COVINGTON, Ga. — Between Newton and Walton counties alone, there’s a total of 254 children currently in the foster care system.
Some are in better situations than others. Some currently have more tangible support around them than others. But local child advocacy workers want it to be know that they all have one thing in common — that they’re in a system that’s more interested in helping them have whole, healthy relationships with families than anything else.
That’s why Lindsay Dycus, executive directory of Alcovy’s Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) organization, and Kim Lafreniere, Walton County’s Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) director were both exceedingly thrilled about the training that happened last Thursday and Friday at the Walton Board of Education’s annex building.
It was there that a room of more than 50 professionals that work in some form of child welfare and foster care services, gathered together to learn how to better care for local children navigating the foster care system.
The MD CANI — which stands for Multidisciplinary Child Abuse and Neglect Institute — training brought Newton, Walton and Rockdale DFCS, CASA and court system workers together, along with family attorneys who represent children and parents, to discover how collaboration makes each individual part of the child welfare system stronger. And that such collaboration has no choice but to bode well for the children and families they serve.
Getting the myths out
Lafreniere, who’s worked for DFCS for 20 years, says her first time attending the MD CANI training was more than necessary and beneficial.
“Despite being with the agency for as long as I have, I still got a ton of good information out of it,” she said. “You’ve got a judge here with all that experience who’s presenting to you what he sees around our policy and the law in his court day in and day out. He shares how he’s been able to partner with DFCS in his county to make things run smoother and to find permanency for foster care children quicker, and so many others who just add knowledge to what we do.”
Lafreniere was speaking of Judge Michael Key of Troup County. Key has served in his seat in the county’s juvenile court since 1989 which means there isn’t much he hasn’t seen.
Additionally, presenters such as Jerry Bruce (Director of the Office of the Child Advocate), Angela Tyner (Advocacy Directoer with Georgia CASA), Lori Davis with Georgia DFCS and others, all weighed in on how each agency involved in child welfare services can become better partners and allies.
It was a welcome vibe for Lafreniere who says DFCS workers constantly have to fight against the myth that the agency desires to take children out of their homes, and that it works in its own silo when it comes to how it handles children.
“It’s a training that really worked to break down barriers with collaborating with our court partners,” she said. “Although it’s not supposed to be this way, it’s often seen as DFCS vs. everyone else in the court room. One of the biggest myths about us is we’re there to take your children. And we do end up carrying a lot of the burden because when something comes to us about a child, the case is ours. And we have requested custody of children, we only have temporary custody. And we also have to work with others.
“We all have checks and balances. We don’t have the authority to take a child from your home. There has to be legal grounds. It needs to be signed off by our juvenile court judge. There are standards.”
“The trauma of a child being moved from the home is so drastic that it should be avoided at all costs,” Dices said. “As an agency who only works with children in foster care, and as someone who has seen so many of these cases where DFCS gets involved, I can honestly say they try to do everything in their power to not remove a child and keep them home and safe in their home.”
But sometimes that’s just not possible. And for both Lafreniere and Dycus — and everyone else involved in local child welfare advocacy training — the greatest standard is bringing about the best outcome for the children.
“There’s a lot of folks in our community who have the best interests of our kids in heart and mind while in daily practice in their roles and jobs,” Dycus said. “Pulling all those folks together to see how we’re doing it differently, but also to see how we can work together as partners and not adversaries to get our children safely home or to permanency is what it’s all about.”
Permanency means a child in flux either goes back home safely to his or her family, has guardianship through a teacher or some other relative or finds a home through adoption.
Getting the community involved
Both Dycus and Lafreniere say permanency can happen for a child in a variety of ways. Sometimes Lafreniere has seen situations where DFCS is made aware of a situation, and the child or children actually remain in the original home. Other times, children have been able to return home after time away, while DFCS works with the parents to bring a solution. And still in other cases, places like a child’s school steps in to be the advocate that child needs.
“We’ve had a lot of success stories,” she said. “I think of one particular situation where a child who had temporarily gone with a teacher at their school actually had an adoption finalized with that teacher because that teacher was the strongest connection for the child, and they wanted to step up so that child could stay in the school community where so much success was happening there.
“The partnership with schools is huge, because a lot of times they’re the ones who have been with the child for eight hours a day, five days a week. They’re the ones who can make the call and see that red flag better than others.”
It’s such stories of community collaboration that Lafreniere says she wants to use to help dispel some myths about the foster care system in general and DFCS specifically.
“Again, we’re not there to take your kids,” she said. “We definitely want to change that image. We want to be a resource so that if someone in the community brings a need to our attention, we try first and foremost to connect them with a resource in the community that can help improve the situation.”
CASA is one of many resources of support available to foster children and families.
Dycus says the nonprofit organization is always seeking volunteers who are willing to work one-on-one with kids in the foster care system.
“We recruit, screen, train and supervise volunteers to become appointed by courts to help improve a child’s experience in foster care,” Dycus said. “Having that person who can come along and support that child, visit that child, build that relationship, talk to other people involved in that child’s life helps make the situation significantly better for the child and that child’s family. Our volunteers are providing information to others involved in their care, including DFCS. And those volunteers stay with that child until permanency has been achieved.”
Like Lafreniere, Dycus also finds herself having to bust up a bunch of myths as to who is able to help kids in this way.
“The number one thing I hear about our volunteer roles is, ‘oh, I can’t do that. I don’t have a background in social work,” Dices said. “But honestly, there really is a place for everyone regardless of the background. Actually, the beauty of a CASA volunteer is when it’s someone who is not in our system. Someone coming in with a very unique perspective who can see things we don’t see and can help find solutions and point us to resources we may not have been aware of.”
CASA training is thorough and free, and more information about how to get involved at alcovycasa.org. But as last week’s MD CANI training emphasized, there’s more than one way to achieve the greatest good for foster care children, and through such training efforts, more people are beginning to see the strength in collaboration.
“This type of training is constantly on repeat,” Dycus said. “And it’s also constantly evolving to make sure we’re reaching current needs and current laws. We’re all in training all the time. We’re all trying to learn. We’re all sharing resources and helping people understand that there’s so much more that our community can do to help than they may realize.”