CAFAF Celebrates 25 Years Of Support For Foster And Adoptive Families
Child welfare systems don't function well without families to care for the children who are removed from their homes due to neglect or abuse so serious that it endangers child safety. Without foster and adoptive families, the system would be entirely institutional - children living only in group settings operated by organizations whose staff come at the start of a shift and leave at its end. Children would have no family to live with.
"Without foster parents, we would only have children living in institutions," said Margaret Doherty, executive director of the Connecticut Alliance of Foster and Adoptive Families (CAFAF), which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. "Kids should not have to live like that, if it can be avoided."
Indeed in years past, the Department had grown reliant on institutional settings -- with about one in five children living in congregate care or about the same share that lived with relatives or kin. A shift toward moving children to live with relatives and kin has reversed that trend so that now only about 7 percent of children in care are not living in a family, and more than 40 percent of children are living with relatives and kin.
For the Department to continue to build on that success, the families who foster and adopt must be supported in what is often a complex and challenging role of caring for a child who has experienced loss and trauma.
That's where CAFAF steps in.
Incorporated in 1995 under a different name and granted non-profit status later that year, CAFAF opened an office in Hartford, established a newsletter and offered meeting and training opportunities for foster parents. The next year, the organization expanded services to include post-licensure training, a 24-hour telephone support line, and a "Buddy Program" that uses experienced foster parents as mentors for new ones. That year, CAFAF also hired liaisons assigned to Department regional offices to help support foster parents locally. In 1998, CAFAF moved to its current location in Rocky Hill.
Services continued to expand as the years passed:
- Providing support groups, home studies for respite care, an annual conference and satisfaction survey, retention events, and helping the Department host open houses (2003);
Serving as the point of contact for the Department's KID-HERO recruitment line (2005);
Hosting the "Avenue of Dreams" prom event for adolescent girls (2009) and co-hosting the Department's first statewide Kinship Care Conference (2015); and
Expanding post-licensure training to include several online modules (2019).
Despite taking on so many responsibilities, Ms. Doherty said the organization has slimmed down staffing since she took the lead role in 2012 after representing CAFAF as one of her private law practice clients. There are now 23 staff members with one vacancy, and nearly all of them have experience as a foster or adoptive parent.
"We know what it's like," she said. "If you are having a hard time, you can call us and unload, and we can honestly say we know what you are feeling."
That real-life experience is present on the CAFAF board of directors as well. Gary Gizowski, the CAFAF board president, is an adoptive father who himself received the organization's support.
"CAFAF was an invaluable source of support and guidance during the adoption process for my daughter, Brynn," Mr. Gizowski said. "They made the experience very human and personal."
He said serving families needs to continue to be front and center going forward. "My vision for CAFAF is to strengthen its ability to be that 'one stop shop' for all foster and adoptive families in Connecticut -- giving them the necessary advocacy, education and support they need in caring for Connecticut's foster and adoptive children."
In addition to leadership and staff with lived experience, Ms. Doherty also credited a strong relationship with the Department as a basis for the organization's success. She said the current administration under Commissioner Vannessa Dorantes has a strong appreciation of how difficult it can be for a family to live with the bureaucratic rules and processes that come from licensing and oversight by any government institution. Ms. Doherty also said she knows from foster family support organizations in other jurisdictions that many do not receive a lot of help or assistance from their government child welfare agencies.
"There are states that don't give any support to their foster parent organization," Ms. Doherty said, noting that some jurisdictions don't even share information regarding who is licensed or whose license has expired with the support group.
She also noted that Department social workers are committed to the children on their caseloads. "I know of a lot of kids in DCF care who are emotionally connected to their social workers," she said. "I want to give credit where credit is due."
Foster and adoptive parents have their own stories about life-long connections. Some former children in care of a foster parent will connect with them again years later - including some who are now parents themselves.
"It's amazing, the kids who were their foster kids and are now adults who keep in touch with them and seek their advice," Ms. Doherty said. "It is very endearing. Relationships matter. We can have systems. But what really makes it all work is relationships."
CAFAF also strengthens Connecticut's foster care system by building relationships through the "Buddy" program that offers 30 to 40 experienced foster/adoptive parents to serve as mentors for newly-licensed parents. The mentors are assigned to the new families for six months, which can be extended, and the "buddies" check in with them once a week to see how things are going and if they need any assistance, advise or just understanding.
This is CAFAF's 25th Anniversary of providing such support, and, like everyone and everything else, the celebration of this landmark is being altered by COVID-19. Its annual conference, normally celebrated in May to coincide with National Foster Care Month, is being postponed until October. CAFAF is celebrating the anniversary by posting stories about foster and adoptive families on its website, and it also launched a new logo commemorating 25 years of service.
CAFAF keeps its focus not on itself, however, but on the families it serves. It is not easy to find new families, and CAFAF wants the public to know that there is no requirement that foster/adoptive parents be married.
Especially because it is not easy to recruit new families, Ms. Doherty said existing foster/adoptive families should be treated like precious gold.
"These are wonderful people who say 'I want to take care of kids and make sure they are safe so that relatively soon this little kid can go back to be with mom or dad or both of them,'" she said. "You will always need families who can tell kids that they can be in our home and you will be safe."