Heather Boisvert, whose two youngest daughters were taken into foster care in 2018, was among the first to utilize the Connecting Grounds’ Family Connections Center.
The center offers biological parents and their children in foster care a safe and homey place for their weekly supervised visits.
The Family Connections program is the brainchild of Holly Madden, who serves as its director and is a worship leader with the Connecting Grounds church.
In addition to supervising visits at no cost, Madden and a team of volunteer supervisors provide support and advocacy for the bio-families and their children who are in foster care.
For Boisvert, having people supporting and encouraging her as she worked to get her kids back “was everything.”
“You’re on a low. You’re feeling down on yourself. You are going through recovery — mentally, emotionally, physically. (Madden) just gave me hope. They all did. Everybody there gave me hope and made me feel like I can do this.” Boisvert said. “They just made you feel so welcome, and they never judged you. They just rooted for you, and it was an awesome place.”
Boisvert graduated from Greene County’s Family Treatment Court and was able to be reunified with her daughters. They now live in Oregon near family, and Boisvert works as a certified nursing assistant.
She has been clean for three years.
“Holly’s program, and even that court program, it really did change me once I trusted it and did the whole process,” Boisvert said. “They weren’t out to get me. I just think they’re a great program to really straighten out your life and make you back to (your) potential.”
Heather Boisvert’s young daughters wound up in foster care a few years ago as she struggled with substance use disorder, domestic violence and homelessness. Her story illustrates the hard work required of parents seeking to be reunified with children.
Greene County Juvenile Judge Andy Hosmer Hosmer focuses on reunification of foster children and their biological parents — and on providing the opportunity for unsupervised visits when it is safe for kids.
The Family Connections Center is located in a house at 4347 W. Chestnut Expressway, next to the Connecting Grounds’ church. Like any home, the center is filled with comfy chairs and couches, games and activities, a kitchen and dining room. A playground set and picnic table sit in the large, fenced backyard.
Families who are referred by the Children’s Division to the Family Connections program are those with the goal of reunification — not bio-parents who have pending criminal charges involving a child or other serious reasons why reunification is not on the table.
“We work with families who typically what they’re struggling with is poverty-related issues,” Madden said. “We see a lot of drug addiction. We see a lot of domestic violence, a lot of homelessness.
“We see a lot of single parents who maybe they couldn’t figure out how to pay for child care and so they were leaving their kids with someone who maybe was deemed unsafe later on,” she said.
Prior to the creation of the Family Connections program, Greene County bio-parents and their children in foster care were limited to having their visits in public places like libraries and parks. The center now gives them a chance to spend time together in a home-like setting.
Trained volunteers are matched with each family to provide the required supervision for the visits. They meet at the same time every week for an hour or two, Madden explained.
The volunteers also become part of the bio-parent’s Family Support Team, which includes Children’s Division and foster care case managers; a Guardian ad Litem (lawyer for the child); counselors and staff from the parent’s treatment program; deputy juvenile officers; and the judge.
Madden worked closely with Greene County Children’s Division to develop the curriculum for the volunteer training.
The volunteer supervisors also provide detailed notes about the visits for the Family Support Team meetings and attend court hearings when invited.
“We get a chance to listen to them when they’re frustrated or need to vent,” Madden said. “We get a chance to, you know, help make connections to other resources in our community.”
“We get a chance to really know them, and we get to love them,” she said. “And we get to do that in a very neutral territory.”
Madden believes it is important to show empathy to biological parents who are working hard to get their kids. Almost all of the bio-moms Madden has worked with have two consistent traits, she said: They’ve all experienced significant trauma in their past, often in their own childhood, and they don’t have a safe, healthy support system.
“My heart is that they use this opportunity to find a way to heal and get the help and support they deserve,” Madden said. “Nobody deserves to live with the impact of trauma without having access to those things that so many of us are privileged to.”
Family Connections offers an after-care program for families who have been reunified with their children. This includes monthly visits for up to a year by the program’s volunteers to bring groceries, help connect to resources if there are needs, and to offer support as the family works through the transition.
The program is currently able to serve about 15 families. Madden said she has a waiting list and gets requests to add families several times a week. All services are free to the bio-families, thanks to Connecting Grounds’ donors.
Madden said she is working with two other churches in Springfield that are interested in hosting a Family Connections program in their buildings. She also needs more volunteer supervisors for the program at the Connecting Grounds.
“Our heart is to, honestly, expand this program so that there is access,” she said, “that we would just have churches all around our city, that there would be different times and days and weekends. Right now, I desperately need help on the weekends because Saturdays (are) huge. It’s the perfect day for visits, but it’s hard to find supervisors and volunteers.
“If any church is just like, ‘Hey, we have this space. We have some volunteers that have a heart for this,’ then I would love to just talk with them,” she added.
‘The idea kind of came to me’
Madden, a worship leader with the Connecting Grounds church, came up with the idea for the Family Connections program a few years ago when she and her husband were foster parents to a little boy.
“We knew he needed a safe place to just come and be loved on and cared for,” Madden said.
“We knew we would fall in love with him. We both have a huge heart for kids who have to go through hard things,” she continued. “What I didn’t realize was how much I would fall in love with his mom or his family.”
Like other kids in foster care who could potentially be reunified with their biological parent, the child Madden was fostering had weekly supervised visits with his bio-mom. They would meet at parks, the library or just walk around the mall.
“I remember one night I picked him up from the mall, and he got in my car and he just started crying,” she recalled. “He’s like, ‘I just want to watch a movie with my mom and curl up on a couch with her.’”
As they drove home that night, Madden said she and the boy cried together. Then Madden’s own baby woke up and started crying, too.
“It was just one of those moments,” she said. “And I remember driving down the road and just seeing all of these churches on a Friday night at 8:30 that were dark and empty. The idea kind of came to me — like what if these spaces could be spaces where these families could just have the opportunity to hang out and heal?”
Madden approached Bob Love and Pastor Christie Love with the Connecting Grounds church about her idea to create a more homey and private place for supervised visits. The Loves were thrilled to provide a space for Madden’s program.
“We launched in January of 2019,” Madden said. “We were able to start with one family and quickly, quickly grew. … I had a waiting list of I think 23 families at one point.”
How the program is funded
As its program director, Holly Madden is the only paid staff member with the Family Connections program. The 20 foster care visit supervisors are all volunteers.
The program was initially housed inside the Connecting Grounds’ former building on Commercial Street. The Connecting Grounds was a nondenominational church when it launched in 2018, but in 2020 the church was invited to join the Disciples of Christ denomination.
At the time, the Disciples of Christ owned property at 4341 W. Chestnut Expressway that included an empty church building and a small house. The Disciples of Christ gifted that property to the Connecting Grounds for a dollar, Madden said.
The church building is now Connecting Grounds’ home, and the small house serves as the Family Connections Center.
Any other expenses associated with the Family Connections program — like utilities, furniture, toys, games and snacks — are funded 100 percent by donations to the church, Madden said.
How you can help
The Family Connections program at the Connecting Grounds church needs both volunteers to supervise visits between foster kids and their biological parents, and more churches that will allow their buildings to be used for visits. To learn more about either of these opportunities, email Madden at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (417) 986-2552.
Find more information and a volunteer application at theconnectinggrounds.com/volunteer.