Program Highlight: CASA of Tulare County, Family Connections
Launched in 2015, the purpose of CASA of Tulare County’s Family Connections program is to ensure that Tulare County foster youth with little to no family connections are provided with the opportunity to develop lifelong connections with relatives, non-relative extended family members, and/or significantly committed adults in their lives.
CASA of Tulare County’s Family Connections program focuses on the First 5 Tulare County Strategic Priority of Strong Families: “Parents and other caregivers have the knowledge and resources they need to provide a nurturing environment.”
Based on the Family Finding model of National Institute for Permanent Family Connectedness (NIPFC), the Family Connections program seeks to build or maintain a foster youth’s family support network. This process identifies relatives and other supportive adults, estranged from or unknown to the child, especially those who are willing to become permanent connections for him or her.
There is compelling evidence that children with connections to family and other positive and supportive adults have improved behavior, improved school performance, healthier relationships, and more hopefulness in their lives.
CASA Family Connections staff identifies and engages family members to be involved in the lives of foster youth served by CASA’s core advocacy and mentoring program. Referrals to the Family Connections program focus on children with few or no relationships with extended family members. Each CASA youth is supported by numerous professionals and volunteers, including social workers, therapists, counselors, teachers, foster parents, group home staff and others. Selected members work together as a Family Connections team. Referrals are reviewed with the child’s current social worker to confirm the appropriateness of a family search and to gain agreement and collaboration with the process. An appointment order is then submitted to the child’s judge to legally assign the Family Connections Advocate the ability to search for and engage family members and others. The CASA Family Connections Advocate regularly updates all team members of progress and contacts made.
An example of CASA Family Connections in action involves a foster youth named Mikey who had not seen or visited with extended family members in over a year. Working with CASA staff and volunteers, Mikey had an opportunity to visit with his grandmother, cousin, and aunt at the CASA office last fall. Mikey was so excited to visit with his family and was looking forward to meeting them with much anticipation. CASA staff arranged an activity for the family during the visit. Together, the family carved pumpkins, turning them into jack o’lanterns for the upcoming Halloween holiday. Activities like this form a foundation for bonding and provide the opportunity to develop critical connections to family and friends so many foster youth sadly lack.
Fully trained CASA volunteers receive additional training to participate in the Family Connections program. Supervised by Family Connections staff similar to a “traditional” CASA, Family Connections advocates typically work on one child’s case at a time. In partnership with the traditional CASA, both volunteers — through their ongoing relationship with the youth — play a vital role in sustaining the new connections made throughout the Family Connections process.
CASA Family Connections Core Beliefs
Every youth needs, deserves, and has the right to loving, caring, permanent relationships with other human beings.
Everyone deserves the dignity of knowing who their family members are.
Youth who have connections with members of their family and other people who are important to them tend to have improved school performance, improved behavior, healthier relationships, and more hopefulness in their lives.
Most youth, even youth in the dependency system, have healthy family members — relatives and non-relatives — living in the world around us.
It is our responsibility as a community to find a dependency youth’s family members and successfully connect them with the youth.
In some cases, the foster youth is driving the search for family, sharing memories and stories of people once involved in his/her life. For others, the youth is unaware that a search is being undertaken. For each case, the child’s team discusses the appropriate level of his/her involvement. For some, it’s best to fully engage them in all stages and for others it may be best not to disclose the full extent of family search efforts until viable family members have been located and screened. In all cases, the appropriate team members engage the youth in discussions about family and others with whom he or she wishes to be connected and helps introduce new people into their lives.
The Family Search and Engagement Model
Six steps prioritize and organize the search for and engagement of family members. Ultimately, the goal is to assist the Social Services Agency in developing lifelong connections, and sometimes permanent placements, for Orange County’s neediest foster children.
Discovery: Identify and locate people who are or could be important to the youth.
Engagement: Communicate with the discovered family members and assess the possibility of the youth connecting with them.
Planning & Preparation: Evaluate all information and take measured steps to initiate a relationship.
Decision Making & Empowerment: Make timely decisions to give the youth appropriate levels of connection.
Evaluation: Assess the individualized plan to achieve legal and emotional permanency. Create plan B and C.
Follow-Up Supports: Ensure the family has access to community supports that are normative and enduring
Ways family can be involved:
Email and write letters
Send birthday cards and pictures
Call just to say hello
Help create a family tree
Be someone to talk to on the tough days
Spend weekends, holidays together
Attend important events
Be a life-long connection
Show love and affection
For foster children, permanency is not always solely about placement. According to The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, decades of resilience research indicates that “…the single most common finding is that children who end up doing well have had at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult.”
To learn more about CASA of Tulare County, visit their Facebook page at @CASAofTulareCounty or their website at www.casatulareco.org or give them a call at (559) 625-4007 to learn how you can become a CASA volunteer and be that person for a child . . . it makes all the difference.