“It’s so easy to give up on somebody, because holding them up is much harder.”
In 2017, Rachel*, mother of three, was battling a substance use disorder. Her children—Julissa*, 11 years old; Matthew*, 2 years old; and Kiara*, 5 months old—were in the legal custody of their grandmother in Arlington.
This is Rachel’s story of perseverance and hope, with a CASA volunteer at her side.
One day, baby Kiara suffered serious injuries. The cause of the injuries was never confirmed. Regardless, the three children were removed from their grandmother’s home and entered foster care. To make things worse, after about two months, Julissa was moved to another foster home away from her two younger siblings.
At this point, Rachel had already been fighting for her children for more than a year. In addition to working two jobs, she had been following her service plan ordered by the judge overseeing the case, which included attending Narcotics Anonymous, drug treatment, ongoing drug tests, and individual and family counseling. She had been clean for a few months. But the fact is that recovery from substance addiction is a lifelong and difficult process, and relapse is a common part of the journey. At the 15-month mark of the case, Rachel tested positive on a drug test. The Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) requested a hearing, and the judge ordered that the state would take over permanent custody of her kids.
Plenty of parents facing such a difficult situation would have felt defeated, but while the state had taken over permanent custody, Rachel’s parental rights had not been terminated. In other words, she still had a chance. She recommitted to doing whatever it would take to bring Julissa, Matthew and Kiara back home.
“I knew I had to get right for my children,” said Rachel. “I had to do it for them.”
She persevered. She continued to participate in services, and soon enough, she again began to test clean. Matthew and Kiara’s foster mother Anela* was very supportive of Rachel. She understood the importance of the kids keeping a positive relationship with their mother and made the effort to include her as much as she could, from FaceTime visits to inviting her to doctors’ appointments.
Eventually, Rachel’s hard work paid off, and she was granted unsupervised visits. Matthew and Kiara had maintained a positive relationship with their mother through the duration of their time in foster care. Things were more complicated with Julissa, though—her foster mother was less involved in facilitating communication and connection. Julissa was also older and remembered more, and needed time to rebuild the trust that she’d lost. The two mainly kept in touch over the phone.
At one major turning point in the case, Rachel moved into a house with a couple in the hope that Julissa, Matthew and Kiara could come back to live with her. CPS ran background checks on the couple, per policy, and discovered that one of them had been convicted of a felony. So despite Rachel’s hard work and good intentions, CPS didn’t allow the kids to live there.
Rachel was stuck in a lease, and her children were still stuck in foster care. One step forward, two steps back.
This is where Melissa Caddell—Julissa, Matthew and Kiara’s CASA volunteer—saw an opportunity. She and the team at CASA of Tarrant County designated the case for Collaborative Family Engagement (CFE). CFE is a collaborative advocacy approach with DFPS and others designed to develop lifetime networks for families. It focuses on finding and engaging family members, friends and other committed adults to ensure the children and parents have plenty of healthy relationships and support systems that will last far after their involvement with foster care.
As luck would have it, Melissa is, quite literally, a CFE expert: in addition to serving as a CASA volunteer, she works at Texas CASA as a CFE Coach, helping implement the approach across the state. At its core, CFE is as much about building a team around parents like Rachel as it is about supporting kids.
“I think that if a parent knows you are not only supporting their children, but also supporting them, that can make a world of difference,” Melissa explained. “I never doubted if Rachel loved her kids, but she needed support and to know that other people thought she could stay clean and get her kids back. Everyone needs a cheerleader and to know that someone is on their side.”
CASA and CPS formed a “CFE team” for Rachel and the kids, consisting of Rachel’s sister, CASA volunteer Melissa and her supervisor, the CASA of Tarrant County CFE Lead, the CPS caseworker and supervisor, and Matthew and Kiara’s foster mother Anela. The team came together with one goal in mind: to support Rachel so that she could hopefully be reunited with her children. They hosted a meeting, and Rachel was relieved to have the opportunity to explain her situation in a safe environment.
“When I got the call [for the meeting], I felt grateful, more so than anything. Before, I didn’t have the time to elaborate on the issues I was having, but when I was able to sit and talk, I was able to put it all in context,” she said.
The team brainstormed and came up with a solution to Rachel’s housing that was approved by CPS. The new plan: Rachel and Julissa would temporarily move in with Anela, Matthew and Kiara. This would allow all of Rachel’s children to have a smooth transition back into her care, while preserving the little ones’ bond with their foster mother.
“They [the CFE team] didn’t form an idea about me from what was on a paper. They wanted what was best for me as a parent,” said Rachel. “They didn’t turn my trust of them against me. They believe, just like I do, that everybody is worthy of change.”
Three months later, once the terms of her old lease were up, it came time for Rachel and the kids to move out of Anela’s home and find a home of their own. Rachel was able to apply for a housing voucher, secure an apartment, and finally get settled with her children.
After two-and-a-half tough years, the case came to a close on June 23, 2020, with the family happily reunited.
“The road to reunification can be long and hard. Rachel never gave up, and CASA never gave up on her,” said Melissa. “Relationships with the children are important, but building a relationship with parents can be even more so. CASA volunteers, take the time to show your support to the parents! Sometimes it can be the only support they feel they have in the system.”
Today, Julissa is 13 years old. She loves to draw and read, and has been doing well in school. Matthew is a strong-willed 4-year-old who loves cars and trucks, his bike, Paw Patrol and Mickey Mouse. Kiara, on the other hand, is partial to Minnie Mouse. Now 3, she has made a full recovery from her injuries, and has grown into a fun, inquisitive toddler who loves her siblings. All three are growing up home with their mother—safe, happy, healthy and loved.
“We came so far. I’m grateful for Melissa’s persistence and dedication to my case,” said Rachel. “A lot of parents think they are going to fail because they don’t have someone saying anything besides that. It’s so easy to give up on somebody, because holding them up is much harder. I commend CASA, and I commend Melissa, for sticking with the case and fighting for my kids and myself.”
*All names have been changed for privacy.