Waco-area pilot program aims to help families, limit need for foster care
With the unofficial credo “services instead of placement,” a pilot program launched in McLennan County and funded by a private foundation has the goal of helping at-risk families keep their children out of the state foster care system.
State and local officials and representatives from Casey Family Programs announced the new Parent Advocacy Program on Wednesday during an event at the Bledsoe-Miller Community Center. The program started in late November under the leadership of 74th State District Judge Gary Coley Jr. and in partnership with the Supreme Court of Texas Children’s Commission, of which Coley is a member, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services and Casey Family Programs.
“The Parent Advocacy Program represents a new era and a new way of thinking about legal representation and child welfare,” Coley said. “Instead of reacting after a child has been placed in foster care, the Parent Advocacy Program proactively seeks to prevent foster care from ever being necessary.
“So instead of waiting for Child Protective Services to take action, this program is going to connect parents with experienced attorneys and social service support after their very first contact with DFPS. The goal of the program is to help families identify and solve problems early in their relationship with the department and avoid the need to start a legal case intended to lead to removal or foster care.”
Waco attorneys Amanda Milam and Dan Stokes have been working with the program for a few months now and already have a handful of families they are helping. Social worker Faye Stewart, who retired in July after 33 years with Child Protective Services, also is working with the program. Before her time with CPS, she worked with physically, emotionally and sexually abused children at the Waco Center for Youth.
Another member of the new team, who has yet to be chosen, will be a parent advocate who has gone through the complexities of the CPS legal process in real life and come out on the other side with their family intact.
McLennan County likely was chosen as home for the pilot program because its CPS removal rate is much higher than the state average, officials said. Last year, there were 1,181 children in foster care in McLennan County, up from 465 children 10 years ago. Statewide, there were 29,991 children in foster care last year and 12,319 waiting to be adopted.
Department of Family and Protective Services Commissioner Jaime Masters, who attended Wednesday’s announcement, said the agency is excited about the new program and looks forward to working with it to help reduce the number of children removed from their homes because of neglect, abuse or other reasons.
“I have always said that if we can safely reduce the number of children that get removed, that is the goal,” Masters said. “The trauma of removal is huge and I think sometimes when we go about our day and do our jobs, sometimes we miss the kids and we don’t see them. I think this program will help us remember to see them. But what also is amazing is the lived-experience part. To have someone who has been there and done that, you can’t replace that.”
Masters said she knows it can be difficult for families to navigate the system after CPS workers are alerted to potential family problems.
“I think it is overwhelming sometimes when we come into someone’s life, and especially when your resources are limited,” she said. “You don’t know how to fight and stand up, and sometimes when you do you feel like it is not taken in the right way. I get that. Ours is a hard job, and when you see the things that happen around the world, you can’t be everywhere and you can’t always prevent something. But we can always do better and look for new programs like this that give families a voice. I think that’s what makes this pretty awesome.”
Milam, one of the attorneys working with the Parent Advocacy Program, said the majority of abuse and neglect allegations come through a CPS hotline, and the goal of the program is to get involved with families before they reach CPS court. It is important to “catch the family upstream” to help them correct the problems that sparked the complaint, Milam said.
“The CPS investigator will give our referral to families facing being investigated, to these parents facing these hardships, and they will call us to talk through the problem, whether it is just the investigation, whether there is a custody concern, whether there are housing or financial needs, drug abuse issues, any kinds of concerns,” Milam said. “One of the benefits to the program is it is multidisciplinary. So we have a social worker who can come in and contribute and we also have a parent who has gone through a CPS case to work with this person and to tell them it will be alright and we are going to fight and we are going to keep your kids with you.”
Casey Family Programs Managing Director Eric Fenner said he is impressed with the collaborative nature of the agencies in McLennan County working to help keep children with their families. Casey Family Programs also provided funds to create what it calls a CarePortal, which allows the Parent Advocacy Program team to identify financial or other needs for service so that area churches involved with the program can try to help meet those needs.
“It is so impressive about what they are doing here in Waco because you really have the judicial system, you have attorneys and you have services along with the child welfare system,” Fenner said. “So it is that combination of collaboration across agencies that really makes the difference and that is why we are so impressed with what is going on here in McLennan County.”
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