Psychological Safety Found Across the Country
After sending 30-40 text messages a day, a goodbye party with their family at a local restaurant, an emotional airport sendoff, 9 hours of flight time and retrieving 13 bags of luggage, two siblings ran into the arms of kin and found permanency - in Alaska!
It was a journey to get here. A story at times almost not believable or practical. Despite the difficulties, "Team Waterbury" and the devoted efforts of Social Worker Brittney Kilfeather made it all happen.
"In theory, everything we do builds a foundation for our families," stated Brittney. These are not simply words. They exemplify the values and principles which have guided Brittney's work over the past six years.
Providing supports to adolescents in the care and custody of the Department can be a challenging task. It takes skill, patience, and an understanding of how the effects of childhood trauma manifest themselves in school truancy, risky behaviors, running away, disrupted placements, difficulty engaging with supports and lack of trust in adults.
Yet, the Department has seen great success with our adolescent population thanks to the tremendous efforts of the staff who serve them as evidenced by this story.
For the two siblings Brittney supported, each day over the past 23 months brought with it a new twist and turn.
She never gave up.
"I will always tell you the truth," Brittney told the youth in their countless conversations about options for permanency. "I will not be here forever. My job is to provide them with the knowledge which will guide them in making healthy decisions," she stated.
These siblings, along with many others in the foster care system, have allegiances to their birth parents. "Our work is not about severing relationships. It's about building positive ones," Brittney stated. The birth family and extended family members were made part of the plans to support these youth and maintain those connections while they were in our care and custody.
The collaboration and engagement with the family proved beneficial as the children were placed in multiple kinship placement throughout their time in care. These particular placements were not in a position to achieve permanency with the children; however, they continue to maintain a strong, daily connection with them and serve as a part of the children's natural supports.
Recently, one family member contacted the Department and offered to be a kinship placement despite the knowledge of some pretty substantial barriers, namely, being a resident of Alaska and ineligible at that time for licensing.
They maintained contact with the two siblings, became a visiting resource, developed a relationship with the youths' foster mother and was given permission to sleep at the foster home during short stays when they were in town.
"I am a huge concurrent planner," Brittney stated. "We always kept this person in the back of our minds." They were not ruled out as a potential kinship provider.
Brittney realized the siblings needed more and were unable to fully embrace the supports offered. "You are never going to be able to do anything, therapy, etc. until you feel psychologically safe," Brittney stated. "Kids need a real connection to their birth family and their identity to have that psychological safety. You can't move out of your comfort zone if you don't have a comfort zone."
In her experiences, Brittney has seen the positive effects of kinship placements. She believes that when children and youth are placed with kin, it takes the pressure off them needing to be perfect. "Kids know they have these traumatic experiences," Brittney stated. "They feel the responsibility to do better and behave well and make it easier on the parents." When placed with kin, the youth may take comfort that their parents know where they are and that they are okay. "They don't have to worry about me, I am with family and now they can worry about themselves and their own goals," she articulated what the child may feel about their placement.
The family member began to pursue licensing in their home state and continued to express their desires to care for the siblings. An inquiry again was made as to what it would take to have the siblings placed.
This prompted Brittney to have another pointed permanency conversation to ensure that the resource had a good understanding of the children's short-term and long-term goals. The permanency options were explained one more time to the siblings as she also answered their questions. "Can you explain the differences again, and what they mean?" Brittney stated was a common response she received.
The family agreed - pursue placement!
From that point on, it took coordination from multiple people within DCF to put the plan into action. Brittney describes Amanda Nowak in the CT ICPC office as "phenomenal." Chris Donelan and Kim Watson in Fiscal were described as "wonderful."
The siblings were anxious. "One sibling texted all day every day," Brittney stated. The texts just kept coming.
All approvals were granted and supports were arranged. Time to go!
Brittney had the car packed the night before, and along with Social Worker Julianne Chacho, brought the girls to say goodbye to their family who then followed them to the airport to hug them one more emotional time. The family was in support of the plan - allowing the siblings to feel even more positive about their future.
The flights were long and in typical sibling fashion, they needed to be separated to allow some "space." But overall, they were very excited about this new adventure.
Upon arrival, the siblings saw their family member, ran downstairs, and the three joined in a group hug.
They had a quick tour of the house and found the bedrooms already set up as they played with the family dogs.
Brittney described feeling "an overwhelming sense of relief."
Over the next couple of days, the siblings texted Brittney first thing in the morning. They all went site seeing, ate dinner and went to watch the whales at sunset.
"It was heartwarming to see these two wonderful young people embrace this new life for themselves. A life which they helped choose," Brittney affirmed. The siblings had a voice when it came to these decisions. They decisions were not made for them but in partnership with the siblings and family.
It was time to leave and let the family settle into being a family - for that psychological safety to begin to develop.
Brittney had one additional thought- she had to write the narrative for the trip to document each and every of this multi-day problem.
"I just finished the narrative," she remembers Julie saying as they walked out of the family's home.
"Julie had already been documenting the details since the adventure started the day prior, ensuring that she captured every aspect of the trip in real time," Brittney stated.
Since placement, Brittney has maintained consistent contact with the family. The siblings are described as "doing phenomenally" and adjusting well.
Plans are underway to transfer guardianship.
"Brittney is a fantastic social worker who puts 100% effort in every family that comes across her desk. I am always amazed by her level of professionalism, her ability to pull people together, and her ability to connect to her families. As exemplified in this story, she is the consummate advocate for all the children on her caseload," stated Social Work Supervisor Mark Williams.
This was a long journey. For the rest of their lives, this family will forever feel the diligent and determined efforts of someone who never gave up on them.
Congratulations to Brittney and Team Waterbury for this tremendous success!
*Identifying information in this story have been slightly altered in order to protect the confidentiality of the family.