Vol. 16, No. 2 • May 2012

A Kinship Foster Parent's Perspective on CFTs

Interview by Billy Poindexter

For this interview I spoke with a grandparent who cares for three of her grandchildren, who are in DSS custody. I’ll call this woman “Peg” to protect her grandchildren’s confidentiality.

The Situation
Peg’s grandchildren are not biologically related to her; they are the children of her stepson’s ex-wife. After she divorced Peg’s stepson, the children’s mother left them with friends so she could “do her thing,” as Peg puts it. After three or four months, changes in the children’s behavior and attitude made it clear to Peg and her husband that something was amiss. When she asked, the children shared that they were being neglected and physically abused by their caretakers.

Peg called the children’s mother, who very reluctantly reported the situation to the county department of social services. As a result of the report, the children entered foster care in DSS custody. At the mother’s request, the children were placed with Peg and her husband. The goal from the outset has been to reunify the children with their mother.

Since the children were placed with her, Peg has been part of a number of child and family team meetings (CFTs). The social workers and facilitators in these meetings were not always the same. This interview reflects Peg’s perceptions of the CFT process and her thoughts about its usefulness. It has been edited for content, clarity, and length.

Reflections on CFTs

What were you first told about the CFT process?
That the meetings were to be for the benefit of the children, that the process was safe, and that there was open discussion about the family’s progress. Also, I understood there would be a facilitator to manage the meeting, and that the children would have a chance to express their feelings and ideas.

Is that how the meetings worked in practice?
For the most part, no. In most of the meetings, I felt the process was pushed, like it was being done just to check off some box.

I left those meetings feeling confused, angry, and fearful for what might happen to my grandchildren if they were returned to their mother. In the meetings the children—even though they were told they could freely express their feelings—were talked over and their voice was suppressed by the workers.

I’ve never been involved with social services before and I left meetings feeling confused about what just happened in the room. I couldn’t understand the agency’s language, talk about court, and the work of the GAL. I just felt depressed sometimes.

However, this wasn’t my experience in the last family meeting I attended.

You said the last CFT was better. What made that meeting different?
Oh, the last meeting was good. I and my husband actually felt something was accomplished. I think the biggest difference was that the social worker was open to us all speaking what we had on our hearts. I know this might be off subject, but our social worker now is great, takes time to listen to us, actually comes into our home, sits down, and talks with the children and listens to them.

At this meeting the facilitator actually made us feel comfortable. We could trust that we were going to be heard. We left this last meeting feeling maybe DSS isn’t as bad as they seem. After this last meeting I haven’t worried about the future because I knew the children were heard. I think the facilitator helped a lot to make this meeting different.

“I think the biggest thing is that in a good CFT meeting, the child is listened to. They actually get the opportunity to express what is on their mind. This was so important to them. They actually talked about it after that last meeting. They want to know they will be heard!”

How did the facilitator do that?
The facilitator emphasized that the children could and would be heard. The facilitator created an environment that made us feel we could trust it would happen as they said.

The facilitator kept going to their guidelines, telling us this was to be a safe and respectful place to have the conversation needed. We felt we could be honest and the facilitator was there to be sure no one felt insulted.

What stood out to me was that the facilitator really talked to the children and helped them understand how this meeting was going to go and they could participate as they wanted.

In your view, what’s the biggest benefit of the CFT process?
I like that everyone is together to talk and hear what’s happening and what may happen.

The successful meeting I talked about helped change my feelings toward this mother. I had gotten to the place where I just hated her for what she had allowed to happen to these children and still wasn’t doing anything to really change. But in this last meeting—through the tears, emotions, and anger—I was able to feel her hurt at having to hear her children say they couldn’t trust her and didn’t want to come home yet. They loved her, but didn’t trust that she had really changed. I could see her hurt.

I think if in every meeting you could allow the true feelings of family to safely come out, maybe a parent could get the point and actually change so they could have their children come back home to them. A well managed meeting can help a parent clearly see what is going on.

Peg’s Tips for Successful CFTs

Facilitators: Create an environment of trust in the room. This will help everybody’s voice to be heard—especially the children. Take time to explain your guidelines to the children. We adults can read the papers, but the children need to understand. It gives them confidence to speak up. Make sure everyone knows the meeting will be safe and calm. Keep reassuring the group. Help them to know what is said in the room will not have repercussions outside of the room. Just do what you know you should do to make the meeting work for everyone, not just someone.

Family Members: Realize that the children are tired, fearful, and they don’t understand DSS work, the courts, GALs, etc. So many people are coming at you. If we get tired of it, think of how it affects the children! Be sure everyone is heard and that you understand what is happening. Take the time to ask questions, get explanations. Tell the workers if you need someone to help you talk about what just went on.

Foster Parents: Be at the meeting and listen to what the children are saying. Also, if you are not satisfied with how the meeting went and are not understanding, ask for another meeting to get the answers. In the meeting, make the workers take the time to explain so that parents, grandparents, and the children understand. That is so important.

Social Workers: This isn’t about you getting a number off your caseload, it is about the lives of children! If you tell them something is going to happen in the meeting, don’t let them down. Do what you said you would do. Listen. Listen to what the children have to say—before you listen to others, listen to them. In the meeting, help the family work through their situations, don’t just talk over or shut down what the family needs to say.

Billy Poindexter is a CFT facilitator with Catawba County DSS and a trainer for the Center for Family & Community Engagement at NC State University.

~ Family and Children's Resource Program, UNC-CH School of Social Work ~