Better Together

June 10, 2020

Among the hundreds of families Gail Engel has encountered as founder and executive director of the Grand Family Coalition in Loveland, Colo., there’s one that stands out in her memory for what could have been.

As Gail recalls, a mother struggling with substance use decides she can’t care for the eldest of her three young children, a five-year-old boy with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, and relinquishes her parental rights instead of leaving him in the custody of her mother, the boy’s grandmother. Although the grandmother was ready and able to assume custody of her grandson, he instead was cared for by several foster families before moving to a residential treatment center. Meanwhile, the mother and her other two children, both under the age of two, are barely scraping by, living in cars and in shelters.

After a lengthy legal process, the grandmother gained custody of the little boy. The experience for the boy, his two siblings and the entire family likely would have been considerably different, Gail says, had the Family First Prevention Services Act (frequently shortened to Family First) been in place at the time. “Had the grandmother been involved much sooner in providing kinship care, life for those kids would have been completely different. Family First could have kept that family whole. It could have kept the kids together with their grandmother and off the streets.”

When parents need additional support to provide safety for their kids, county human service agencies work to meet those needs while keeping families together. If that is not possible, caseworkers first look for kin — those adults who have an established, trusted relationship with the child — and then a foster family to provide safety.

Currently, states can only access federal funding if a child or youth has been separated from their parents or caregiver. Colorado made a decision years ago to prioritized providing prevention services to keep families together utilizing state funding and time-limited funds from certain federal funding streams.  With the passage of Family First in 2018, states will be able to access federal funding for certain support services that prevent the removal of a child or youth from their home. The goal is to change outcomes for families like whose story Gail shared.

When a parent needs more than the available in-home services, Family First affirms Colorado’s priority of ensuring young people grow up in the least restrictive setting, meaning with a family. When treatment for a child or youth is needed, Family First sets forth a set of guidelines to ensure that the youth receive the most appropriate level of treatment and that the treatment is temporary and trauma-informed.

Gail, who is part of the Family First Implementation Team that is guiding the state’s plan to opt into the law, says she expects families and children across Colorado will benefit from changes set to occur across the state. “Family First is helping parents to do what they need to do to get through a crisis faster, to be the good parents they want to be, and if that can’t happen, [the law] provides resources so children can find a home where they can thrive,” Gail says.

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