The Why and the How of SF79

As many of you know, Senate File 79 is the bill proposing funding for Case Navigator™. By their nature, bills are written fairly broadly. They tell you what is being proposed, but don’t always explain why (i.e., the benefits of enacting that particular bill) or the how (the details). In this case, the

In this case, the why actually has three parts:

  • It helps families safely reunify faster and avoid termination of parental rights (TPR);
  • It makes the job of the professionals who serve on the family’s team easier, more efficient and more effective; and
  • It has the potential to save the state a significant amount of money.[1]

So how does Case Navigator™ do these things?

Helping families safely reunify faster and avoid TPR

  • I’ve written elsewhere about the teaching parts of Case Navigator™, and how they can reduce the anxiety clients are feeling, allowing them to focus on higher-level issues, make better decisions, and have better outcomes. I’ll not rehash that here.
  • The technology piece helps them stay on track in the following ways:
    • Parents are asked to do a lot of things in order to get their kids back. And these requirements come from multiple sources: the court, DHS, Family Team Meetings (“FTMs”), and the Family Safety Risk Permanency (“FSRP”) worker, to name a few. Case Navigator™ pulls the tasks from each source and puts them in one easily accessible place. Additionally, it includes only what the parent is to do, not what others are “assigned” (e.g., if the FSRP worker is to do something for them, that might show up on the FTM notes, but it will not show up on the client task list that Case Navigator™ creates).
    • The “critical tasks” part of the list is measured and triggers a notification to the attorney if the client is not compliant so that the attorney can follow up and get the client back on track, instead of finding out about it at the hearing.
    • The date of their next hearing and next FTM is at the top of every screen (other than the login), so they can easily access that information. And it doesn’t get lost in a calendar of other events and appointments.
    • There is one place where they can access their documents, their task list, contact information for their team, and resources.
    • They can easily update their information in one place that the team can access, making communication easier.
  • When parents substantially comply with their orders and case plans, they are much more likely to get their kids back. Compliance also means that they are attending therapy and substance abuse treatment (if ordered), so they are growing and improving, getting healthy and stronger. In other words—becoming better parents.

Makes the job of the professionals easier

  • The teaching piece helps the professionals because Case Navigator™ is taking care of the foundational teaching and logistics information, which means that the other professionals can now focus on the higher level issues that they are uniquely qualified to do.
  • The technology piece saves time and effort
    • FTM Facilitators can directly upload their meeting notes to the site, instead of emailing them to everyone, which risks missing some team members.
    • The team can access critical documents easily, no matter where they are.
    • Because parents only have to update their information once, it saves team members time calling around trying to track down new contact information (i.e., now when a client changes her phone number, she has to call multiple people (attorney, DHS, FSRP, CASA, etc. With the Case Navigator™ technology, she only has to update in one place, and the entire team will have access to the updated information).
    • The push notification to clients relieves the professionals of constant reminders about the upcoming hearing. And it’s less likely that a client will miss a hearing, because of these three reminders (one week prior, the day before, the day of). If the client has a conflict, he can reply “H” for help, and the attorney can follow up.
    • Blank forms reside on the site so that clients can access and complete them easily.
    • All the critical documents and contacts reside in one place instead of multiple systems, some of which the professionals may not have access to.
    • Case Navigator™ will train the client on the system.

Has the potential to save a significant amount of money.

  • Reunifying families saves the state money in three primary ways:
    • If a parent’s rights are terminated, they frequently appeal that decision, which means increased legal fees incurred by the state (because most parents have a court-appointed attorney). If their parental rights are not terminated, there is obviously no appeal.
    • If a parent’s rights are terminated, there are often significant pre-adoption foster care subsidies (assuming a non-relative placement).
    • If a child is adopted, there may be significant adoptive subsidies (again, assuming a non-relative placement) that can continue until the child reaches the age of majority. This is especially true if the child has special needs.
  • Reducing the frequency of things that contribute to continuances (e.g., “forgetting” a hearing, necessitating a reschedule, inconsistent compliance) means that reunification can occur faster without compromising safety. This means lower legal fees and lower foster care subsidies (with the bonus of shorter time in an out-of-home placement for the child).

All of this means that the process is more effective and more efficient for everyone—parents, children, and the professionals who serve them.

Have questions about any of this? Give me a call or shoot me an email—I’d be happy to talk to you about it.

[1] While this would not likely result in lowering your taxes, it would mean that we can serve more families for the same amount of money.

Clarification – Part 2

Last week, I gave an overview, clarifying some of the things I’m hearing about Case Navigator. And now the “conversations.”

And now the “conversations.”

Question/Comment: You talk about the “team” having access to documents, contacts, and resources. Who is on the team?

Response: The team consists of the client/parent, the attorneys (including the Guardian ad Litem, the parents’ attorneys and the county attorney), the DHS worker, the FSRP worker, CASA, and Case Navigator™. This may change depending on the dynamics of the case. For example, if there is domestic abuse between the parents, that might change how the “team” is configured in order to protect the individual being abused.

 

Question/Comment: How do you define a “case”? How is your definition different from that of DHS or the courts?

Response: In court, a case is defined as one child. In Case Navigator™, a case is one family. That means that DHS’ records might show Case Navigator™ serving many more “cases” than 50. For example, if one family has four kids, DHS’ records would show four cases. Case Navigator’s™ records would show one. If every family that Case Navigator™ served had four kids, Case Navigator’s™ records would show 50 cases, while DHS’ records would show 200. There are a number of good reasons for counting this differently; if you would like to know more about this, please contact me, and I will be happy to explain my thinking.

 

Question/Comment: SF79 states that there will be a cap of 50 cases during the Pilot Program

Response: This is a small clarification that needs to be made in the language of the bill itself. The dollars requested in the bill are accurate, but the numbers are not. There will be no more than 50 cases in any given month. But if one month has 50 cases, and then one drops off, another can be added the next month. In other words, at the end of the two-year pilot program, Case Navigator™ will have likely served many more than 50 families total; but no more than 50 in any given month.

 

Question/Comment: Who does Case Navigator™ serve, specifically?

Response: Case Navigator™ serves the team, by providing a place for everyone (other than the court) to go to get consistent, current information.

Case Navigator™ serves the parents in three primary ways:

  • Teaching – helping parents understand the terms, acronyms, logistics, procedural issues and expectations so that they can focus on the higher-level legal, mental health, social work, etc. issues.
  • Personal Accountability – providing parents with the tools (e.g., the task letter and text notifications) to increase attendance at hearings and family team meetings, and increase compliance with their court orders and case plans; and
  • Resource – Providing links to community and governmental resources they may need, as well as information. Acting as a first contact resource for questions. Helping them develop strategies for the post-closure “phase” of the case.

Case Navigator™ serves attorneys, DHS, and other professionals by:

  • Provides a centralized location for critical documents (e.g., orders, case plans, FTM notes) and contact information. This allows clients and professionals to update information in ONE central place that all members of the team can access, rather than requiring multiple emails. For example, FTM facilitators can upload the meeting notes to the site, rather than send out emails, which often results in people being “missed” because the email list is not current. The facilitator does not have to spend time tracking down current emails and editing the mailing list. However, there are no attorney/client privileged or work product documents, and no confidential documents that the team would not otherwise have access to.
  • Reminds clients to update their information whenever they sign on to the site. Clients no longer have to remember to send out multiple emails/texts to every member of their team when their information changes.
  • Providing and implementing the teaching pieces so that the professionals can focus their time and energies on the things they are uniquely qualified to do (e.g., legal advice, social work assistance (problem-solving, parenting education, etc)). This also allows attorneys to “recapture” billable hours.
  • Helps keep clients on track, leading to better outcomes.

Case Navigator™ does NOT:

  • Attend hearings, family team meetings, or staffings
  • Meet with the client on a regular basis
  • Create a case plan
  • Directly assist in obtaining services, whether ordered by the court or otherwise (though Case Navigator™ may provide information regarding services, such as links to housing resources, for example)
  • Provide legal representation/advice, or any type of medical, mental health, or substance abuse disorder treatment.

 

Question/Comment: Are Case Navigator’s™ subject to any privilege? 

Case Navigator™ focuses on information, accountability, and helping the team work better together: not on legal, medical, or mental health advice/treatment. Case Navigators™ are not given privileged information, nor do they have access to it. Confidential or privileged information is not put on the site/app.

Everything on the digital site is already available to everyone on the case, (e.g., court orders, approved DHS Case plans (pulled from the court order), Family Team Meeting Notes, etc.). Additionally, everyone on the “team” (DHS, Attorneys, GAL, CASA, FSRP) has access to the site, so there is nothing Case Navigator™ would know that would be a “secret” to anyone else on the team. If therapy or substance abuse reports are uploaded, that is because the client—on the advice of his/her attorney—has waived rights with regard to privilege/confidentiality; and the documents have been uploaded by the attorney—not Case Navigator™.

 

Comment/Question: How are CINAs, TPRs, and Appeals different as they relate to juvenile court and Case Navigator™?

Response: Not only is there a difference in how cases are counted with regard to numbers of individuals involved, but also the type of case. A Child in Need of Assistance (“CINA”) petition is filed first. If, at some point, DHS does not believe the family can reunify within the statutorily prescribed time period, the county attorney will file a Petition for the Termination of Parental Rights (“TPR”). This is a separate case, with a separate case number; and again, one for each child in the family. Case Navigator™ will note this different case number, but will not count it as a new case, the way the court does.

CINAs and TPRs are filed with the district court, while Appeals are filed with the Appellate Court. But Case Navigator’s™ services end when the case closes or when the parents’ rights are terminated. Case Navigator™ is not involved at the appellate level. This is because the goal of Case Navigator™ is to prevent cases from going to and/or being “TPR’d.” Once parental rights are terminated, there is nothing more Case Navigator™ can do to help. Appeals are not a “second bite at the apple” — they are considered on the facts presented to the district court. Thus, unless the court made a mistake at the district court level, the ruling will not be overturned, even if the parents are now doing what they are “supposed to” be doing.

 

Question/Comment: “If you expand this to every CINA case in Iowa, that will be a huge amount of money!”

Response: “Statewide program” is not the same as “take every case that is filed.”

 I always say that juvenile cases fall into one of three categories: cases that will reunify without the assistance of Case Navigator™; cases that will not reunify no matter how much assistance any of us provides (usually when there are multiple issues, e.g., substance abuse and mental health issues, and domestic violence); and those that could go either way. While that last group is obviously the “sweet spot” for Case Navigator™, the problem is that you don’t know where any given case will fall at the start of the case. Sometimes, the cases that seem “easy” are the ones that derail, while parents in the “hopeless” cases get their lives together and reunify.

Because of that, one of the purposes of having a pilot program is to collect data so that at the end of the pilot program, we can determine which cases are best served by Case Navigator™. The pilot program is the time to take cases on a random basis so that we can make those decisions based on evidence, not speculation. That means that although the service would ultimately be offered in every county (i.e., statewide), not every case would qualify for the service. This is already true of the services CASA offers, so it’s simply a matter of determining where best to spend our resources.

 

Question/Comment The Service is Duplicative. Aren’t DHS/Attorney/Parent Partner/ FSRP, etc. already doing this?

Response: In a word—no. I would (gently) say that while Case Navigator™ may appear duplicative on paper, it is not duplicative in reality. The foundational work is not being done consistently or well, for some very good (and, I would guess, not so very good) reasons. For example:

  • Both attorneys and DHS have time constraints, though they play out a bit differently.
    • If you do the math (total dollars allowed per case, divided by the hourly rate), attorneys have only about 35 hours to spend on the ENTIRE case[1] (not including TPR, which is a separate “case,” or appeal). This means that they will understandably and quite reasonably spend those 35 hours on the legal issues—not procedural and logistical ones.
    • DHS has a different time issue; they are drowning in paperwork and have large caseloads.[2] They have the more generally understood “not enough hours in the day” problem.
  • Here is what I have heard (from very good, competent professionals):
    • “I often get to the hearing and only then find out that my client hasn’t been going to therapy. I wish there was a way I could find out sooner.”
    • “Best practices are not always ACTUAL practices.” ~DHS
    • “It’s embarrassing to have to call DHS and ask if they have my client’s current phone number because s/he hasn’t updated me.” ~Attorney
    • “I wish there was one place everyone involved in the case could go to get information; things fall through the cracks when we rely on emailing information to various people.” ~DHS/Parent Partners
    • “I wish there was a way to send text notifications to parents to remind them of their hearings. We waste so much time rescheduling because they get the date/time wrong. Our dentists and hairdressers use this—why would we not use it for the much more important things like court hearings?” ~Polk County Judge
    • “I give my clients the Juvenile Court’s Parent Handbook, but I don’t have time to talk about everything that’s in it. I just hope they read it.” “~Attorneys
    • “Parents in juvenile court aren’t reading the handbook, even if I give it to them.” “~Attorney
    • I wish there was a way to remind my clients that they need to schedule an appointment with me before the hearing. But I wish that reminder didn’t have to come from me (i.e., adding another thing to MY to-do list). ~Attorney
  • While GALs obviously want to know what the parents are doing in order to make the best recommendations for the children they represent, it is not their job to monitor the parents.
  • Case Navigator™ is not interested in replacing other professionals; the role of Case Navigator™ is to come alongside these professionals and help them do their jobs better by relieving them of some of the base-of-the-pyramid tasks so they can focus on the top-of-the-pyramid ones.

 

Question/Comment: If we are going to put money to this, why don’t we pay the lawyers more since that seems to be the reason the lawyers aren’t doing it now? We already have a GAL, DHS worker, County Attorney, Mom’s Attorney, Dad’s Attorney, possibly an attorney for a child, and I know other people can be involved as well. Maybe we should just give the more money to do what they should already be doing, instead of adding another person into the mix.

Response: With regard to lawyers, the issue isn’t the lawyers’ hourly rates—it’s the cap on the case. Paying lawyers more/hour doesn’t help the time issue. Additionally, because the attorneys can make an oft-granted motion to “exceed fees,” that suggests that it might not be the time issue; instead, it’s the perhaps unspoken rule that they don’t get paid to, for example, talk about the process, terms, and acronyms; they get paid for legal work. While I agree that court-appointed attorneys in juvenile court are underpaid, that agreement is a separate issue from this.[3]

Case Navigator™ helps indirectly in the following ways:

  • By allowing Case Navigator™ to work alongside the professionals (whether attorneys, DHS, or others), the teaching, accountability, and resource pieces are no longer their responsibility, and they can “spend” their hours on the higher level issues, which is what they are uniquely qualified to bring to the table.
  • When cases don’t go to TPR, it frees up money that would otherwise be spent on TPR and appeals to be spent on other cases/families. For DHS, it frees up money that would be spent on foster and adoptive care subsidies to be spent on services that will help reunify other families.
  • When all of the most important documents reside in one place, the whole team can, at a glance, see what services are being offered, whether the client is participating as ordered, and quickly and easily change and access contact information and critical documents.[4] They don’t have to call FSRP, look for current email addresses, or try to find the client on Facebook.
  • Attorneys, FSRP, and DHS are less likely to spend time answering the “tell me again when my hearing is” question, or repeatedly providing other information (e.g., contact information for DHS, answering procedural and logistical questions, etc.) because Case Navigator™ provides that, either on the site, or as a first contact resource person. This again frees up time that can be converted to more productive, billable tasks.
  • It helps the client become more responsible for their case, because they do not need to rely on the professionals to “hold their hand,” but can instead more actively partner with them on the top-of-the-pyramid issues. And because Case Navigator™ is providing consistent, excellent teaching, as well as helping facilitate the accountability piece, the parents can make better decisions, which makes the professionals’ lives easier.[5]

Additionally, all of the professionals are, in a sense, doing the SAME things—providing top-of-the-pyramid work in the form of either legal counsel, or social work-type assistance. No one is focused on the foundational pieces, and no one has the technology piece that allows everyone to work together as a team. I would also (gently) note that when everyone thinks someone else is doing something, that often means no one is doing it. I have had people ask me the same question with only one telling variable: “Shouldn’t               be doing this?” The “              “ has been filled with everything from DHS, to the attorney, to CASA, to FSRP, to Parent Partners.

With regard to funding and whether that should go to attorneys, DHS, or Case Navigator™, I would say this: simply spending more money on the same processes does not solve the underlying problems; it just gives you more of what you already have. Case Navigator™ has a simple, yet innovative approach that not only addresses this “pyramid gap,” but also indirectly frees up resources for DHS and Attorneys to “spend” elsewhere.

 

[1] I understand that they can request, and be granted, additional fees, but that requires additional paperwork, the judge must approve, the SPD must approve…and it is unlikely that this approval will be given for “teaching, procedural and logistical” matters.

[2] While it may be true that their caseloads have gone down, my understanding is that they are still higher than recommended. This isn’t to say that DHS is doing anything wrong or improper in how they are counted—just to say that the they still have a fairly extraordinary workload.

[3] My belief is that they deserve to be paid more because they do extraordinarily important work, yet are paid far less than their private attorney colleagues.

[4] The “whether they are attending” part of the technology is something I have to confirm with the technology consultant and FSRP

[5] Many of these benefits also apply to DHS as well.

Clarification – Part One

I enjoy talking to people about Case Navigator™, even people who might be critical of it, because it helps me sharpen my message, see where the pushback is (so that I can clarify and/or correct misinformation), and hear what people want and think is most important. The appropriations bill to fund a two-year pilot program has been filed. However, legislative bills are, by nature, written broadly, so talking to people also gives me the opportunity to flesh it out a bit. I thought it might be helpful to highlight some of the discussions I’ve had over the last few weeks with a variety of individuals (though I am not going to identify them by name). But in order to understand where the questions/comments are coming from, a bit of an introduction/overview is in order (though I recognize that some of this is a bit duplicative of a previous post). That’s what today’s post is about. On Monday, I will address specific questions and comments.

 **************************

Most of us learned about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs at some point in our lives; usually represented as a pyramid, it tells us that at the bottom are the basic needs—food, shelter, safety, etc. As you work your way to the top, you ultimately get to “self-actualization.” This is the top-of-the-pyramid goal. We also learned that you cannot start there; if people are homeless or hungry, they really don’t care about “self-actualization.”

This same concept can apply to many things—including juvenile court.

Parents who find themselves in juvenile court due to a removal of their children come in traumatized by that loss. They may bring experiences of past traumas to this new one, and are likely dealing with other challenging issues, such as substance abuse disorders or mental health issues. All of these things stretch their cognitive and emotional “bandwith” to the snapping point. But despite knowing all this, when parents enter juvenile court we don’t start with the foundational, bottom-of-the-pyramid things.

Instead, parents have a DHS worker who is focused on top-of-the-pyramid social work issues, such as case plans. An attorney is appointed, and comes in with top-of-the-pyramid legal advice. But again—although those things are all very important, that’s not where parents are. They are at the bottom of the pyramid, wondering what a TPR is, what (and who) FSRP is and wondering what s/he does. They don’t know what an adjudication hearing is, or disposition, or where any of those things fall in the process. They may not even know where the courthouse is (especially since juvenile recently moved), whether they can (or are required to) bring their kids to court, and where to sit in the courtroom. This isn’t about not being “smart” enough to understand these things; it’s that it’s a foreign “language” and experience to them—as it would be for most people.

Case Navigator™ is designed to do one thing: meet the client where s/he is in order to close that “pyramid” gap, so children can safely reunify with their families faster.

Most of the professionals involved in juvenile cases are focused on helping people comply with orders and case plans and become better parents (whether through substance abuse treatment, therapy, or other services) so kids can go home. And those things are really important, of course. But those “services” would be far more effective if parents had the foundational understanding of the process, people, expectations, and terms/acronyms they will encounter along the way.

Case Navigator™ also uses technology in a way that has not been used before. It fosters a team (rather than adversarial) approach, provides up-to-date information, and helps parents become both more self-sufficient and more compliant with their orders and case plans.

Simply providing more money to the processes that are currently in place doesn’t solve the underlying problems. Case Navigator™ offers a new way to look at how we work with families in juvenile court, one that does not ignore the importance of the top-of-the-pyramid work or seek to replace it, but instead provides a strong foundation on which to build that work.

 

Up next—specific questions and challenges regarding the service. Things like:

  • Are Case Navigator’s™ subject to privilege?
  • How do you define a team? A case?
  • Are you really looking to serve every single family in Iowa that’s involved in juvenile court?

EXCITING NEWS!!

Last April, I launched a business called Case Navigator™, which is designed to safely reunify families who find themselves in juvenile (child welfare) court, and to do that in a timely fashion. I have talked to many, many people who have been very generous with their time—experts in their field, as well as legislators on both sides of the aisle. I have done research, attended conferences, and have done a lot of listening, trying to craft the best possible service that will serve parents and the professionals that work with them. The bill, as written, is pretty general. If you would like more details, I would be delighted to talk to you. And—

On Thursday, Senator Matt McCoy filed Senate Bill 79—proposing funding for a case navigator pilot program! I am so grateful, and so excited.

And here’s the humorous, “personal touch” part of the story.

My friend and colleague, Diane Dornburg, had invited me to speak at her church last December regarding CASA (a well-regarded and meaningful program for which I volunteer as a coach—we work with abused and neglected kids) and also juvenile (child welfare) court generally. I was delighted to do so, and had a wonderful time.

On Thursday, she sent me an email, asking, “Do you have a bill?” Because I had no idea that SF 79 had been filed, I thought she was asking if I had a bill to submit for my speaking engagement! I was sitting there thinking, “Well, no, that was a freebie.” But then I opened up the attachment, and realized she was talking about the legislative bill that Senator McCoy filed!

Sitting in Caribou, waiting to meet a friend, I could hardly keep from jumping up and down, fist pumping, and yelling, “Yes!!!” (Or as my friend, Steve Quirk, CEO of Youth Emergency Services & Shelter would say, “YESS”!). And then, when I calmed down a bit, I had another thought.

“I have no idea what to do next.”

I do know there is still a long road ahead, with a lot of hard work involved. I know it might not go anywhere. BUT—this is a very significant step towards helping parents stay on track, to help their “team” function more efficiently and effectively, and to get kids back home safely.

That’s my big news! Thank you for letting me share it with you. And if you have been a part of this journey with me, THANK YOU! Thank you so much for your generosity of time, your willingness to make introductions, and your encouragement along the way.

It means the world to me.

 

 

 

Maslow’s Hierarchy and Juvenile Court

Remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? The main piece that most people know is that you have to have the lower level needs (i.e., physiological and safety) met before you can move to the higher level ones. Although most of us are familiar with this hierarchy, we sometimes forget how it works, or fail to see how it might apply in other situations.

For example, I once attended a church that raised money for the pastor’s discretionary fund. This was a kind of “slush fund” for situations where someone would show up at the church doorstep in desperate need for money (for rent, utilities, food, etc.) and nowhere else to go. One of the ways we funded this account was through a Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper. One year, I suggested that we place jars and slips of paper on the tables so that people who were “dining” with us could write a brief prayer of encouragement and place it in the jar. Then, whenever the pastor distributed funds, s/he could also include a written prayer.

Although many liked the idea, the senior deacon ultimately shot it down, saying she was worried we might “offend” someone.

To me, this was ridiculous, but it illustrates the point; people who are in such dire need are focused almost solely on having their “physiological and safety needs” met—they are not concerned with whether they are “loved” or “belong” to our church, they’re not thinking about whether a prayer is going to negatively impact their “esteem,” and they sure as heck aren’t going to say, “Well, that prayer just destroyed my ability to self-actualize! How dare a church offer a prayer”?!

In other words, the senior deacon was operating from a place higher up on the hierarchy than the future recipients of funds, oblivious to the fact that the people we were trying to serve were not residing there.

Juvenile court is a bit like that, although not necessarily for lack of awareness.

The belief that the services Case Navigator™ provides are “duplicative” suggests that people are aware of this. The problem is that the professionals are very focused on the high-level things like legal issues and social-work-type issues—as they should be—to the exclusion of the lower level issues of understanding basic terms, acronyms, logistics and procedures. The high level issues that garner the most attention are obviously really important. But because of heavy caseloads, time pressures, burdensome paperwork and a myriad of other, very good reasons, those lower level things get cast by the wayside.

But here’s the thing—those “physiological and safety” equivalent issues are where their clients are. And if parents don’t understand those lower level, basic things, they’re going to struggle with the higher level ones. Multiplication and division are important, but if you don’t know how to add and subtract, it will be very difficult to learn multiplication and division. Likewise, parents who aren’t familiar with juvenile court and its myriad terms, acronyms, procedures, etc., will struggle to understand what the court and DHS are asking them to do. This isn’t because the court doesn’t do a good job of explaining itself, and not because they’re not “smart enough,” but rather because their focus is still back on trying to figure out things like where to sit in the courtroom, what the attorneys are saying in the courtroom, and how they’re going to get to their court-ordered therapy while still keeping their job—which they are also required to do per DHS’ case plan.

Some of the pushback I’ve received regarding Case Navigator™ is that it is duplicative of the services DHS (or others) is already providing. There are two interesting things about that: first, when I started this, I heard from a variety of people, asking the same question, but with one significant difference. The questions were these:

  • Shouldn’t DHS be doing this?
  • Shouldn’t their attorney be doing this?
  • Shouldn’t CASA be doing this?

What that tells me is that when everybody thinks somebody else is doing something, it usually means nobody is doing it.

That’s painting with a broad stroke, of course. But it brings up the second interesting thing: best practices are not always actual practices.

Hard as it may be to hear or accept, any duplication is, for the most part, on paper only. Even if DHS “should” be doing this, they are not doing it consistently or well. And again—I’m not trying to throw DHS under the proverbial bus. DHS is drowning in paperwork, heavy caseloads and the often terrifying and overwhelming concern about making a mistake. In business, mistakes are recognized as the path to growth, improvement, and innovation. But in DHS’ world, a mistake can lead to tragic outcomes. Is it any wonder, then, that the “teaching piece” is a lower, and sometimes essentially ignored, priority?

Attorneys who have significant “caps” on the time they can spend and bill on a case are handing out the Juvenile Court Parent Handbook, but my guess is that their clients are not reading them (kind of like employee handbooks—when did you last read yours?). The hours attorneys are allowed to “spend” on their cases are understandably best spent on the legal issues their clients face.

And no, CASAs are not responsible for educating parents, because they advocate for the children. And—they are volunteers. That’s not to say they don’t help parents, it’s just that that part is not their primary focus; nor should it be.

But no matter how good the “reasons” for not focusing on these foundational pieces, it doesn’t solve the problem of how to get the parents “up to speed” so that they can begin focusing on the higher level issues and successfully reunify with their kids.

And “successfully reunify,” to me, does not just mean that their kids are returned to them. It means kids will be safe and the family won’t be back in “the system,” of course, but it also means that moms and dads have the tools—and the ability and commitment to implement them—to be the parents their kids deserve. It means long-term, positive change and healthy, happy kids.

I’m not a therapist, and I’m not currently practicing law, so I can’t do these things directly. But the purpose of Case Navigator™ is to come alongside these other professionals and help with the teaching piece (i.e., the lower levels of the hierarchy) so that it is delivered in an effective, consistent manner. It is to be a kind of “personal accountability coach” to help parents stay on track with their case plans and court orders so that they are attending therapy (if ordered), their court hearings, and generally doing all the things that will not only help them reunify with their children, but be better parents when they do. And finally, Case Navigator™ is a support system and resource; during the process, to be sure, but also to provide a strategic session at the end, before the case closes, so that parents know who they can go to for help, or how they might respond to situations that could come up after the case closes.

If Case Navigator™ can help meet those foundational “needs,” it both frees up time for the professionals to focus on the higher level matters, and also helps that work be more easily understood and more effective for their clients.

Win-win, yes?

 

 

 

 

Why Do Kids Want to Stay with Abusive Parents?

Hailey (not her real name, of course) was one of my CASA “kids” when I was serving as an advocate. This sassy 10-year-old apparently viewed me (and everyone else involved in her case) as a “snitch,” because whenever I asked her a question, her first response was, “Why? Are you going to tell the judge?” Even when the question was as innocuous as, “What did you have for breakfast?”!

Hailey and her sister had been removed from her mother’s care after a child was critically injured in their home. The allegations against Hailey’s mom were horrifying, and ultimately she ended up in prison for a while. You would think that in a situation like that, Hailey would be anxious to go to a safer home, away from her abusive mother.

But that’s not usually the way it plays out.

In fact, the one thing Hailey did want me to tell the judge was that she wanted to go home, to be reunited with her mother. Whenever there was a hearing, I would ask her, “Is there anything you want me to tell the judge for you?” Inevitably, the response was, “Tell her I want to go home.” This was true even when the kids learned their mom was going to prison.

I would visit Hailey’s classroom and look at her journal; it was covered with Hailey’s handwriting, with declarations like, “My mom rocks!” or, “My mom is cool!” Over, and over, front cover, back cover, inside pages—as though if she wrote it down often enough, she could make it true.

Why? The parent/child bond is a formidable thing—from both a psychological and biological perspective. While I don’t pretend to be a researcher, you can go here if you want to learn more. The research is actually quite fascinating.

It’s also interesting to note that in many cases (not all, certainly), children are better off staying with their biological parents, even when the home situation is not ideal. Even when their foster homes are very good.[1] While much of this seems counter-intuitive, it’s hard to argue with the science behind it.

That’s why it’s so important that removals aren’t just routine; we want judges to really consider whether the child needs to be removed, or whether they would be better served by keeping the children at home, and receiving services there. Our judges do a great job with this, but it’s a difficult balancing act, and one in which many probably prefer to err on the side of caution. They are much more likely to be harshly criticized for not removing a child that ends up seriously injured or dead than they are removing a child that would have been safe at home.

I’m going to leave that difficult decision up to the court. My role as a Case Navigator™ is to simply do what I can to help the families get healthy so that they can be reunited in a safe and timely fashion whenever possible (while acknowledging it’s not always possible.

Because that’s clearly what the kids want.

[1] http://www.mit.edu/~jjdoyle/doyle_jpe_aug08.pdf

Scarcity and Tunneling

The book Scarcity is not about child welfare. Yet the concepts are so applicable to parents in CINA cases that I always recommend it to people working in this field. Authors Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir dig into how people behave when they are suffering scarcity in some area, whether money, time, food, or anything else. One of the biggest discoveries is that scarcity stretches the cognitive and emotional “bandwidth” of people, resulting in, among other things, tunneling.

Of course, “nothing is all bad, and nothing is all good.” In it’s highest form, we call tunneling “focus.” Focus is what helps us get things done, while avoiding distractions. In it’s lowest form, however, it can cause us to focus on the immediate “bonfire,” while ignoring the embers that will burst into flames if we do not pay attention to them as well.

An example of this occurred in one of my CASA cases. Mom missed a hearing because she had a housing appointment. People were stunned. Did she not know how important it was for her to attend hearings? Did she not care about getting her kids back? Did she not understand that skipping hearings could result in the court terminating her parental rights to her children? What was she thinking?!

While I don’t know for sure what she was thinking, my guess is it went something like this:

            These housing appointments are difficult to get; they told me I HAVE to be there. If I don’t go, I will lose my housing assistance, which means I will be homeless. And if I’m homeless, there’s no WAY I can get my kids back. My ex-husband is abusive, so I don’t want him to have custody of the kids. I’ll get this resolved, and then deal with the fallout of missing the hearing later. Surely the judge will understand…

 Whether she is right or wrong about all of this, you can at least see how her reasoning makes sense in the context of the tunnel. We’re not quite so stunned at her decision to skip the hearing.

But what if, instead of trying to go back and “fix” her absence, hoping the judge will “understand,” there was someone who could help her proactively find a solution? What if there was someone who could “loan” her some bandwidth to put out not only the bonfire (the housing issue), but also tend to the embers (the hearing). What if there was someone who could pull the hearing back into her “tunnel” so she would understand the urgency and importance of attending the hearing?

That’s one of the advantages of the Task Letter used by Case Navigator™. After the letter goes to the parent, a Case Navigator™ follows up. One of the questions I ask is, “Do you foresee any problems doing the things in the ‘Tasks to complete/continue this month section?” If Mom knows about the housing conflict, she can share that with her Case Navigator™ who can help her resolve the conflict so Mom can take care of both. The Case Navigator™ can help Mom see options she might not otherwise see. And notifications ahead of the hearing can help alert everyone to a potential problem, again, before it arises.

The problem is that it is always more difficult to retroactively fix a problem, rather than proactively solve it. It often results in extensions or continuances, which research shows makes it more likely that the parent’s rights will eventually be terminated.

Is that the outcome we want? Do we really want mom to forever lose her children simply because she didn’t know how to solve a simple scheduling problem and chose “wrong” by someone else’s standards?

Resilience

A month or so ago, a friend asked me to recommend four books for college business students. “Four?!” I asked incredulously. “Only four?!” He laughed and told me to recommend whatever I wanted, and he would cut the list down to a manageable size. But that got me thinking.

If I could only recommend one book, to virtually anyone, what book would that be?

And that decision only took me a second to make. Resilience by Eric Greitens. The book has such wisdom, such encouragement, and plain old common sense. I am reading it for the third time, and every time I find something new to highlight.

For a bit of background, Greitens initially did a lot of work as a relief worker in Bosnia, Cambodia, and other war-torn places. But rather than focus on the terrible conditions that existed, he chose to look at the human experience in a rather Viktor Frankle-like way, asking the question, “Who not only survives, but actually thrives, despite the horrendous circumstances?” In other words, it was in these early experiences that he began sowing the seeds of his work in resilience.

But it was also during one of these experiences that he made another discovery; a “strongly worded letter of protest” was not enough to change many of these situations. It wasn’t enough to have a heart of service; sometimes a “fist” was necessary to stop evil people from creating these situations in the first place. That led him to sign up and become a Navy SEAL. It also led to his book, The Heart and the Fist. And again, more lessons in resilience. But not just resilience during military service, but also resilience after returning home. He founded an organization called The Mission Continues, which works with returning vets to give them a sense of purpose; to remind them that they are needed.

But 300 words into this post, you’re probably wondering what a book recommendation has to do with Case Navigator™, especially a book that’s not about child welfare, specifically.

Most people in this field have heard of the ACEs study. ACE stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences. The more of these a child has, the more likely they will have significant issues not just in childhood, but also into adulthood. A wide variety of problems, ranging from substance abuse, to domestic violence, to health issues such as heart disease and diabetes. Because Case Navigator™ works with parents post-removal, there’s not much I can do about the ACEs that have already occurred.

Interestingly, though, one of the things that can help offset these ACEs is—resilience.

Resilience gives us hope in the face of adversity. It helps us look beyond the current circumstances, knowing that things can change for the better; we won’t always be in this current, negative situation. It helps us realize that the “whole world” and all the people in it aren’t like this current place or the people in it. And most importantly, it helps us take steps to move forward and not get stuck in that place.

If you clicked on the link above to take the ACEs assessment, scrolling down further will take you to another one: the resilience assessment. Anyone can help children build resilience, because it’s more about having people love you, support you, and encourage you. The more of these people you have in your life, the better; but even one individual helping to build up a child and be a resource for them to go to if they have trouble is invaluable.

Case Navigator™ can help parents stay on track with their case plan and court orders. We can lend “bandwidth” so parents can make better decisions, which will lead to better outcomes. And hopefully all of those things will help parents help their children become more resilient (and maybe them as well). But we will be even more successful if you will help us by simply pouring into the life of a child—any child (because you never know who needs it, or what’s going on in a child’s or family’s life). You don’t have to formally volunteer for an organization (although if you want to, I would highly recommend CASA).

I’m also not suggesting that you have to “fix” anything. Just be there for a child. Listen to him. Encourage her. Lift him up. Empathize with her. Ask him how school is going. These things cost nothing but a bit of your time and attention, yet can have a huge impact in the life of a child and the adult they are becoming.

And that, hopefully, will lead to lower ACEs scores for their children.

Want World Peace?

Mother (now Saint) Teresa has said many profound things, and interestingly, it was often the very “smallness” of the idea that made it so profound. One such quote was this: “What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family.”

That seems very small, right? Makes you want to say, “No, no, world peace! BIG!” Especially in our global world, with its enormous problems, it feels like focusing on our families is not nearly “enough.” And while we may be able to acknowledge the value of loving our family, and the impact that might ultimately have on the world (think “pebbles dropped in a pond that send out far reaching ripples”), the speed of life these days makes this plan seem agonizingly slow.

But the problem with our “fast fixes” is that they don’t last. They’re a bandage on a gaping wound that needs stitches or even major surgery.

And sometimes there are issues that we want fixed, but we don’t want to do the fixing. We’re all happy to volunteer and donate when we’re talking about things like feeding hungry children, finding a cure for cancer, or providing help for those who are caught up in natural disasters like hurricanes, fires, and earthquakes. But when you ask someone to help parents who have had their children removed due to allegations of abuse, a change comes over them. Their eyes narrow, their voice takes on a harder edge, and even their body language reflects their distaste. They don’t want to help “those” people. They want to punish them, saying things like “they deserve to have their children removed.”

I get it. We don’t like it when the very people who should be protecting children are actually hurting or neglecting them. And hungry children, desperately ill people, and those devastated by natural disasters are easier to help because none of those things are their “fault.” When parents abuse their children or neglect them, we’re less likely to want to help, because we think the situation in which they find themselves is their fault. Certainly their decisions led them to where they are now. But things aren’t always what they seem.

People who grow up in high functioning, resilient, well-resourced families do not often end up abusing their children.[1] They are less likely to engage in the substance abuse that is a part of a significant number of neglect cases. No, they usually grow up to be healthy adults. Not always, of course, but their chances of that are much greater than a child who grows up amidst domestic violence, drugs, and/or poverty. Their options are narrower, their “models” less positive. And while it is certainly possible to grow up in that environment and still be successful (no matter how you define that), it is considerably more difficult.

I recently re-read the book Scarcity, by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir. The book is not about child welfare, but rather about how we make decisions when there is scarcity in our life, whether that’s scarcity of money, time, or even calories (for someone who is dieting). Many of our clients in juvenile child welfare cases deal with a number of scarcities in their life, which causes them to “tunnel.” In other words, they only have enough cognitive/intellectual “bandwidth” to focus on the most immediate and pressing needs, even if those decisions will result in problems down the road (i.e., outside the tunnel).

A perfect example of this showed up in one of my CASA cases a few months ago. Mom missed a hearing (which is almost never a good thing) because she had a meeting with people about housing. People were shaking their heads—didn’t she know how important it was for her to attend the hearing?! But here’s what Mom was probably doing. If she doesn’t have housing, or is about to be homeless, that problem is squarely within her tunnel. It’s the biggest fire she is immediately facing, and all her mental resources have to go towards solving that. She will deal with the fallout of the missed hearing “later” —when that has now appeared in the crisis tunnel.

Of course, if you’ve done any work in juvenile (or other) court recently, you are also aware of trauma-informed care, which is simply the acknowledgment that when we have been traumatized (recently or in the past), we may not react well to similar situations. For example, a parent who was removed as a child himself may be re-traumatized when he finds himself back in the courtroom—this time as the parent. It becomes difficult to hear or understand what is being said. Trauma stretches your cognitive bandwidth so thin, it becomes difficult to make good decisions.

And when you combine this reduced “bandwidth” with tunneling, it’s no wonder that things don’t go well. The problem is, we don’t see all the background things that led to this outcome, and that aren’t the “fault” of the parent; we only see the result, and immediately seek to punish the parent, rather than help them.

This isn’t to say there shouldn’t be any accountability. There is a difference between an excuse and a reason. If you want to read my take on those differences, you can go here, but in a nutshell, an excuse is an explanation offered for the behavior and as a way to get someone “off the hook.” A reason, on the other hand, may have the exact same explanation, but is not offered to avoid accountability; it is instead used to help determine what to do differently in the future, or to solve the immediate problem.

And here’s something else you may not know. Counterintuitively, perhaps, children love their parents even when they have abused or neglected them. They want to be reunited with those parents. And research suggests that in many cases, children are better off with their biological parents than in foster care, even when the biological parents are not “ideal.” Not always. But often enough that we need to pay attention to that when we are making long-term decisions for the children.

And consider this: when we say that parents “deserve” to have their children removed, we are also saying that children “deserve” to lose their parents. Everyone is “punished,” not just the parents.

If we truly want to help children, one of the best ways to do that is to help their parents get healthy.

Will that lead to world peace, as Mother Teresa suggests? Well, we can’t force people to love their families. But maybe if we did a better job of loving our “neighbor,” our neighbor could do a better job loving his or her children. I tend to think it’s a good idea to cast that pebble in the pond of civilization. The first ripples might just be generationally healthier families. That will lead to healthier communities, workplaces, and schools. Which can, in turn, radiate out even farther to states and nations. It’s not immediate, but it’s also not just a bandage.

Will you do your part towards creating world peace?

[1] For more on this, go to https://acestoohigh.com/got-your-ace-score/

5 Habits to Change Your Life Direction

I have some friends, family members, and CASA families looking to make some big changes in their life. Maybe it’s a career change. Maybe it’s finally becoming free of substance abuse. Maybe it’s changing their life in order to get their kids back. No matter what the change is, one thing I’ve learned is that often, the bigger and more complex the problem or change, the smaller and simpler the solution needs to be.

Both changes and problems typically deal with changes in habits. In my own life, I’ve had the most success when I have not focused on the big goal (which can sometimes feel overwhelming), but instead on the small habits that will lead to success. Here are five pieces of advice I would offer:

  1. Focus on one thing you can do everyday that will lead to success. When I wanted to write a book, I decided to write at least 2000 words every day. If sobriety is your issue, don’t focus on being sober for the rest of your life; focus on being sober today (or this hour, or even for the next five minutes). You can do almost anything for at least five minutes. Then do another five minutes. Unemployed? Commit to sending out one new resume, one new application, or meeting one new person every day. Practice one new parenting skill.
  2. Focus on lead measures, not lag. Closely related to the first one is this one. A lag measure is your goal. In the world of weight loss, losing 25 lbs. is a lag measure. The problem is, you don’t know whether you’ve accomplished that goal until you step on the scale; at that point, it’s too late to influence the outcome. A lead measure, on the other hand, is something you can do that is predictive of success, and that you influence. Walking for 30 minutes every day and monitoring reducing your caloric intake every day (perhaps via WeightWatchers™ Point System) is a lead measure. It’s predictive (if you do those two things, you will lose weight), and you influence those behaviors. If you are successful in the lead measures, you will inevitably be successful in the lag (i.e., weight loss).
  3. Change the environment. Don’t rely on willpower alone. There is a significant body of research that says you will have a much more difficult time succeeding if you rely solely on willpower.[1] But small tweaks to your environment can have surprisingly big results. In the weight loss example above, you might switch to smaller plates (yes, that actually works). Avoid temptation by not having cookies and soda in your house. Trying to quit smoking? My mother-in-law was a smoker for years. One of her habits was a cigarette after dinner. All she had to do was turn to her left; there was a cabinet with her cigarettes, lighter, and an ashtray right there. Without thinking or “deciding,” she would automatically reach for her cigarettes after dinner. If she had moved those things to a less convenient location, it would have broken that pattern. It would have given her enough time to at least think about whether she wanted to “choose” to have a cigarette. And if she had established a different habit (putting on her sneakers before dinner to make it easy to take an after dinner walk, perhaps), it would have made it even easier to override the smoking habit.

Sometimes, changing the environment means moving. A beloved cousin of mine who was addicted to meth moved half a continent away, to a place where he knew no one. As long as he lived here, he knew where to get the drug, and struggled to overcome the addiction. But in the new state, he didn’t know those things, and he didn’t know the people who were doing/selling the drug, so it was easier to resist.

Sometimes we have to change friends. We need to surround ourselves with people who are living the way we want to live, not the way we have been living. That’s not a condemnation of the other person; it’s simply an acknowledgment that if we want to change, we can’t surround ourselves with people who are still doing the things we no longer want to do. It’s too hard to resist getting sucked back into that life, especially if we’re feeling particularly vulnerable on a certain day.

  1. Everyday (yes, every day) write down three things for which you are grateful, no matter how small they may seem. When you focus on what is good, rather than what is not, you begin to look for the good. Your brain literally begins to rewire itself.[2] Sometimes your gratitude might be for small things, or things we typically take for granted—a great cup of coffee, the fact that you can see, a sunny day. Other days you may have big things for which to be grateful—a new job, a new baby, or 30 days of sobriety. They all
  2. Finally, take time every day to just sit quietly, even if it’s just for 15 minutes. If you are a person of faith, pray. If you are not, you can meditate (slow down your breathing), or simply sit quietly. You will be better able to center yourself, think more clearly, and make better decisions simply by sitting quietly every day. If you’re not used to doing this, you will not be able to do it right away. Your mind will race, you’ll fidget, and you’ll suddenly remember a dozen or more things you “need” to do, which will “only take a minute.” That’s ok. Those things can usually wait for 15 minutes. Eventually, this new “habit” will become indispensible.

Regardless of what changes you are seeking to make, or why, the how is the universally important execution piece. Develop the habits that support the goal, be grateful, and take time to be quiet, and you will be amazed at the change in your life—not immediately, perhaps, but over time.

Yes, it’s hard. But as the quote goes, “The hard is what makes it great.”

Go be great.

 

 

[1] I would strongly suggest you read the book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhrigg.

[2] A great book for this is The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. He also has a hilarious TED Talk on the same subject.