CFLE in Context: Advocating for Families in the School System

by Debbie Jensen, MS, CFLE
Content Area
Families and Individuals in Societal Contexts
Family Law and Public Policy

My working life as a CFLE involves daily contact with families and juveniles involved in truancy and other minor crimes, along with plenty of community outreach, networking with other service providers, and development of new resources.

Assisting and advising parents seems like a natural role for me, but it was a long, winding road that brought me here, beginning almost 15 years ago when I was a busy newspaper editor, vaguely unfulfilled by my work. While writing an article about local child advocates, I found myself asking for more information about how I could join them. Within a month I started training to become a volunteer to speak for the best interest of children in court; I never imagined this would be the catalyst toward a decade-long change of course that would lead to a master's degree in family studies, my designation as a CFLE, and a new direction for my vocation.

A few years after my volunteer start, I left the embattled newspaper industry and took a paid job as a case manager for child advocates, where I began to see the family with a new lens. I saw time and time again the role of parents in a child's life undervalued in court proceedings, and the family's influence on development slighted in policies and procedures of child welfare. Trainings I took on sexual abuse, attachment disorders, and learning differences caused me to want to know more about family communication, economics and human development. A few years later I opened another door into the child welfare system as my husband and I became foster parents. We eventually adopted two children -- increasing our blended family to eight members -- and my interest in the family field expanded again as I met often with therapists and caseworkers, attended trainings, and discussed developmental issues of drug-exposed children.

A few years later I enrolled at Texas Woman's University in the family studies master's program, where I learned I could also become a Certified Family Life Educator. Near the end of my studies, pondering internships, I was lucky to find a new program starting in my community for families of children charged with truancy and other misdemeanors. This led to my job, and since 2009 I have worked as Youth Field Rep for the Office of Dispute Resolution (ODR), based in Lubbock, Texas.

ODR offers many programs, but mine uses mediation with parents and children to seek out the root cause of delinquent acts such as failure to attend school. Families meet with a trained mediator and form an agreement to address problems through tasks such as parent involvement, career exploration, tutoring, counseling, special programs and/or volunteer work. In exchange, they receive reduced fines and punishments; we monitor them throughout a three- to six-month period, offering support and holding them accountable for changes they agreed to make.

My job involves intake and follow-up with the referred families; I try to locate the resources they need, and I also communicate regularly with judges and school personnel who are our referral sources, finding out their expectations and dealing with any problems. Last year I was trained as a mediator so I conduct some of the sessions myself, along with three other mediators -- two retired from careers in teaching and social work, and the third, a practicing attorney.

Every day I meet families struggling with needs from economic to emotional -- divorce, death of a parent, substance abuse and mental illness being common. The best part of my job is being able to find a resource that can help, or hearing from parents that their time with us was beneficial. I have enjoyed compiling and creating a number of handouts on various topics for families and young people, and I am always pleased to find them being used.

The most difficult part of my job is the reality that there are often not enough resources, and that there are barriers to services such as inflexible hours at agencies when many parents work shifts at the local prisons or long hours in the oilfield. We also meet many angry or embarrassed parents, and we look for creative ways to encourage families to follow through with plans once they have left our office.

This issue of Network focuses on advocacy, and that is exactly how I spend my work hours. I advocate daily for juveniles and families who need services. You might find me speaking to the truancy officer, asking that citations not be issued in one case or that clients be given more time. I might be on the phone with other school staff, seeking special treatment for a student, such as admission to alternative programs or even a bus to school. I advocate with other community agencies who try to bring needed resources to our city (for example, Big Brothers, Big Sisters is hoped to be organized here within the year).

I advocate with judges and law enforcement, trying to show leaders the value of services and incentives for change rather than punishment for families and youth. I have advocated for families in general though radio interviews and newspaper articles, educating people about issues such as a youth curfew, school attendance laws, and car safety seats.

Finally, I try to foster self-advocacy, helping clients to set life goals or advising them about how to set up parent-teacher conferences, appeal a decision made by the school, or ask for something their child needs.

When Texas state funding cuts ended parenting programs for CPS in our community last spring, my tendency to advocate got me committed to a new volunteer position. With a friend who manages programming for a community center, I started a free, twice-monthly program using the Parenting Piece By Piece curriculum I found through NCFR. In addition, I teach the district court's divorcing class once a month at the local YMCA.

It's been fourteen years since I took the first step that would lead me to a new vocation. Today I find myself in transition again. My family is relocating to Denton, Texas, where I will be looking for another job in the family field. I don't know yet what path I will take, although I have some ideas. Certain though, is my commitment to advocacy for families and children, which I consider the backbone of my role as a Certified Family Life Educator.

Debbie L. Jensen, a graduate of Texas Woman's University with a master's in family studies, began as a provisional CFLE in February 2010 and earned full status in February 2012.