Gabriela Sotelo Professor of Practice, UNT Dallas College of Law
Some families who have lost children to the foster care system in Dallas County and ninety other counties across the State of Texas are being given a second chance at connecting with their loved ones.¹ Dallas Court Appointed Special Advocates (“CASA”)—in collaboration with Child Protective Services (“CPS”) and the Dallas County Permanency Court—is administering a program in Dallas County called Collaborative Family Engagement (“CFE”). CFE’s goal is to identify, locate, and engage family members of children who are living in foster care and give a child an opportunity to form loving, lasting relationships and build a meaningful, lifelong network.
Mikey’s Journey from Foster Care to Family CFE has helped numerous foster care children transition to a loving family. Mikey’s² journey is one that is particularly incredible. Mikey was first placed in foster care in 2009 when he was four years old. He was removed from his biological mother, Cynthia, due to negligent supervision as she was struggling with substance abuse. Mikey was the second of Cynthia’s three boys, all of whom were removed by CPS at the same time. For one year, CPS attempted to reunify Cynthia with her children by offering her services and demanding that she stop using drugs, but she was unable. CPS was unsuccessful at attempting to find family or friends of Cynthia who could safely care for the boys. Mikey’s grandparents were struggling with substance abuse at the same time and failed to take Mikey and his brothers. CPS terminated Cynthia’s rights to her sons in 2009, and as a result, Cynthia was denied the right to see them or receive any information as to their whereabouts or their wellbeing. Mikey and his brothers were placed in a foster home, and his brothers were later adopted by foster parents. Mikey, who had exhibited behavioral issues was not adopted, and, instead, was moved to another foster home. He was not allowed to see or speak to his brothers. Shortly after being separated, Mikey lost all ties to family. Mikey bounced from foster home to foster home for nine years. His behavioral problems worsened as he grew older and at age thirteen, he was placed in a Residential Treatment Center (RTC).
In 2018, Mikey’s case was referred to the Dallas County Permanency Court, a new court that was dedicated to handling matters in which children are permanently in care of CPS. He met Judge Delia Gonzales, the presiding judge who quickly became a friend and ally. Thanks to Judge Gonzales’ efforts, Mikey was moved out of the RTC and into a loving and therapeutic foster home where he thrived. Although Mikey’s situation had improved, Judge Gonzales continued to work tirelessly for Mikey and referred his case to the CFE program. As a result of CFE, Mikey’s grandparents were located. Mikey's grandparents had overcome their substance abuse issues many years earlier and were anxious to know more about Mikey’s wellbeing. After a series of family meetings and months of collaboration, Mikey’s team determined his grandparents had demonstrated they were committed and able to provide Mikey with the safe and loving home he had always wanted and needed. Mikey’s grandparents had not seen Mikey since he was four years old and met him essentially for the first time when he was fifteen. Mikey and his grandparents engaged in weekly phone calls and virtual visits. Over the 2021 spring break Mikey’s grandparents were able to drive Mikey home for a weeklong visit. Mikey was on cloud nine. Mikey’s grandparents were granted custody of Mikey in August of 2021. After spending more than 4,298 days in foster care, Mikey had a forever home. Days after the court hearing, Mikey asked to spend his birthday in Judge Gonzales’ court. Judge Gonzales decorated her courtroom and brought cupcakes for Mikey in a meaningful and joyous sixteenth birthday celebration.
Sharing Information Useful to the Non-Legal Community: How Children End Up in Foster Care In Texas, the Department of Family and Protective Services (i.e., CPS) removes children from their homes when their caregivers engage in conduct that may be considered harmful to the child. Some examples include drug or alcohol dependency, physical abuse, and severe mental health issues that result in neglect. Parents whose children are removed are by law given between twelve and eighteen months to convince the courts that they can provide their children with a safe environment and can meet their needs. Many parents are able to cure the issues that made CPS get involved or are able to find friends or relatives to take the children. In these cases, CPS will close their case. In cases where parents are unable to find a safe home for the child, CPS will place the child in foster care. If, by the time the legal timeline expires, the parents cannot provide a safe placement, then CPS will request that the court terminate the parent’s rights. When parental rights are terminated, CPS is appointed by the court to be the legal parent, and CPS is given the right to make decisions regarding to the child. This removes the parent’s ability to make decisions, receive information, or file actions with the court to try to get their children back. Some of these children are later adopted, but those who are not grow up in foster care and often “age out” of the system when they become adults.
Promoting Public Access to the Legal System: What Can I Do if I Have a Child Who is Still in the Foster Care System and I Want to Be Reunited CFE is only available to families whose children remain in care and have not been adopted. If you or someone you know has a child in the foster care system and is now able to provide the child with a safe home environment, contact CASA, in the county where parental rights were terminated, to see if there is a CFE available to you. The child must still be in foster care. If the child has been adopted, then the CFE will not be able to assist you. If there is no CFE available or CASA is unable to provide assistance, you may attempt to reach out to CPS to see if they are willing to work with you. You may also be able to contact the child’s attorney ad litem or guardian ad litem. You may also contact UNT Dallas College of Law Community Lawyering Centers to receive additional information.
Why Collaborative Family Engagement is Significant The foster care system in Texas has been under intense scrutiny for many years.³ Six years ago, a federal judge ruled that Texas violated foster children’s constitutional rights, stating that they “often age out of care more damaged than when they entered.”⁴ Children who are in care of CPS on a permanent basis, because their parents’ rights have been terminated, are the most neglected population in the State of Texas. These children have no parents and are aware that the reason they do not is because they are “in the system,” and their parents either gave up on them, or fought and lost the battle against CPS to get them back. No matter the circumstance, these children have endured severe psychological trauma and have little support and people in their lives who truly care for them. These children are usually highly medicated and have such severe medical, educational, and or psychological issues that they do not, or cannot,function as normal adults. They grow up hopeless and loveless. Some children never experience the meaningful relationships, bonds, and affection that comes with family life. The efforts of the Dallas County Permanency Courts and CASA,through CFE, recognize the value of giving children the opportunity to re-establish familial bonds and achieving the positive outcomes associated with those ties.
Many parents, especially those with substance abuse and mental health issues, at times need more than the twelve to eighteen months that is initially provided. Mikey’s story is an example of how the solution put forth by CASA and the Dallas County Permanency Court can not only reduce the number of children in foster care, but can give hope to children and families who might not have otherwise had a chance to see their children again. CFE is making a difference not only in the lives of the foster youth who desperately need it, but also to those in the Dallas County community who—years after experiencing the trauma of losing a child to the foster system—have been given a second chance at recovering the children they have lost.
Sources ¹ Collaborative Family Engagement, Texas Casa, https://texascasa.org/what-we-do/collaborative-family-engagement/ (last visited November 21, 2021). ² Mikey’s real name is not disclosed here for reasons of confidentiality. ³ Emma Platoff, Texas Child Welfare System Exposes Children to Harm, Federal Monitors Say, Texas Tribune (June 16, 2020, 10:00 AM), https://www.texastribune.org/2020/06/16/texas-child-welfare-harm-federal-monitors/. ⁴ Id.