“Now we are looking at the future and all there is to come... All of our million dreams we have for our family.”
Families in our foster care programs come together each year to celebrate with a picnic at Locke Park in Fridley, Minnesota.
This year’s picnic was extra special because it was adoption day for Eloise.
Eloise was placed into foster care at just seven months old and spent more than 665 days in placement. To this day, Justin and Ashley still don’t know what events led to her birth family losing custody or what life was like for her in those early days. They only know that her original foster home eventually had its licensed revoked, and when Eloise arrived at the Cassens’ at 14 months old, she couldn’t walk or talk and ate everything in sight. “She was ravenous,” remembered Ashley. “She would eat anything you put in front of her.” “It was like she didn’t know where her next meal was coming from,” Justin added.
At that time, Ashley and Justin were new to the foster care system. Still, they had already seen the ways its children and families were falling through the cracks. “Our first placement was a 4-week-old infant,” Ashley said. “We had him for two months and then he was gone the next day. At that stage of development, that’s so hard on the baby.” Justin agreed. “It’s your job to keep them safe,” he said, “but then you have no control and no say. You can’t do your job.”
Their second placement was different. That time they provided care for two of four siblings for about seven months. They kept a communication log with the birth mother and formed a close bond with her in caring for the children. “We were rooting really hard for her,” Ashley said. “You could see how much she and the kids loved each other.” Still, when the case was over, and it was time for reunification, Ashley and Justin were concerned. They knew their mother still needed more support, despite how much she loved her children. “Mom was not set up for success,” Ashley said. “There were no trial home visits. She only saw them one hour a week. She went from zero children to four children in one day.”
The siblings ended up back in the system a few months later, returning to the Cassens’ care. This time it was a bit harder. They had to face the fact that mom might lost custody. Once again, news came that the children would be going to a new placement in less than 24 hours. “It was heart-wrenching. It’s so hard for the children. We say, ‘I love you’ all the time, and then they’re just gone.”
Because of their experience, Ashley and Justin were eager to get involved with the Quality Parenting Initiative (QPI), a statewide project co-led by St. David’s Center’s Senior Director of Treatment and Foster Care, Kate Rickord, MA, LP. In conjunction with ApsireMN, eleven private foster care agencies from throughout the state committed to bringing QPI to Minnesota in response to racial disparities and high rates of re-entry into the child protection system. The Cassens call their experience “enlightening.” “Before you start fostering, you assume you’re going to want every child in your home forever,” Ashley said. “But once you’re in it, your eyes are opened to how important the relationship [with the birth family] is.”
Ashley and Justin have been active members on several QPI committees, including the Information Sharing Committee, to improve communication between birth and foster families, and the Transitions Committee, to ease transitions from one home to another so there are no more heartbreaks. “These issues are close to our hearts,” said Justin. “We’ve seen how hard it is for the child, for everyone involved. With our first placement, we were given just his birthdate and a name, and even that was wrong.” Ashley added, “QPI brings [the child] back into focus. People always say, ‘Oh, you do foster care. I bet you have some crazy stories.’ I hope that that stigma goes away, and it has a more positive effect on people.”
Next January, Ashley and Justin will travel to New Orleans to take part in a national QPI conference. “QPI gives us hope,” said Ashley. “Minnesota has a lot that needs to happen to make [foster care] better, and we hope QPI is the thing that does it.”
As for Eloise? Today, she’s your average two-and-a-half-year-old.
“She’s a picky eater and she’s super active,” said Ashley. “Her development has just sprung forward. She’s really bright and has an amazing memory.” Now that they are officially a family, the Cassens plan to take some time off to just be together. They celebrated the adoption with a family trip to the Wisconsin Dells where Eloise’s new aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents joined them. “Eloise is a little fish,” said Ashley. “She just loves the water.”
Later this fall, they plan to do some camping and to finally decide on their first family Halloween costumes. We asked Eloise what she wanted to be this year, and right away she answered, “Greatest Showman.”
“All three of us listen to that soundtrack all the time,” said Ashley. “We sang, ‘A Million Dreams’ together in the car on the way home from [adoption] finalization. There were tears just streaming down our faces,” she remembered. “Now we are looking at the future and all that there is to come. All of our million dreams we have for our family.”