When The System Works

We have all heard horror stories about children being taken from their families by the state and placed into the foster care system. But having a front-row seat in a recent case, I’m here to talk about the positive outcome when the system works.

Once taken by the system, the child has many representatives in a state’s Division of Children’s Welfare from attorneys to caseworkers. Because caseworkers are overloaded and short-staffed in years past there were many instances of reported child abuse and neglect at the hands of foster parents.

New Jersey Department of Children and Families
Court Appointed Special Advocate

To address this catastrophic trend in the year 2000 the CASA program was born. The Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteer is dedicated to advocating solely for the child. This program provides a vital resource for the department by freeing up caseworkers’ time while maintaining strong supervision of the child while in foster care.

By that, I mean it’s not a CASA volunteer’s business to judge the biological parent(s) or the foster parents and the issues surrounding the fact the child was taken from their family. It’s the CASA’s job to ensure the child is safe and well cared for during their stay in the system.

As volunteers, we assure the child’s needs are being adequately met. Are they attending school and how are they progressing? Are they up to date with vaccinations and physical exams? For those children under the age of 18 months, it means visiting the child in their foster home monthly, staying in touch with the child’s physician, teacher, or daycare manager, and reporting back to the judge monthly.

A year ago I was sworn in by the court after I passed my exams and soon thereafter was assigned to a case involving a 6-month-old baby taken at birth from her biological mother because she tested positive for opioids . In the past, a biological mother who had abused drugs while pregnant had little chance of ever re-unifying with her baby.

But with a better undertanding of mental health issues, and specifically the disease of addiction, the department’s attitudes have shifted. Today the goal for kids in New Jersey’s system of foster care has drastically evolved from taking kids from families deemed at risk, to keeping families intact and providing services to support them. As a result, there are currently fewer children in the system than at any other time.

Having had a rather disastrous experience with opioids personally (my son died of an overdose last year), I wasn’t sure I could support this goal. The biological mother was addicted to heroin for many years and I saw firsthand how challenging it is to get clean. Heroin addiction, unlike many others, is a very physical addiction. It’s not just a matter of abstention or self-control, Addiction in general is a mental illness and heroin is the most challenging drug for addicts to conquer.

To say I began my journey with skepticism is an understatement. However, as a professional, I followed the protocols, visited the baby monthly in her foster home, checked in with her pediatrician regularly, and attended monthly court hearings

To my surprise, during my visits with the baby in her foster home I found she had successfully weaned off the opioids, consistently meeting all developmental milestones, and was very bonded with both foster parents and their 7 other children. In short, she was a beautiful, healthy, happy baby with bright blue eyes.

Since the goal is to reunify the family, continuity with the biological mother is a key component in the process. Therefore, she was granted supervised visits once a week with the baby along with the case manager in a specified location.

To qualify for reunification with her child the mom has to hit specific goals laid out by the court. This used to be an overwhelming challenge for the biological parent and many would fail because they had no idea how to put the plan in place. But instead of just mandating the steps necessary to be re-unified, now the state goes the extra mile in assisting the mom with each step along the way.

If the biological parent qualifies, the case worker provides access to a wide range of state-funded resources. These resources include Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and state-funded treatment centers through the Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services. This multi-layered support system made this parent feel less alone and like the system was rooting for her success.

As a result, she is making great strides in her recovery. She has had three other children placed in foster care who were subsequently adopted because these resources weren’t available to addicts with little to no income only 4 years ago.

After a year of outpatient recovery (5 hours per day. 5 days per week) and living drug-free she was accepted into a subsidized inpatient program that allows mothers to continue rehabilitation while living with their young children at the rehab center. Think of it as a “mommy and me” program. I was incredibly surprised to see it in action.

While the patient is in group sessions and individual counseling, the baby is at an onsite daycare center. Meals are prepared in a group kitchen and the kids eat their three meals a day with their moms. This provides a strong foundation for the mother to bond with their child while still undergoing treatment.

Now I visit with the baby and her mom at the rehab center. They have been together for 7 months and the mom continues to live drug-free and is completely bonded with her 18-month-old daughter.

So what’s next for mom and her baby? With assistance from the rehab center, she applied to a “halfway house” where she can live independently while still receiving recovery counseling, support, and drug testing subsidized by the state. She will also continue to receive Medicaid and a food allowance so she can continue on her recovery journey without the pressure of finding a job. This step will last up to a year. By then she should be clean for a total of 3 years and be ready to take on the financial responsibilities for herself and her child.

The court is now considering closing out this case and calling it a success story. Participating in this multi-year process, and observing first-hand the incredible strides the biological mom has been able to make is astounding. It takes several separate divisions of the state government, working together to provide the necessary services for a recovering addict. Frankly, I was surprised by their ability to partner together so seamlessly.

As a result, my own initial personal doubts and trepidations about her successfully living clean with her child have been happily reversed. It just goes to prove that by giving people a second chance, with the right resources the system can work.

Learn More About CASA’s Work and Volunteer – There are currently over 400,000 kids in foster care in the US. Visit the CASA Website to find out more and find the chapter in your area.

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Published by Amy Sandelman Harris

Welcome to my blog. I use my voice to affect change through philanthropy, advocacy, and activism. My blog posts revel about real life experiences meant to inspire people to make a difference.

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