Right now, Texas is deep in the midst of a foster care capacity crisis, and hundreds of children across the state are sleeping in hotels and offices, supervised by their CPS caseworkers, for days and even weeks at a time. These so-called “children without placement,” or “CWOP,” are in limbo due to no fault of their own, but because the state does not have the foster parents or facilities needed to house them.
It’s a tragic situation with no simple solution, but CASA of the Coastal Bend is helping CWOP kids and their caseworkers in the best way they can: by providing them with a taste of home. CASA staff and volunteers have been delivering nutritious meals to area children in CWOP and their caseworkers every Monday through Thursday, consistently, since the beginning of May.
Towards the beginning of the crisis, the program reached out to CPS and asked them how they could help, explained Heather Tijerina, Advocate Advisor. The kids and caseworkers had been eating a lot of pizza and other fast-and-easy food, so CASA rallied and set up a meal train quickly. The majority of the meals they bring for CWOP children are home cooked, Tijerina said.
“A home-cooked meal just hits different than fast food, for the kids and the staff alike,” she said. “I’ve had caseworkers break down in tears and say, ‘I can’t remember the last time I saw the inside of my own kitchen.’”
Knowing how difficult this time is for not only the children, but their caseworkers, each meal is made and packaged with love. They write heartfelt notes of encouragement on the wrapped-up meals like “We love you,” “Have a great day,” and “We’re thinking about you.”
Importantly, CASA of the Coastal Bend has also made sure that protecting boundaries, the CASA role and the children’s safety has remained the top priority. For example, each time they drop off a meal, they make sure someone from CPS is at the door to receive it.
“We work hard to ensure that we are maintaining professional boundaries, maintaining confidentiality, and doing what CASA does, which is support children in care,” Tijerina said.
One day, CASA of the Coastal Bend did something extra special for the youth in CWOP: they hosted a movie day at the CASA office. They put a just-released movie on the “big screen” projector and acted as dine-in theater waiters, taking the kids’ “orders.” They offered nachos, hot dogs, and other movie theater concession-type foods and drinks—some kids ordered one of everything!
Another CASA staff member, who is a yoga instructor, also put together personalized yoga packs for each of the children, complete with a yoga mat, a journal and more.
The majority of the children who end up in CWOP have high needs and are often members of historically marginalized groups. They’re the kids who are hardest to place—and the worst part is that they know that, Tijerina explained. They tend to act out severely as a way to air their frustrations with the situation. According to a police officer who supervised the movie day, it was the “chillest” he’d ever seen them.
It gave the kids a chance to feel a little more normal and have a little fun, and it gave the exhausted staff watching over them an indispensable chance to catch their breath and refuel.
“It was a time for them to relax and feel comfortable and safe,” Tijerena said. “Just for that one day, they got to be kids. Just kids. Not high-risk kids, not high-needs kids… just kids.”