Up Close with a CASA Volunteer: Tennessee Case Shows Flexibility is Key for Kids
*Family names have been changed*
The Reynolds family was blessed with six beautiful children who were born to a mother who unfortunately, struggled all of her life. After allegations of lack of supervision, environmental neglect, educational neglect, and drug exposure, Williamson County CASA was appointed by the court.
Williamson County Tennessee is located in Middle Tennessee, just outside of the growing city of Nashville. With more than 200,000 residents, a thriving music scene, a host of big health care employers, and a booming local economy, the area’s economy consistently ranks as one of the fastest growing in the country. To outsiders looking in, the area is a perfect mix of upward mobility, affordable housing, and thriving children.
But that’s not true for all children as more than 12,000 of the county’s families live at or below, the poverty line. And work with the Reynolds’ children showed how Williamson County CASA has to be persistent and flexible to serve the needs of children because of the perception of wealth and stability county-wide.
Due to the allegations in the case, including the lack of willingness from the mother to work with the Department of Children’s Services (DCS), and the extreme behavior of the children, the children were brought in to the custody of DCS.
CASA volunteers and staff will be the first to tell you that helping children is rarely an open and shut case. There is no perfect prescription or typical path because children are so different, families so diverse, and their communities unique. The Williamson County case would ultimately require observation, a whole lot of patience, and a long-term plan to keep the children together in a safe and healthy environment.
That safe environment couldn’t come fast enough for the Reynolds children who ranged in age from 6 years old to infancy. There were many very troubling behavioral elements in the situation including biting, hitting, kicking, fascination with starting fires, refusal to sleep, hoarding food, sneaking into the kitchen while the foster parents slept, and escaping from the home late at night.
“Initially the children were placed together in one home; however, due to the extreme behaviors of the children, the placement disrupted in the first two weeks,” said Audrey Freshwater, Program Director at Williamson County CASA. “We held a child and family team-meeting to determine how to best stabilize the children and better assess appropriate placement options.”
The team involved in the process included Williamson County CASA, DCS, a Guardian ad Litem (attorney), a multitude of foster parents, and a therapist, all who provided input on the children’s progress. The foster parents reported having to sleep in shifts to ensure the safety of the children and even then, they felt it was impossible to keep pairs of the children safe. Based on this information a decision was made to separate the children to provide stability in smaller family group pairs and monitor the outcomes. Three children were placed in one foster home with the remaining three placed in a different foster home. Respite care was set up for both homes. Still, the children made only marginal progress.
During this period the beauty of the local and national CASA training and assessment models for children became evident. Children are unique and the approaches to serving them must too, be unique. The team serving the Reynolds’ kids reconvened and Ms. Freshwater suggested approaching the case from an ‘attachment perspective’ and using attachment-based therapies to help the children. While open to the idea, the team questioned if an attachment approach could be risky due to the pervasive inability to stabilize the children in any of their past placements. Ultimately a decision was made to move forward with this approach.
“What the team found by separating specific sibling sets, is that it enhanced our treatment approach,” Freshwater continued. “We placed one younger sibling with an older sibling and then placed the oldest child alone. By doing this we were able to stabilize the children’s behaviors.”
As the children’s social and emotional outlooks stabilized, one local foster home expressed interest in uniting all the children under one roof. The prospective foster parents were provided the tools to prepare them for fostering these particular children and they remained committed to uniting all the children in their home.
“It was a long journey; it was difficult and there were times that the foster parents questioned their abilities to handle the children,” Freshwater said. “When we began moving the other children in to their home, one of our goals was to manage their levels of stress. If you take time to prepare the children and their families and have the patience to consider individualized approaches, you can produce a favorable outcome.”
Currently all six children are together and the family is in the process of finalizing their adoption.
*Taken from CASAforChildren.org 05/09/2016