Not only is it Father’s Day; June 13-19 was “Children’s Week” (shouldn’t that be every week?) during Family Reunification Month, following Foster Care Month (May).  Foster care should be temporary, children then reunited with families whenever safely possible.  Even better, where feasible: preventing children’s entry into the foster system altogether.

That’s the rationale of a federal law being implemented here as in other states: the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) of 2018, which authorized “funding for time-limited prevention services for mental health, substance abuse, and in-home parent skill-based programs for children or youth who are candidates for foster care, pregnant or parenting youth in foster care, and the parents or kin caregivers.”

Pandemic exposing, exacerbating problems

Beyond the illness and loss afflicting families, the pandemic heightened problems from economic and ethno-racial inequalities to adult substance abuse, violence, and youth mental health.  Per a May NPR segment, “Homelessness is on the rise with … 580,000 people in the U.S. without a place to live, and that number is expected to grow.”

Federal assistance, to states and localities and to families, cushions some of the pain (including for young people who have been in foster care), but disparities remain glaring.  Connecticut is taking action, e.g., by expanding school mental health clinics among other measures.  But for the most vulnerable families and children, challenges are especially sobering.

Supporting families,fathers

Our state’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) has a Family First portal on redirection of policies, services, and funds more toward supports and prevention.  For example, there’s a Fatherhood Engagement Leadership Team (FELT).  Regularly, DCF shines a “spotlight on what’s right”—for instance, when with community aid, a father was reunited with his son.

Progress and partnerships

Listening to young people who have endured trauma—like Christopher Scott and his fellow SUN Scholars—is crucial.  These young leaders with experience in the foster system can inform prevention, healing, permanency (adoption, reunification, or transfer of guardianship), and the transition to early adulthood.

In three decades since a federal consent decree (and as periodic court monitor reports indicate), DCF has advanced in areas from staffing and program quality to de-institutionalization.  Children are far less likely to be in residential facilities (unless they have acute medical/behavioral needs) and more likely to be in family settings, whether their own, extended kin, or foster homes.  Connecticut is ahead of many other states in welcoming families of all kinds, and opening adoption records.

We benefit from a constellation of public and nonprofit entities, such as the Governor’s Task Force on Justice for Abused Children, Child Advocate, Connecticut Alliance of Adoptive and Foster Families, Center for Children’s Advocacy, Child Health and Development Institute, Children’s Law Center, and CT Voices for ChildrenPhilanthropy has a catalytic role.

There are partnerships with organizations like SUN Scholars, Child Advocates of SW CT, Clifford Beers, ‘r kids, Urban Community Alliance, Children’s Community Programs and many more school, university, faith-based, and hospital resources.  Such endeavors demonstrate an increased understanding of families’ challenges, alleviating crises, protecting children and helping them learn in trauma-sensitive ways.

The CASA approach

Among those partnerships is one with the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) movement, still new in Connecticut after a 2016 enabling law and boosted by an endorsement from Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times and KristofImpact.  The CASA model engages judges, attorneys (e.g., in Connecticut through an April 2021 session with the Bar Association’s youth law section), case workers, and other professionals (who have heavy caseloads).  CASA volunteers meet with children at least monthly, getting to know them and their circumstances—teachers and social workers, foster parents and kin.  There are mentoring elements, and more.

The 2018 FFPSA reflects enhanced attention to keeping children with families when possible.  In Connecticut, that means CASA volunteers are taking on Protective Supervision (PS), not only Foster Care, cases.  CASA receives court appointments in both situations.  Carefully screened and trained as part of a national network recognized for improving outcomes, CASA volunteers make evidence-based recommendations to judges.  Fundamental are these caring, consistent volunteers’ relationships with children themselves—with whom these adults can make a lifelong difference through personal interactions at a difficult time.

Since December 2019, Connecticut CASA has trained five cohorts of volunteers, more than 50 dedicated adults from their 20s to their 70s, from all walks of life—Westport to New London, Waterbury to Storrs, Meriden to New Haven.  Focused on the New Haven Court so far, many have begun advocating for children’s best interests, and supporting families.  We have shifted much to a remote basis —while preserving the expectation of at least once-per-month visits between volunteers and children.  The aim: safe, permanent homes where children can thrive.

We are based in New Haven and —with system professionals, community colleagues, generous donors, and additional caring volunteers—anticipate expanding in the year(s) ahead.

National CASA CEO Tara Perry recently wrote that CASA volunteers: “work with experts and service providers to identify and recommend services aimed at keeping families intact or returning children safely to family members. Data show that when a CASA … volunteer is assigned, a higher number of services are ordered not only for the child, but for families as well…. Judges report that the impact of CASA … volunteers is most pronounced in ‘promoting long-term wellbeing’ (92.2%), followed by “appropriate services to child and family’ (83%).”  CASA “volunteers also work to identify barriers to families’ engagement in services and find ways to reduce or eliminate them. They create supportive environments for families.”

In the spirit of Family Reunification, the CASA movement in Connecticut is uniting for children, to take our early momentum statewide.  In the weeks ahead, look for more about our volunteers, board, advisors, ambassadors, partners, YouTube channel, and events.

Josiah H. Brown is executive director of CASA of Southern Connecticut, now on YouTube.   July 1, he will become executive director of Connecticut CASA, part of the national CASA network.