Twenty-five years ago, a small group of dedicated volunteers in Fort Bend County identified an enormous problem and would soon bring about vital change for children who were being abused. Children were languishing and falling through the cracks of the child welfare and legal systems and not getting the attention and help they so desperately needed. These visionary leaders responded by forming Child Advocates of Fort Bend in 1991 and opening a Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) Program to provide a voice for children in foster care and ensure that their “best interests” were being served. With one child and a few volunteers, they launched what would eventually become one of the most respected nonprofit agencies in the country providing comprehensive services for all children who are victims of abuse or neglect.
In 1996, we expanded our services and opened our Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC) to serve children who are alleged victims of sexual abuse, severe physical abuse and witnesses to crime. The CAC is a safe, child-friendly setting where children receive forensic interviews, family advocacy, therapy and mental health services, case coordination and criminal court advocacy services. We refer children to an off-site health clinic for medical examinations.
The year 2005 was a pivotal time in the agency’s development of customized, age-specific programming. The CASA team was selected to pilot the national Zero To Three Program which focused on expediting permanency plans for infants and toddlers. The successful results prompted CAFB to implement and expand this service under the new moniker Infant and Toddler Program for children up to five years old. The program has seen a 37% increase in the number of children served in the last 5 years and it has helped 175 children reach permanency through family reunification, relative placement and adoption in that time period.
Also in 2005, the agency formed WINGS to focus on educational and life skills training for teenagers who will likely remain in foster care until they “age out” between 18 – 21 years old. In the first class, 35% graduated high school, and today, 100% of seniors graduate high school and 80-90% enroll in higher education. We also opened therapy and mental health services by hiring the first therapist.
In 2009, responding to the steady rise in the number of Spanish-speaking clients, the CAC hired bilingual staff. This major milestone led to adding four more bilingual staff and today, all services are provided in both English and Spanish. The number of children utilizing bilingual services is expanding exponentially and is up 325% over last year.
To close the age gap between the Infant and Toddler Program and WINGS, the N.E.S.T. Program was introduced. Serving children ages 6-13 years old, N.E.S.T. focuses on building strong foundations in education and strengthening social skills.
Over the years, Child Advocates of Fort Bend added staff, recruited and trained volunteers and created new services. Beginning with just one child and one program, our CASA and CAC programs have grown to serve over 400 children every month. Today, we are an umbrella agency providing a full range of services through these two nationally-affiliated programs. Last year, we served 1581 children and families. Since 1991, 14,000 children have benefitted from the services of Child Advocates of Fort Bend and 1038 volunteers have been trained and deployed to advocate for children.
We operate under a Multi-Disciplinary Team model where we collaborate with 40 partner agencies. Many of our partners are co-housed with us onsite to facilitate our child-center, community-based approach. Our staff of 35 professionals is supported by over 200 volunteer advocates and governed by a 30-member Board of Directors. Two Advisory Councils provide program expertise.
Since it is estimated that only 1 in 10 children come forward to disclose sexual abuse, there are still many children in desperate need of the services Child Advocates of Fort Bend provides. As Fort Bend County grows, so also will the demand for services. Because of this, increased outreach efforts to build awareness of abuse and how to overcome it as a community are critical. The agency will continue to be at the forefront of this movement.