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Collaboration: Does It Matter for Fostering Connections?

Rickye McKoy-Mitchell, District Court Judge, Charlotte, North Carolina
Mecklenburg County, the 26th Judicial District

Summary: The author describes a successful collaboration among the court, school district and social welfare system in Charlotte, NC, that has helped provide stability for children in foster care.

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In collaboration, parties work together jointly and cooperate reasonably. That seems to be such a very simple definition, but it has fundamental and lasting change potential. The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) has worked with model courts to effectuate change through collaboration. The Charlotte Model Court, like other model courts and courts generally, had historically struggled with the removal of “silos” among court-related stakeholders so that true change and the best possible outcomes could be gained for the youth in foster care. While earlier stakeholders had resisted acting in partnership to create and maximize positive and sustained outcomes and functioned in silos protecting their own territories, the Charlotte Model Court has forged collaborations among stakeholders. As stakeholders found that collaboration did not necessarily mean significant territorial loss but did often result in significant successful outcomes, collaboration gained greater footing. One of those positive outcomes has been the successful collaboration to address one purpose of the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008: educational stabilization.

No matter what our profession or stage in life may be, we all can easily recall some time or point or person who impacted our life in school. School was a major part of our lives, and the significant role that school played in our lives—beyond the academic aspect—is no different for children in foster care. One purpose of the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 (Fostering Connections Act) is to create educational stability for children in care. Specifically, the act directs that that funding be provided to pay for transportation to the child’s “school of origin” and that each school- age child is enrolled full-time. Although the Fostering Connections Act directs that funding be provided to pay for this transportation, North Carolina’s legislation does not provide for the monies for such to be done. That’s where the collaboration comes into play.

As state and local budget issues continue to arise, any monetary responsibilities for individual stakeholders are becoming areas of concern for all the stakeholders, especially the Department of Social Services, custodian for the children in foster care, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) System, provider of the educational services for those same children in public school. The courts were very clear that it was in the best interest of the child to have “educational stability” because oftentimes that might be the only level of stability for a child who has been removed from his/her home and family. It was frightening that the only area of stabilization for a child in foster care that might still exist would be the child’s school – one place of familiarity and stability, and it was now in jeopardy.

Considering the budget landscape, it would be easy for either of the key stakeholders (DSS and CMS) to have very legitimate limitations in enacting the act requirements. This became a clear example of how effective collaboration efforts can be. In reviewing its data, the Department of Social Services (DSS) was able to identify which children fell into the category for need for transportation to their school of origin. Upon that determination, DSS was able to communicate with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS), which had agreed to provide the transportation necessary for the child to remain in the most appropriate school. DSS, in undertaking its financial responsibility to provide for educational stability, was able to re-prioritize its budget to cover the cost of transportation.

 In addition to addressing the financial aspect of the transportation to the school of origin, the communication between the stakeholders led to other strategies, including greater active efforts by DSS to develop more foster homes to allow for placement of children in their school-of-origin home zones so that the children would remain in their home-school area without the need for other transportation to get the children back to their school of origin. It has also been an educational opportunity for all of the stakeholders to better understand how the school of origin has such a tremendous impact on children.

To say that collaboration is trendy and makes no real difference in how stakeholders proceed is clearly short-sighted. Addressing the need for educational stability for youth in foster care through the collaboration of the courts, child welfare and the school system is an excellent example of collaboration at its best.

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