When I learned I would be interning with Brightside Child and Family Advocacy (Brightside) this summer, I prepared in the best way I thought possible. I researched the child welfare system, trying to get a basic understanding of everything from juvenile court proceedings to foster care placements. I tried to understand how children were supposed to be protected and guided into a safe and loving home.
Once in Savannah, I learned that none of that really mattered. Looking at what’s on paper could only go so far. Luckily, I had the valuable opportunity to get in the room, watch, and listen.
I know not everyone has the privilege of doing that, so let me tell you what I learned.
I saw how Division of Family and Child Services (DFCS) court proceedings can be infinitely more complex than other cases. Just looking at the number of attorneys in the room was overwhelming: one for the child, one for a parent, one for DFCS, one for foster parents or relatives…the list could stretch on forever. I saw how a child’s voice could so easily be drowned out - until it was time to call upon their CASA. If there’s one thing I remember, it’s the passion CASAs and their Brightside team have for ensuring that each child gets the loving home they deserve.
I heard the love parents had for their children. A rampant misconception surrounding parents of children in foster care is that they have so terribly mistreated their children that they are incapable of a nurturing, healthy relationship with a child. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many parents have experienced trauma, have substance abuse disorders, or have been in foster care themselves without a model of healthy family dynamics. Their failures as parents are not for lack of love for their children, and they feel attacked and judged after having their children taken away. I have seen how, with support, parents can be reunified with children in a safe and stable home. Fortunately, this outcome is in the majority.
I saw the challenges DFCS faces in helping children. They are underfunded and understaffed. Many caseworkers handle over 30 cases at a time and can’t give each child the attention they so deserve. I vividly remember sitting in the DFCS office as a caseworker said three children could not be returned to their mother because services had not been put in place to support them. I was confused. Wasn’t putting those services in place DFCS’ job? They certainly don’t have the resources to sufficiently do so for every child, but this doesn’t mean inadequate support can be allowed. It means that somebody else must step in to ensure it happens.
I came to understand the extent of reunification’s benefits. I think the importance of Brightside's Visitation Center - The Bright House - can be hard to understand and appreciate at first, especially with minimal understanding of the child welfare system. My appreciation for it grew exponentially throughout the summer. How can parents build real relationships with their children sitting in a DFCS office or Chuck-E-Cheese? Reunification is a goal seldom achieved without support, and quality visitation between parents and children is the number one indicator of achieving permanent reunification between children and parents.
I’ve seen that little is ever as it seems or is supposed to be. Research can’t tell you about the child who writes his mom’s phone number down every time he moves to a new foster home so that he or she doesn’t forget it. It can’t describe the pain and despair in a parent’s voice as they try to heal their family but feel unheard. It can’t measure the hope around a mother baking cookies with her children while she works to get them back.
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