Don G. Binnicker

Don G. Binnicker

When 5-month-old twins Chloe and Catie, along with their big brother Cole, were removed from their home and placed in foster care, there was little chance that they would return home to their mother, Crystal.

With minimal support and access to resources, many people doubted that Crystal would ever prove capable of providing a safe, stable home for her children.

However, things changed when CASA volunteers John and Jenifer were appointed to the case to represent the children’s best interests – and that’s exactly what they did. How? By advocating for them, and just as important, by advocating for Crystal. CASA became the catalyst that helped Crystal turn things around by connecting her to family and keeping other family members engaged during the long court case.

Through a Texas process called Collaborative Family Engagement (CFE), the CASA volunteers worked with Child Protective Services (CPS) and those involved in the case to create and strengthen a support network around Crystal and her children.

CFE brought the whole team together at family meetings to build a custom plan that fit the family’s needs while simultaneously creating a system of accountability that ensured the execution of the agreed-upon plan.

At the first meeting, Crystal seemed reserved but she was nevertheless engaged and listened to everyone.

By the second meeting two months later, her confidence had grown and so had her relationships with her children, her support network and the CASA volunteers. It was at the third meeting that a complete transformation was apparent.

Crystal entered smiling, and her confidence shone. It was reported that she had, in fact, exceeded CPS’s expectations for a monitored return home of her children. She had not only completed her parenting classes and counseling required by CPS, but also secured her own apartment and a full-time job and embraced the support of the network around her.

Now that CASA and CPS are no longer on the case, the support network of family built by CFE is still there for Crystal and her children, who are safely and happily living at home with their mother.

This is the power of CFE and only one example of the success we’ve seen in the three years since this program’s implementation in Tarrant County.

When we implemented CFE, we hoped to create positive change in the lives of families like Crystal’s. What we didn’t expect, however, was that CFE would change the entire core of our organization and how we advocate for children.

Volunteers with CASA of Tarrant County complete 33 hours of intensive training before they are appointed by a judge to represent the best interest of a child in foster care. CASA volunteers get to know everyone involved in the child’s life and report back to the judge to ensure that the child’s physical, emotional and educational needs are being met. This has been the nationwide CASA movement’s model since the program’s founding in 1979.

Though CASA is broadening its approach to positively impact child outcomes through initiatives like CFE, advocating for the child is still the heart and foundation of what we do. That focus will never shift.

What we are changing is the lens through which we see parents, relationships and permanency outcomes, in relation to the best interest of the child.

When we stopped looking at how we used to approach cases, new possibilities surfaced.

Participation in the CFE initiative encouraged the team to consider all possible scenarios. If mom is still working to get back on track and isn’t ready to parent full time, can we still keep her engaged and connected to her children in other ways, like through phone calls and letters? Are there grandparents, aunts, uncles or close family friends that the children can visit for holidays?

Just because a relationship can’t be a permanent placement or home doesn’t mean we have to, or should, close the door on these relationships forever.

Another benefit of CFE is that it recognizes that children have many blood relatives and other important connections that can be identified, engaged and leveraged at a case’s inception. CFE stresses the importance of:

• Involvement of the support network in the planning and decision-making for the child or youth,

• Placement with kin or fictive kin whenever possible, but not as the first question posed, and

• Connection as a contributing factor for positive child outcomes.

In CASA of Tarrant County’s first year using CFE, we served 36 children. The approach was so impactful that in year two, we almost tripled our numbers and served 101 children; and already this year we’ve reached 118 children.

How did we achieve this growth? By incorporating CFE into everything we do. CFE has been rolling out to CASA programs in Texas with the help of the state membership organization Texas CASA. Texas CASA provides the programs with a CFE coach who works with multiple programs in the region. Here in Tarrant County, we further committed to the initiative by hiring our own CFE coordinator to oversee the embedding of CFE into our culture.

The foundation of CFE is collaboration. We’ve taken our work with CPS and turned a good partnership into a true team for these kids. The CFE team shares the work, and every success is a cooperative achievement. By encouraging open communication and collaboration, this team approach also models the goal of establishing a community of support, or network, around the children and their families.

Because CASA of Tarrant County remains focused on advocating for the best interest of children, we look forward to strengthening our CFE model to use as yet another tool to create better outcomes for children we serve. I can’t say the last three years have been easy, but I can say they have been worth it beyond measure.

Become a CASA

CASA volunteers, or Court Appointed Special Advocates, are people doing extraordinary work by choosing to speak up for children in their communities who have been abused or neglected. They are screened, trained and then appointed by the court to advocate for the best interests of a child or sibling group in the foster care system. Learn more at https://www.speakupforachild.org/

Collaborative Family Engagement

In 2015, the 84th Legislature appropriated funds to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) and Texas CASA to work together to develop a statewide model of family finding known as Collaborative Family Engagement, or CFE. With a focus on authentic family engagement, the CFE approach brings CASA, the DFPS and CPS together to complete the work of family finding, as federal law requires. The goal of CFE is to establish and strengthen support networks around children and youth in foster care as well as for their families, and to improve permanency outcomes, both physical (legal) and relational (emotional).

CFE is an integrated or embedded model of family finding in which CASA and CPS share the tasks of finding, engaging and involving family and fictive kin to build the supportive network – allowing more integration and transfer into standard case practice while modeling a team approach for the family.

Now in its fourth year statewide, CFE has expanded to 31 local CASA programs and their local CPS, representing about 44 percent of the statewide CASA network.

Don G. Binnicker is CEO of CASA of Tarrant County.

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