Melinda Boylan could hardly understand the 10-year-old boy’s wailing over the phone. It was 4 a.m. and he was frantic, in a haze of panic. “My dad’s sick! He’s on the floor, he won’t get up!”
A volunteer advocate for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Collin County, Melinda had first met Adam* about six months ago when he and his two siblings had been removed from an outwardly-pristine but inwardly-neglectful home in Frisco. His parents’ prescription drug abuse had wrecked the family dynamic and endangered the children, plunging them into the foster care system. They were separated in different foster facilities while their parents entered restorative programs with the Texas Department of Family Protective Services (DFPS).
Three weeks before Adam’s frantic phone call, he’d been allowed to go home, but on that very day, his mother had died. And now, staring at his father’s unconscious body on the floor at 4 a.m., it looked as though he would lose his dad too.
One person had remained constant for him, even when the rest of the world seemed to crumble away: Melinda. She was the first person he thought to call. He knew she would be there, no matter what. Not a CPS caseworker. Not an attorney. Not 911. Not even a member of his family. But a retired accountant, who volunteered her free time to help children.
“It scared me as much as if one of my own adult children was calling me at that hour,” Melinda says. “Nobody calls for a good reason at 4 a.m. I told him slowly, ‘Okay. I’m on my way out there. As soon as we hang up, I need you to dial 911. Okay?’”
Where Texas is concerned, CPS is notorious for kids slipping through the cracks and for overwhelmed workers. Texas Monthly called the state’s statistics “gruesome”. In 2016, for example, 217 Texas kids died from abuse, a 34 percent increase over the previous year.
Melinda represents a community that is rallying around its children in need on its own incentive. There are 261 local volunteers like Melinda in Collin County,
But will it truly signal change? After all, this is a state that’s been mired in a historically broken foster system for decades.
Cracks in the System
The system has been suffering over the last 25 years, illustrated by the consistently shorted resources: underpaid and overworked CPS caseworkers, few truly qualified foster parents and an excess of children whose unsavory circumstances are routinely overlooked and shoved to the bottom of a pile of “more dire” cases.
It’s a conversation that has too often been muted. But in 2011, it was set aflame by action from the outside.
In 2011, a New York-based child advocacy group called Children’s Rights sued the entire state of Texas for failing to improve facilities for children, to eliminate systemic abuse and to remedy the frequent placement of children in homes that were too far from biological families and friends.
Records provided by the Texas DFPS show that in 2011, out of the 16,596 children in Texas who were placed in foster care, 83 percent of them stayed within their regions—but only 43 percent stayed within their counties. More than half of foster children in the entire state were being placed just far enough from home to add to the existing trauma of being removed from their homes.
As of 2018, 77 percent of foster children stay within their home regions and only 38 percent are placed in foster homes or facilities within their home counties.
In light of the Children’s Rights suit, U.S. District Judge Janis Jack ruled in 2015 that the system was “broken” and “unconstitutional,” referring to cases of abuse that were present in the space of state custody.
Legislators have since taken brisk steps to financially mitigate the grand-scale crisis with continuous funding since. As reported by the Texas Tribune, by the end of 2016 CPS had allocated $150 million for raising salaries and hiring more caseworkers. DFPS received a revolutionary amount of $4 billion toward pay increases and hiring, along with better payment to foster families.
As for CPS caseworker turnover rates, Marissa Gonzales, media representative for CPS in region 3 (which includes Collin County) expressed hope in the renewed morale that has come with the funding.
“It’s actually not been as big of an issue in the last couple of years,” she says. “The way it stands now, they’re at a fairly better place than we’ve seen in the past few years. It had to do a lot with the legislature providing that funding and saying ‘We believe in you guys and the work you’re doing enough to give pay increases. We want you to stay.’ It has really improved morale among staff.”
From the end of 2016 to the end of 2018, investigative caseworker turnover decreased by 11 percent (from 33 percent to 22 percent) and caseloads went down from 17 cases per worker to 13 cases per worker. (Investigative caseworkers oversee the process from the initial response to a report up to the point of removal. Much of the extra mitigation effort has been put into this investigative side.)
But the other side, the conservator side that works long-term to get families stabilized, tends to get overlooked. There’s no drama in the paperwork, no exposé-worthy details in the busy work and tedium of the conservators. Yet they are the ones who are pressed to stick with their cases the longest.
Patsy McGeehon, a former CPS worker and now the program director of CASA, is familiar with the despondency that overloaded conservatory caseworkers face, which was truly a crisis of it own kind at its unchecked height. Even now, Patsy keeps her finger on the pulse of local CPS units with her past experience in mind.
“We have two units here, eight workers each, and about 50 investigators,” Patsy explains. “Even if just half of the investigations became removals, there are still just 16 people trying to repair families. With each new policy comes paperwork. So there’s a lot of busy work instead of boots-on-the-ground work.
“When I was at CPS in Dallas County from 2001 to 2008, I had a caseload of 45. Reducing caseloads would help, yes, but if there’s more paperwork added to each case, it doesn’t help engage the actual family. It’s a Band-Aid. Workers get way more satisfaction when they can actually be with the child, rather than making referrals with a piece of paper. They make tough decisions every day. I know what they go through.”
The frustration of being perceived as little more than the soulless enforcers in the foster care community is still a very real one for many CPS workers, as much today as ten years ago.
“It’s a hard job,” Marissa confirms, with a slight upbeat tone that masks exhaustion. “It’s a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ kind of job. People rarely get to see the human element in our work. You can easily see that with a volunteer. But caseworkers are people too. They care about the work they’re doing. What’s going to make the difference in their staying on the job is whether they have great supervisors and coworkers, and if they feel like the community and people they work for actually believe in what they’re doing.”
Turnover from the conservator side has decreased by 40 percent as of this February, and average caseloads have decreased by 9 percent (from nearly 30 caseloads per caseworker to about 26). It’s a hopeful sign, and certainly a vast improvement from 45 caseloads.
“In our work, we don’t ever use the word ‘crisis.’” Marissa especially emphasized this point. “We know there are so many moving pieces. It’s just a matter of getting everything to work together well.”
But there is a deeper crisis we face in our foster system—a crisis of community effort and in the hearts of the people living down the street from many of these kids, attending the same schools, churches and grocery stores.
A report provided by the DFPS spans from 2018 back to 2008 and shows that the number of Collin County children residing in foster care hit 523 this last year—the highest the number has ever been in the last ten years. It’s a seven percent increase from 2008.
And ours is just from one county out of the 254 in all of Texas.
There were 162 Collin County children who got newly placed in 2018. Following removal from their families, about 35 percent of them stayed within their home county.
“Some of the challenges that we’re facing include having enough homes in the right places when a child comes into care that’s as close as possible to where they live,” Marissa confirmed. “But one of the bigger challenges we face is placing youth who have very specialized needs, like a history of aggression, arrests or serious psychological issues. It’s difficult to find placements for them where they’ll get the treatment, supervision and care they need.”
It’s a striking admission: the pivotal demand for specialized, personalized care, not to mention a need for community-based initiatives, beyond simply what the state can enforce.
The most recent state effort, one to privatize child welfare where foster care is concerned, is called the Community-Based Care Initiative. It’s rolling through slowly but steadily.
“Community-based care started in 2010, so it’s been around a while. The hope is that by involving the community specifically, we’ll build a network of services at a community level. So when children have to enter the system, they can stay close to their communities, get treatment close to their communities, maintain ties in their communities. When they’re ready to leave the system, they’re still close to home.”
The idea behind this effort was less upheaval for children at stake, and more direct action in the hands of private contractors.
So where was this community-based care that was implemented ten years ago? Here in North Texas, actually; in Tarrant County.
“A group called ‘Our Community, Our Kids’ is basically the contractor heading that effort,” Marissa says. “That has yielded great results, prompting community-based care to roll out to other areas of the state: Abilene, Lubbock and Amarillo included. There is a single contractor responsible for building the network, working with all the other providers in that area and bringing them all to the table.”
The optimistic plan hinges on the good faith of the private contractors and significant trust in the behavior of volunteers and advocates like those at CASA.
But naturally, the community-based care initiative—further set forth through the steady realization of Senator Charles Schwertner’s Senate Bill 11, initially proposed in 2017—has generated growing concerns. The bill’s consequences might include, as Texas Monthly noted in an article this March, a “diminished transparency” and some potentially “problematic financial incentives” in the name of privatization. There is admittedly justified trepidation behind the accountability of the self-reported statistics from the catchment communities, current and future.
The latter aspect, especially, needs to be watched as more Texas regions fall into the community-based care catchment in the coming years, lest more children in dire circumstances go from unintentionally unheard, to intentionally ignored to keep face with the state.
Collin County is not included in the catchment for implementing community-based care yet, as other more-prepared areas in Texas are at the forefront of the plan. Yet that hasn’t stopped Collin from taking its own community initiative.
People like Melinda Boylan and Patsy McGeehon at CASA are central to the efforts to help clean up certain neglected corners of the foster care system that no state or government effort can fully reach.
Patsy has moved on from her CPS days of 45 caseloads and currently serves as program director for CASA in McKinney, where the caseload among volunteers is usually one, maybe two. Every foster child in Collin County is guaranteed a CASA.
While CASA workers may not have the formal expertise of an attorney, the training of a CPS caseworker, or the immersive commitments of a foster parent, they do have a voice for a child’s best between-the-lines interests. Volunteers undergo criminal and CPS history background checks, along with extensive training for the 10 to15 hours per month they will dedicate to serving one or two children at a time. It’s a personal and personalized approach, but not at the expense of professionalism.
“CASA serves 100 percent of the children that are removed in Collin County and placed in foster care, or a relative placement,” Patsy says. “Every child is assigned a CASA. We’re fortunate that, with all the growth in Collin County, we have been able to keep that as a standard. Recidivism rates drop because now there are extra eyes on the parents, the relatives and the placement, making sure they’ll be sustainable long-term.”
Patsy also rightly observes the unavoidable socioeconomic element and very nuanced source of conflict in the work of CASA and other foster-centric organizations in Collin County. Collin County is a bit of a “white picket fence” county. It’s generally wealthy, but certainly not devoid of poverty-stricken areas. But “poor” doesn’t necessarily equal “bad parent,” and wealth certainly doesn’t always signify stellar parenting. Just because a county tends to be wealthy doesn’t mean there are no children in crisis. It might only mean that they’re harder to spot.
“People don’t like to think that abuse and neglect happen here,” Patsy says. “That’s something that happens in somebody else’s backyard, right? But we know that we see it in 75034, and we see it here in 75069. It does not discriminate.”
In fact, one of the worst cases Patsy has ever worked came out of an affluent, gated community in Frisco. These children had almost every luxury money could buy, but their parents were crippled by a $10,000-per-week cocaine addiction. The kids—preteens and a teenager—finally called the police one day, saying: “Please come get us.”
“The kids preferred a shelter to their beautiful home,” Patsy recalls with an air of solemn bewilderment. “It took 18 months to get them back home with their dad after that. Mom couldn’t get through the treatments. You had a world inside those walls that nobody outside could see.”
Unfortunately, when a community is faced with foster children, sometimes it doesn’t respond with empathy. Patsy confronted it head-on when CASA was building a shelter one year.
“People in the surrounding communities were originally very opposed. They didn’t want that in their backyards. They went on to say, ‘We don’t want those kids in our schools!’ I said to them, ‘But these kids are already in your schools. They’re just getting help here. We can fill the gap by having this shelter here to fulfil needs.’ That usually changes the conversation right there. It was kind of a light-bulb moment. Foster care is not an evil thing: it’s about being there for kids.”
The trend in Texas is moving toward community-based care. A community that doesn’t want those kids, which says “we don’t want those kids in our schools and backyards” will lead to an even more broken system, and traumatized children.
Volunteers come from all walks of life to “be there”—and about 60 percent of them work full-time elsewhere. But they all seek a child’s best interests before the courts—whatever it takes. Patsy has even vouched for a guinea pig named Henry, over whom a little girl was so worried, it affected her performance in school.
“That seems silly, I know, but it really helped her,” Patsy says. “When kids are pulled into the foster system, people forget that those kids are having personal crises too. The parents are in crisis, yes. But so often, we expect the kids to behave and do normal things. They get removed on Monday, they’re expected to be in school on Tuesday. They don’t get to deal with their grief and loss.”
As outbursts of bad behavior are sure to flow from unchecked trauma, CASA volunteers seek to re-establish a sense of constancy for children by being present during inconceivably intense crises.
My Friend’s House
City House is just as committed to restoring a sense of normalcy at a most abnormal time for any child to endure. Just take the name of its emergency shelter, for example: My Friend’s House.
When a child staying at the shelter is asked where they are staying, they can simply say, “At my friend’s house.” No embarrassing or endangering questions are raised. A sense of normalcy is retained, along with time to heal for the next phase. That is the triune goal of City House and its adjoined emergency shelter.
Marcy Martinez, the manager of clinical services at City House, revealed that instead of utilizing branded, industry-sized vans to pick up kids from school and bring them back to the shelter, City House intentionally uses minivans to pick up kids individually.
“Normalcy is really important for our kids, because it’s not normal to be in a shelter,” Marcy says. “We try so hard to make things normal.”
When you enter City House, there’s hardly a fluorescent light to be seen, except for the main sign-in desk. Each room is carefully designed to feel like a home: wood floors, warm color scheme, soft rugs.
“You have to understand, we’re in a very wealthy county in Texas,” Marcy says. “The people behind this place were very intentional about having a home environment. We’ve still got a lot of support in the community where people will come in and freshen up our stuff with paint or new furniture.”
The bedrooms are simple. In the teen hallway are twin beds with dressers. But you won’t find any closets because often, children will hide in them if that’s what they’ve been used to. A closet could also be a trigger of terror for some children with abuse in their past. Keen attention to mental and emotional needs have not been overlooked for the sake of homely aesthetic.
City House received a little girl from Collin County earlier this year, who had been adopted at eight or nine years old. Allegations of sexual abuse by her adopted father prompted her removal.
She had been very withdrawn and quiet when Marcy saw her the first night.
“I noticed on her intake paperwork that she liked cats. We usually ask kids what they like and what triggers them so we can know them as best as possible. So when I saw her at the team meeting later, I asked ‘What are you doing to cope with what’s going on?’ She said, ‘I usually draw, but I don’t have a sketch pad now.’ So, I went to go find her a sketch pad and colored pencils in storage. As I was digging around, I found this cat pillow.”
When Marcy brought it back to the little girl, her eyes grew wide. She gasped, and her eyes softened with familiarity.
“I used to have one just like that!” she said as she hugged it tightly.
Though it’s not a long-term facility, the workers and volunteers with City House make the most of the 90 days any given child may have with them until CPS determines their next destination.
“We’ve moved toward a more trauma-informed approach in our case management,” Marcy says. “We are teaching kids how to self-regulate. If people can learn to self-regulate, it can be the number-one protective factor for them. If kids can learn to regulate those emotions, take a step back and learn how to communicate what they’re feeling, it’s a much better process.”
Case managers meet with each child once a week with a “check your engine” sheet. It’s much less about consequences for behavioral acting out, and much more focused on building trust through patient connection.
“It’s about connection. We know that if we can build connections and build relationships with these kids, we can empower them, and correction becomes much easier.”
Children and teenagers learn to identify emotions and utilize coping skills in a safe place. The spectrum of needs is widening, as are the growing partnerships with counselors and the community volunteer pool, whom Marcy describes as incredible.
“They answer phones, rock babies, grocery shop, do maintenance. We couldn’t be financially sustained as a nonprofit without that. We work with multiple agencies in the area too. Church bodies come in to teach life skills, have reading time with set programs. We work with The Turning Point, the rape crisis organization for Collin County. They come in and do some group work with our teens to learn to build healthy relationships.”
Yet City House doesn’t get to see the fruition of their services. City House is just one stop on a very long trip that, hopefully, takes them somewhere better. They never truly know at the time.
But in the meantime, they focus on the present. They focus on normalcy amid the abnormal in a home-type of environment, seeing the faces of the kids behind the “issue” and making their needs known through community awareness.
“Anyone who’s been removed from their home has experienced trauma, no matter what’s happened in that home. We have to look past the behavior and realize that this kid is acting a certain way for a reason. That’s what being trauma-informed is. When they leave here, we don’t know where they’re going. We hope they can take that with them.”
Melinda Boylan is currently in her fifth year as a CASA.
“It gives me a reason to get up every day,” she says. “It’s hard sometimes. Doing what we are with these kids, and seeing what some of these foster parents deal with day in and day out, I’m just amazed at what they do. Anyone who has a heart for kids and serving them—look into CASA. You learn a lot about people. Don’t miss out because you don’t think you have anything to bring to it. Just bring an attitude of helpfulness.”
After that night in 2016, Adam’s father pulled through and recovered his health. Ultimately, all of the siblings reunited and started life over again with their dad. Recently Adam visited the Children’s Advocacy Center in Plano and reunited briefly with Melinda, his now-former CASA volunteer. He has grown from the frightened little boy with a broken family, crying on the phone, into a young man. Soon, he’ll be taller than she is.
Melinda certainly saw a happier ending for Adam. Through growing community influence and awareness, and dispelling the “not-in-my-neighborhood-mentality,” it’s a distinct hope Collin County will see many more endings like his. Our kids depend on it.
Originally published under the title “It Takes a Village” in the July 2019 Family Issue of Local Profile
*Some names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.