Shera entered foster care at age 15 due to a pattern of physical abuse at home. Her young parents were separated and both having difficulty coping appropriately with Shera’s risky behavior, which included disciplinary difficulties in school, an older boyfriend, drug use, and running away. One day she arrived at school with a black eye, saying her mother had hit her. She was subsequently sent to live with her father by the Department of Families and Children (DCF). When he caught her with her boyfriend, he physically assaulted her, and Shera went back to her mother. But soon she appeared at a police station with bruises, saying she was afraid to go home. Shera was then taken into DCF custody and sent to the first of ultimately four group homes during the next year.
A lawyer asked that a CASA volunteer be assigned to the case to help act as an advocate for Shera and to aid in the gridlock that had developed among the parties involved. A referral was sent to Boston CASA and Alex was assigned to the case.
Shera was surprisingly open to having an advocate work with her. She was angry with most of the people involved in her life – DCF, the group home staff, therapists, and lawyers. The emotionally volatile relationship with her mother continued when they were in contact. But they had a very strong bond and both expressed a desire to work on their relationship and reunify as a family. When Alex first met her, Shera was not attending school due to changing group homes, and no one seemed to be able to locate the paperwork necessary to enroll her in a new school. She was not on birth control. Her mother was angry with all parties involved in the case – particularly DCF – and eventually became so abusive toward a DCF worker that she was barred from speaking to him. Shera continued to go on the run from her group home. Progress on the case was difficult until she could be convinced to stay put and work towards getting her life back on track. “A lot of what I did at the beginning was connecting the dots,” says Alex. “I made calls, did research about educational options, saw Shera every Saturday when she was not on the run, and worked hard at building good relationships with everyone involved on the case. I was often the only visitor Shera had during the first several months I knew her. I would take her to lunch or we would go for a walk and talk about what was going on with her. Once we began to establish a relationship and she began to see that I really cared about her well-being, I was better able to advocate for her. One part of the equation as well was creating a trusting relationship with her mother because deep down they truly loved each other and wanted to learn how to have a healthy relationship.” As CASA volunteers often see, many mothers who have lost children in the foster care system are survivors of domestic abuse themselves. They may need help developing better parenting tools and dealing with their own trauma in order to be more effective parents.
Alex worked to get psychological evaluations done for Shera in order to help better understand her pattern of behavior. Through conversations with therapists and Alex, Shera finally admitted that the bruises she had blamed on her mother were actually from her boyfriend – an abusive relationship that was modelling what she had seen as a child between her mother and father. Shera was finally diagnosed with PTSD – a diagnosis that helped better explain her impulsive and angry behavior. Working alongside DCF, Alex helped Shera with her goals of repairing the relationship with her mother and going home. She stopped her pattern of running and began following the rules of her group home. She began attending school more regularly and agreed to participate in therapy.
Through conversations with workers at the group home, Alex learned about a small charter school and fought hard to get Shera enrolled. The new school would be able to meet Shera where she was academically (in a year and a half, she had attended very little high school) and support her with her emotional challenges. She was getting lost in the large public high schools, acting out in class, and repeatedly getting suspended. “Teachers and principals did not understand the constant state of emotional flux Shera was living in while being involved with DCF. They disciplined ways that ultimately made her act out even more,” says Alex. “The charter school understood that students from difficult backgrounds needed increased support from staff surrounding emotional and behavioral challenges, in order to ultimately help them have success with their academic learning.” Alex accompanied DCF and Shera to tour the school and ultimately helped enroll her there.
Alex was determined to develop positive relationships with the lawyers and DCF social workers on Shera’s case. “Over time, they began to see that I could help them do some of the legwork they did not have time to do because of their busy caseloads,” says Alex. “I was in the closest contact with Shera and her mother as well, talking to them several times a week. As Shera began really to make progress with her goals, I helped to organize a meeting with all the parties to set a concrete plan in place for reunification between mother and daughter. We had a wonderful DCF supervisor who was able to lead the meeting in a very productive way despite the tension and emotions that are inevitable. The role of a CASA in aiding with communication turned out to be a key factor in the road towards healing with this family. Over the year that Alex worked with Shera and her family, she encountered many situations where she was the only consistent adult who knew Shera’s full background on her case. “When she moved schools or group homes or met with a new therapist, I would immediately reach out to introduce myself and help fill in some of the details that were not in her case file. A child is so much more than what’s written in a short report in a file.” CASA workers are able to get to know a child and their family at a deeper level, because that child is their sole focus.
Shera is now back home living with her mother and attending the charter school. Their relationship is much better and they continue to work with an excellent family therapist. “I saw both Shera and her mother grow and mature during an extremely challenging time in their lives.” It was a moving scene in the courtroom the day that Shera’s mother regained custody and mother and daughter were moved to tears. The judge thanked Alex for her detailed reports which had aided him in better understanding this family.