foster care team members 101

Thursday, August 4, 2011

When a child enters the 'system', they are immediately matched with several different adults that thereafter make up their 'team'. Well, ideally this is what occurs. In our kids' case, this is definitely what occurred, and it happened in a pretty spectacular way. I'm certain I'll be writing more about that soon. I probably will be talking quite a bit about the 'team' for our kids in the next few weeks as we inch towards our finalization day, so I decided to briefly run down the explanation of each of the members to help you understand the roles of the people surrounding our kids, and hopefully someday, every kid who enters foster care. (It just doesn't always happen like it did for Mr. B and Baby R) There are a lot of acronyms. It gets confusing. Here's my attempt to make it slightly more clear.

FCS: The first team member is always the case worker. They work for Family and Children Services (FCS) as it is called in our county. The agency that FCS falls into is the Department of Job and Family Services (DJFS). Interesting fact about our area - maybe it's like this everywhere, I wouldn't know: DJFS is 'governed' by the county commissioners. Possibly you don't find that interesting at all. I rarely understand governmental structure, so I found it pretty fascinating. Helpful for voting as well since I thought the commissioners just took care of stuff like roads.

The case worker starting out works in the foster care unit. They may or may not be a social worker. Their primary goal is to provide to support to the whole family, parents and children alike, so that reunification is possible. In my experience, it seems like they spend a lot more energy on the parents since the children are usually safe in their foster homes for the time being. In our county, the foster case worker is required to visit the children in their foster homes at least once a month. They come out, talk to the kids if they're of age, observe them, get the run-down on all the happenings, etc. This worker also might do in-home support for the biological family in order to try and maintain the kids in their own homes with their own parents. This is obviously a very brief synopsis. All of the case workers we have met are overworked. There are far more needy children and families than FCS can facilitate effectively, so they concentrate on the very worst. Our case worker likes to say, "we have to talk about 'ideal' versus 'illegal'."

If the case does not end in reunification, the state files for permanent custody of the children. After that is granted, the case is transferred to the adoption unit. The kids then switch from their original worker to an adoption worker. This worker is focused on finding, placing, and maintaining a permanent placement for the children. If they stay in their current foster families, basically all that there is to do is paperwork. If not, there is a family recruitment period, matching conferences, and the very important decision making on matching a child to a healthy, happy, well-suited permanent family. In our state, there is a minimum of six months in a home before an adoption can be finalized, so the worker may have quite a bit of time with the children before they are adopted.

GAL/CASA: The second member of the team is one that sometimes doesn't even participate. This is the Guardian Ad Litum (GAL) or CASA worker. We've had three placements and never met a GAL or CASA until this case. This seems to be fairly prevalent in the system. CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocate. In certain cases, the CASA worker fills the role and function of the Guardian Ad Litum. His or her job is purely to advocate for the child/children's best interests. All of the CASA workers are volunteers. It's really a terrific organization. Our CASA worker has been truly amazing. He is dedicated, passionate, caring, and he happened to win CASA worker of the year here in our state based on his work for our kids.

Foster Family: The last 'standard' member of the team is the foster family. Anecdotally, we have found that most foster families do participate in the team meetings. It's probably a combination of factors - the case worker might not act like their participation is needed or even wanted, the family might not have time to go to meetings in the middle of the day, the family might not realize how important their perspective is to the case. There is no one who will know the children better, however, than the family that they are living with day after day. This input should be invaluable to all the other team members.

Birth Family: Oh, I neglected to mention the biological family. They are a really important part of the team as well. We just don't really have much experience with this in our case. Our kids' mom came to a couple of team meetings, but then that was the last we saw of her. We also met a grandmother and a great-aunt. Extended family is encouraged to participate as well, both as support for the birth parent/s and as potential caregivers for the children as a kinship placement. Ideally, the biological family would be involved in all meetings and decisions, working their case plan, and getting their lives in order to get the children back.

Our kids' team had a few other really key members. This is, as we've learned, very unusual. The children are lucky if they get the case worker and the CASA worker to work together, much less any of these remaining members.

Help Me Grow: A really key player and advocate for our kids was their Help Me Grow worker. Help Me Grow is an in-home program that helps expectant parents, newborns, infants and toddlers. They provide health and developmental screening and services to aid with early childhood development. They offer parenting tips, classes, info on baby and child care, and much, much more. Our kids' Help Me Grow worker was actually requested by their mom before they ever were a case with DJFS. She has been there from the very beginning and has been invaluable in advocating first for their mom, then later on for the kids as it became more evident that things were not going to work out in their own home. It's a really great on-the-ground agency who is providing a tremendous service to our community and our state.

Therapists: Another of the key players is the therapist role. Both Mr. B and his older sister had therapists who advocated for them and their mental health progress or lack thereof. They came to team meetings, maintained communication with the foster families, the CASA worker, and the case worker, and spoke in court on the children's behalf. We have amazing resources in our county for early childhood mental health, and we are very blessed to be recipients of those services. I believe every child in foster care should have access to these resources.

Foster Care Coordinator: The last important team member on our kids' team is a nurse who works at the local community health center. She processes the intake portion of foster care in this county. If a child enters foster care, they will go to meet this woman; she'll assist with an intake physical exam, give them a kit of toiletries and basic items (since they usually come into care with nothing), and often maintains relationship with them as they make their way through the system. She is an amazing, compassionate, passionate woman who is just one of the best parts of the system in our county. She advocated for our kids both in team meetings and at court. We love her. Our kids love her. And she loves them.

So, there you have a basic structure for our kids' team. Our kids are young, but if they were older, I would imagine that an ideal team might even include teachers, tutors, or mentors. Like I said, this was unusual. Divinely unusual, in my opinion. Our kids are happy and healthy and in a forever home because of these people. What a blessing it has been for us to know them all and be a part of this whole painfully beautiful experience.

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