PART 5: Connections
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I don’t really fit in at my new school. Sometimes, my classmates whisper about me when they think I can’t hear. They spread rumors about where I came from, and why I’m not living with my mom and dad.
I miss my old school, where I wasn’t the new kid. Where I fit in, and got invited to birthday parties and sleepovers, and played soccer… just like everybody else.
I guess I’m just gonna have to get used to it. This new way that everybody looks at me, and treats me.
Because it’s not just at school – it’s different with my family, too. I get to see mom pretty often, and grandma and grandpa sometimes, but it’s just not the same as it used to be before they took me away. They seem sad and worried all the time. They try to hide it from me, but I can always tell. All I want is for us to be happy again.
My foster parents take me to a therapist sometimes, to talk about my family, and school, and the dragons. Sometimes talking about it makes me feel better, but sometimes it makes me feel sadder. There are days, too, where I don’t feel like talking to her at all. I feel like I’m always having to answer the same questions and tell the same stories over and over again to her, my caseworker and other people. I know they are trying to help, but sometimes it seems like all they do is remind me that I’m not normal.
Maria is different, though. I mean, we still talk about what’s going on, but with her, it’s always more than that. The best times with Maria are the times when we don’t talk about mom and dad, or bullies at school, or anything like that at all. The times when we get to have fun – draw pictures, play board games together, go out to the park… She talks to me about my favorite movies, and books, and remembers what kind of music I like. Sometimes she takes me out to ice cream, or my favorite pizza place.
Right now, Maria is the only one who doesn’t make me feel different, or like I have to be serious all the time. She’s the only one who makes me feel normal.
Maria, Emily’s CASA Volunteer:
Recently, I’ve started to realize how important taking breaks can be for me and Emily.
It started when I took Emily out for ice cream after her status hearing. I knew that was a hard day for her, so I wanted to give her a little “mental health break.” We didn’t talk about the case or what went on at the hearing at all. Instead, we talked about everyday stuff, like her favorite movies and TV shows, music… that sort of thing. I think it was really good for her, having the chance to take a step back from everything. She’s just a kid, after all, even though she’s going through things that no kid should have to.
Ever since then, I’ve started scheduling more fun days like these with Emily, and it’s been amazing to see her transformation. She’s really starting to open up to me more about her fears and challenges in between our fun outings. Sometimes the best thing to do, for both of us, is to give her a little time to be a normal kid.
We also had some exciting developments at the second Family Group Conference! First off, Emily’s aunt was able to join us this time. Emily’s mom had mentioned her a lot at the first meeting as someone she’s been able to count on in the past. I could tell that having her there made mom feel more encouraged and comfortable. She even agreed to attend a domestic violence support group, and the aunt was quick to offer to drive her there since transportation can be an issue. It was a big step for mom, and we’re all so proud of how far she has come already.
We also started discussing the possibility of placing Emily with her grandparents for the remainder of her time in care. They would have taken her in when she was initially removed, but her grandmother had recently gone through surgery. Now that she’s fully recovered, they’re very open to it. We’re only in the beginning stages of the conversation, and it’s a little complicated since they’re her grandparents on her father’s side, but I’m hopeful. Not only would this mean Emily was back with family, but even better, they live in her old school district – which would mean she could go back to her old school. I’ve had conversations with Emily, her teachers and her therapist about her struggles at her new school… if we can make this work, I think going back to her former school with her close friends and teachers would do wonders for her.
We took big steps in the right direction at this meeting. We all agree that Emily deserves nothing less than a safe, loving and permanent home where she can heal and grow. I truly believe she can have that with her mother after all of this is done – but finding ways to address the trauma they’ve both experienced, and continuing to build and maintain a support system for both of them, will be critical if we’re going to set them up for a successful and sustainable reunification.
In the weeks leading up to Emily’s next court date, her CASA volunteer Maria is continuing to advocate for her in various areas of her life, including by keeping an eye on her emotional and social needs, monitoring her placement and helping to create a support system for her and her family.
Emily has expressed to her that she’s been struggling with being treated differently now that she’s in foster care, something that many children and youth in her situation deal with. Because they tend to move from placement to placement, these children are constantly having to be “the new kid,” when all they really want is for things in their life to go back to normal.
Right now, Emily’s new normal is feeling abnormal; her new consistency is inconsistency. She’s having to deal with being away from not only her home and her family, but her school, her friends and her community. Every time she moves foster placements, she has to start all over again. As if this weren’t exhausting enough, she’s constantly having deeply personal conversations with the professionals in her life. And, though she gets to see her family, she’s still not home, and the removal process has been taking a toll on them as well.
As the advocate on the case who has spent the most time with Emily and has the most in-depth understanding of her unique needs, Maria understands that none of this is fair to her, and she’s doing what she can within her role to help her cope. By taking Emily out on fun outings, she’s taking her mind off of her situation and giving her back a little bit of the normalcy that she’s lost, even if it’s just for a short time. As a bigger-picture solution, she’s also advocating for Emily to be placed with her grandparents where, not only would she be back in a familiar home with family, but she’d also get to go back to her school of origin – her school before she was removed from home.
The Lifetime Network
A second family meeting utilizing the principles of Collaborative Family Engagement (CFE) has taken place in advance of the next hearing in Emily’s case. This meeting brings everyone back together to discuss ideas of support, or plans, to meet the Biggest Unmet Needs Statement that was developed at the first meeting.
Right now, the permanency plan for Emily is still reunification with her mother, as long as she cooperates with her service plan and demonstrates that she can provide a safe environment. The reality, however, is that oftentimes children who are reunified or adopted face a risk of re-entering the system if their family does not have the support and resources they need. To address this, the family meeting was also centered on creating a lifetime network for Emily and her mother – a dedicated team of committed family and other adults who will work collaboratively to ensure that the permanency plan is supported and successful.
A lifetime network, just like its name implies, is meant to last a lifetime – even after CASA and CPS involvement ends. The ultimate goal of CFE is to create such a network for the child and family; or if one is already in place, to strengthen it.
Emily’s mother, just like Emily, is grappling with the trauma of her abusive relationship – and if she doesn’t have adequate support, she runs the risk of falling back into destructive and unhealthy patterns. So right now, Emily’s lifetime network is focused on ensuring her mother has access to the help she needs to heal. The group has agreed that they will all check in with her regularly to see how she’s doing, and ensure that she’s keeping up with everything promised in her service plan. In addition to her individual therapy, they brought up the idea of Emily’s mother attending a domestic violence support group, and Emily’s aunt offered to drive her since she knew transportation might be an issue.
Now that Emily and her mother are surrounded by a team of family and other adults who care about them and are willing to offer support in whatever way needed, it is much more likely that the plan for reunification will be successful.
Tune in next month for the next part of Emily’s story.*
*This is a fictional story based on real-life situations that many children in the Texas foster care system face. No confidential information about any real children or families has been disclosed.