Dallas, TX – Suzanne Sprague, KERA 90.1 Reporter: Each year in Tarrant County, the lives of some 2,000 children are painstakingly investigated and analyzed. These are the children state officials have reason to believe are abused or neglected. And if Child Protective Services deems their home is unsafe, then these children can be removed by the courts.
Gloria Corder, Child Protective Services: The first option a lot of times is to place these children in a licensed facility. That may be a foster home. It may be a shelter. It might be some kind of a therapeutic setting for a child.
Sprague: But Gloria Corder, a program director with Child Protective Services, says children can be left in limbo for upwards of a year while parents and CPS workers battle in court. The better solution, says Corder, is placing the child with a member of his or her extended family. But that option has its problems as well.
Corder: What typically happens is we're in a crisis situation. Children have to be removed quickly. Our first source of information is the parents. Well, the parents may be in a very upset state. They may be very hostile to our agency because of those circumstances. They may not share information with us about family members early on.
Sprague: Also, the courts may not have the personnel to locate a loving grandparent or other family member. Enter family group conferencing.
Judge Jean Boyd, Tarrant County: Family group conferencing originated out of New Zealand. And I heard about it a few years ago when I was attending a judicial conference.
Sprague: Family District Court Judge Jean Boyd applied for a $56,000 federal grant to fund a one-year pilot program in Tarrant County. The money will help locate extended family members when necessary and pay for an independent person to negotiate an agreement between the family and state workers about the abused child's future.
Judge Boyd: What we're hoping to accomplish in these cases is to find a permanent home for children as soon as possible.
Sprague: The family group conferencing pilot program will be run by Child Advocates of Tarrant County, a court-appointed agency. Nancy Fisher is the executive director.
Nancy Fisher, Child Advocates of Tarrant County: The conference itself will mainly be made up of family members or guests that the families invited, maybe a neighbor or someone that's very close to them as a family. And then the possibility of the facilitator, maybe the CPS worker. But it's going to be, hopefully, a very non-threatening type of meeting.
Corder: So what this program is doing is taking us back to a more community practice.
Sprague: Again, Gloria Corder.
Corder: It causes us, or forces us really, to look at strengths in families, rather than just their deficits, and to use those strengths for the good of the children.
Sprague: In fact, advocates of this program hope extended family members will take the opportunity to pressure abusive or neglectful parents into changing how they treat their children, almost like a drug intervention, so that the family can be reunified. Still, Nancy Fisher acknowledges family group conferencing will not work in many child abuse cases.
Fisher: We will see probably 15-20% of the cases that are going to be appropriate for family group conferencing. The ultimate goal may not be family reunification. But at least we know we've given it a chance.
Sprague: Fisher says the program should be in place by July 1st. If it is successful, she's hoping Tarrant County will pay for it when the grant runs out. For KERA 90.1, I'm Suzanne Sprague.