The CASA network operates under the belief that the vast majority of parents love their children and advocates to keep families connected whenever safe and possible, whatever the circumstances of the case may be. CASA volunteers with Golden Crescent CASA in Victoria recently put this into practice in an amazing way: by writing letters to engage with parents who are incarcerated.
Sadly, it’s not uncommon for children in foster care to have a parent behind bars. Though data is limited, one Wisconsin study found that more than 8% of CPS-involved children had at least one parent in state prison—and more than 23% had a parent in a county jail.
To help get the process started, Golden Crescent CASA provided a basic letter template, which the volunteers personalized to reach out to parents on their cases, with the help of their supervisor. Below is an excerpt from the template:
“I am writing today to find out about you. Can you tell me about your role in your child’s life? Can you tell me what your plans are for your child? What would you like for your child? I want to get to know your child through your eyes.
I am also interested in learning more about your family and friends that were important to your child. Can you give me names and contact information about others in your family that I should talk with? Family is very important during this time, and I want to make sure your child knows that they have not been forgotten.”
For safety, Golden Crescent CASA supervisors made sure the letters were child focused without sharing too much information, and supplied a self-addressed, stamped envelope.
Two volunteers who contacted the fathers of the children on their case recount their experiences below.
“Being honest, I was nervous about contacting him just because I didn’t know what to expect. When his mom reached out to us, on his behalf, I wasn’t sure how the conversation would go,” the first volunteer said. “In the end, it was great!”
The boy’s father wrote several pages in response to the volunteer’s letter. He spoke about himself and his life, and included names and phone numbers for family members. Although the family was not able to commit to support the child, it was a good experience. This contact information will remain in the file, and in the future, someone can reach out again to see if circumstances have changed. The boy’s father has been sober for over five years and talked about how much more clearly his thinking has been. He thanked the volunteer for all they were doing, and for writing to him.
The last page was a letter to his son. He wrote about how much he loved his son and wanted only good things for him.
In this case, the child’s father and the CASA volunteer exchanged several letters while he was incarcerated. He appreciated the volunteer reaching out to learn more about him. He also asked for pictures of his child—he had not seen her since she was a baby, and today, she’s nearly 3 years old. After discussion with staff, the volunteer shared pictures. The father was very grateful.
“No two cases are alike so there may be a different response from other parents in this situation, but I do believe we should try to reach out to them if we can,” the CASA volunteer said.
The girl’s father has since been released from incarceration and has had a couple of visits with her. Because of the reason for his incarceration, he will never regain custody, but he now has the opportunity to maintain safe, healthy contact with his daughter as they get to know each other again.
Reaching out to parents who are incarcerated to involve them is one meaningful way that CASA volunteers can contribute to building the lifetime network of connections that every child in foster care needs and deserves.