In early 2016, Shannon* and her husband Jason were in crisis. They struggled with substance use, were estranged from their extended family and had no real supportive connections to help them get clean and sober. Their 9-year-old daughter, Kayla, and 7-year-old son, Hudson, were removed by CPS from their suburban Houston home due to evidence of neglect and placed in a foster home.
During the first hearing after the removal, Shannon and Jason were asked whom they could call on for support. The answer they gave was “no one.” Fast-forward to December 2016, just nine months later: the CPS case is closed, Kayla and Hudson are happily and safely back home, Shannon and Jason are clean and sober, and they are surrounded by relatives and friends who love them.
How did this family go from having no one on their side to overflowing with support? With courage, the help of Collaborative Family Engagement (CFE), and the dedicated advocacy of two CASA volunteers with CASA Child Advocates of Montgomery County.
At the time, CFE, Texas CASA’s family finding and engagement partnership with DFPS, was in its earliest stages, and CASA Child Advocates of Montgomery County was one of just three local CASA programs piloting the approach. In fact, this case was the very first one the program designated for CFE. Anna McDonnell, one of the CASA volunteers who served on the case alongside volunteer Charlotte Tabarini, recalled their first time meeting the kids, getting to know them and putting CFE tools into action.
“Hudson was really upset—crying—he just wanted his Mom and Dad,” Anna said. “Kayla definitely had taken on the ‘mother’ role. She was very mature, and was used to making sure her little brother was fed, clothed and got to school.”
Anna and Charlotte guided the siblings in doing a connectedness map and a genogram, two CFE tools to help find family connections. As is usually the case, the children were full of information and memories about people they loved, and who loved them. They named multiple friends and family members, including their grandparents on their father’s side. Charlotte and Anna reached out to the grandparents, who agreed to take the children in. CPS completed a home study, and they were able to move Hudson and Kayla out of the foster home and in with their relatives fairly quickly.
Being back with family, in kinship care, was much better for Hudson and Kayla than the foster home. Their parents participated in services, and eventually were granted visits supervised by the grandparents. During visits, Hudson bonded with his father over video games. Kayla loved to connect with her mother through singing. It was clear that there was a lot of love between the children and their parents.
“When Charlotte and I would go visit, Charlotte would let Kayla record her singing and send it to her mom…her mom would record singing, too, and send it back to her,” Anna said.
CASA and CPS hosted three family meetings throughout the course of the case, with the goals of building and strengthening Shannon and Jason’s network, supporting their sobriety journey, and helping ensure Kayla and Hudson could safely come back home. Shannon said she was “terrified” going in to the first meeting. After all, she and Jason had isolated themselves from family for a long time. But their confidence in the process grew, and so did their support network—which expanded to include not only reconnected family members, but old friends, new friends from their NA meetings and even Shannon’s boss. At the last meeting, there were more people than could fit in the room!
“The first meeting, I didn’t really have any support with what was happening,” Shannon said. “By the time we got to the third meeting, we had so many people that flooded in through the doors that we were completely overwhelmed with the support that we had gained…It felt like the world was behind me to get my kids home.”
With the help of their network, Shannon and Jason were able to complete their service plan and stay sober. Friends from Jason’s NA group helped him find a job, and they were able to move in to a house close to where the kids were living with their paternal grandparents.
About seven months into the case, the judge ordered a monitored return, meaning Kayla and Hudson would return home to their parents with weekly check-ins from CPS and CASA. Two months later, the case closed in a highly emotional scene at the courtroom, with the family happily reunited.
“At the end of the court case, the entire room—there was probably 80 people in there and other families that were waiting to see what was going to happen in their case—they all stood up and applauded for us!” Shannon recalled, teary-eyed. “Because we actually did it, it gave so much hope to the other kids who were in that room with their parents, waiting to see if that was going to be them one day.”
Kayla and Hudson now have a large network of family and support that they can rely on. Shannon and Jason also have supportive people who are helping them and holding them accountable to be their best selves.
“If you authentically engage with family, the family will help figure out what’s in the best interest of the children. I thought I always had that philosophy, but I really had that philosophy afterwards,” Anna said, reflecting on her time advocating for Kayla, Hudson, Shannon and Jason. “If you work with the family, if you see the family, if you try to understand the family, if you use these tools—you will find connections, and those connections will help the children.”
Collaborative Family Engagement (CFE) has grown drastically in size and scope since its three-program pilot in 2016. In FY 2021, CFE was in 51 of the 72 CASA programs, 107 counties and 10 DFPS regions. We are on track to take the approach fully statewide by FY 2023, so that more and more families can grow, heal and thrive, together.
*Names throughout this story have been changed for privacy.