to attend Lauren’s next family meeting.
At the next meeting, the team continued to discuss Lauren’s biggest, most urgent need: permanency. While they talked through options and barriers, Donna mostly stayed quiet, listening carefully. When the meeting ended, she went up to Foyil and asked what would happen to Lauren if they weren’t able to reach a solution. When Foyil answered “foster care,” Donna and her husband said they would be willing to take her.
After a home study, Lauren went to live with Donna at her farm, which gave her the structure and stability she needed. She enjoyed helping out with riding lessons, kept up with school, made new friends and connected with Donna’s family.
“Donna showed her what a drug-free atmosphere looks like, what extended healthy family looks like,” Foyil said.
The judge ended up giving Donna permanent custody of Lauren, but did not terminate her biological parents’ rights – keeping the door open for a positive relationship. While it was challenging at times, Donna made sure Lauren was able to stay connected with them if she chose.
A couple years later, Lauren’s mom reached out to Lauren. She had recently been released from prison, and was in a transitional living home and staying sober. She wanted Lauren to come back to live with her.
Lauren decided that she wanted to be back with her mother. Though it was hard for Donna, she understood Lauren’s decision and knew it was best for her if she could safely live with family.
Today, Lauren is living with her mom at the transitional living home. Mom is staying clean, keeping a job and has the help she needs to provide a safe environment. She is in the process of regaining permanent custody. Lauren, Donna and Mom are all on good terms and keep in communication with each other. When the time is right, Lauren also knows she can once again have a connection with her father, as well as her grandmother.
Thanks to CFE, Donna was able to give Lauren the stable environment she needed until she could be reunified with her mother – and she and the many friends and family who are invested in her well-being will always be there to support her.
“We all know kids want to go home,” said Foyil. “Even though it’s different than we all expected it to be, and the opportunities are going to be a little different… she’s with her mom. And she’s got friends, she’s got connections, she knows that she can call people.”
Today, Foyil is working full-time at CASA of Liberty/Chambers Counties as their CFE Coordinator. She and the rest of the CFE team believe they never would have learned of or included Donna in Lauren’s life without CFE.
“To see [CFE] work and have that success right away… It was just the right people in the right place at the right time, and it just all fell into place. Having that success with your very first case is encouraging,” she said. “It was the encouragement that we needed to go, ‘Wow, this can work!’”
*Name changed for privacy.