Elizabeth Trejos-Castillo has made strides for foster youth. Now, she hopes to build parenting skills that will support parents involved in court-ordered supervised visitations.
Toys are stacked on tables. Flowy curtains fall from windows.
Wall murals, featuring a rainbow, a dinosaur in a birthday hat or hot air balloons, add the intent of a cheery atmosphere to each room in the building.
But as Elizabeth Trejos-Castillo can share from her observations, it takes a lot more than the warm accommodations Lubbock County's Office of Dispute Resolution (ODR) provides to make court-ordered supervised visitations feel comfortable.
“It's an artificial environment in the sense they are not interacting at home, a park or somewhere that would be a natural environment,” Trejos-Castillo said. “They may not be able to enjoy their time together the same way with other people looking at them.”
Trejos-Castillo knows – she is one of those people doing the looking, but not in person as a monitor. Rather, she is analyzing video recordings as part of a $15,000 grant she helped the ODR receive from the Texas Bar Foundation at the end of November, to explore and develop parenting skills for those who have court-ordered supervised visitations.
“This work is very close to my heart,” Trejos-Castillo said. “It is a good opportunity for us to not only provide service to the families but also build long-lasting relationships with the parents and children that will benefit them both.”
Trejos-Castillo rises to this challenge through one of her many roles served on the Texas Tech University campus. She is the vice provost for International Affairs and C.R. Hutcheson professor in Human Development and Family Sciences (HDFS) within the College of Human Sciences. She also is a clinical psychologist by training and a developmental psychologist who runs the HDFS Positive Youth Development (PYD) Lab.
Her PYD Lab allows undergraduate and graduate students to gain national and international hands-on experience researching positive and negative impacts on youth development – an area Trejos-Castillo has 30 years of experience in. She works closely with collaborators in the local community, across the state, throughout the nation and around the world – in Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, Colombia, Honduras, India, Norway, Sweden and Spain – to support the well-being of youth.
“My research, teaching and service have been shaped by diverse life experiences and by the people who have made those experiences possible,” Trejos-Castillo explained. “I have lived in different countries and cultures and, thus, I seek to discover what lies beneath our multidimensional lives, to improve and advance the lives of underserved youth, and to serve the community and society at large.”
Discovering a Worldwide Problem
In 2016, Trejos-Castillo visited São Paulo, Brazil, for a week along with other researchers to examine the effects of toxic stress on the brain development of children using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology. When Trejos-Castillo and the team analyzed that data, they discovered that unrelenting, unending trauma seeps into a child's brain development, alters their cognitive abilities and their ability to function.
“This is not a group of researchers' problem,” Trejos-Castillo said. “This is society's problem.”
The next year, she was named a Fulbright Scholar for the 2017-18 academic year to continue her work overseas. She conducted a cross-cultural comparison of the strengths and challenges of youth involved in the foster care system in Brazil and the potential differences and similarities with foster youth in the U.S.
"The reason I decided to conduct this project in Brazil, is that the United States and Brazil, although they are the most developed countries in the American continent, report the highest number of children involved in the child welfare system,” Trejos-Castillo said.
Indeed, Trejos-Castillo's findings were very much applicable back home in Lubbock. At the time, she said Lubbock had one of the highest percentages of child abuse and neglect in Texas and in the country.
"My research focuses more directly on prevention,” Trejos-Castillo said, “I believe we would be able to solve numerous problems if we put a lot more resources into prevention.”
One of her main goals became to inform professionals, policymakers and people who work with foster youth about their particular needs, but also the commonalities across youth in general that could debunk many misconceptions and, unfortunately, wrong information about foster youth.
“When people think about foster youth, there are many stereotypes that come to mind,” Trejos-Castillo said. “They get labeled, they get bullied and they're blamed for things they did not do. They are victims of people who didn't take care of them in the first place – parents, caregivers – and they also become victims of the child welfare system.”
By 2018, Trejos-Castillo could share her related knowledge not only in person, but through two separate publications: “Youth: Practices, Perspectives and Challenges” she edited, and the “Handbook of Foster Youth” she co-edited.
“The ‘Handbook of Foster Youth' is the most comprehensive and state-of-the-art single-volume presentation of the foster care experience I have read,” said Ronald Saletsky, a professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the State University of New York Upstate Medical University. “Its scope is expansive and does justice to complexity, yet its unified approach and flow make it very readable. It will be of great interest to all professionals, including foster parents, who care for and make decisions about these children."
Local Outreach Through Research
Whether through her writing, lectures or research, Trejos-Castillo stays committed to helping others with limited resources and supporting at-risk youth who have limited options to improve their well-being.
“I have personally learned and confirmed over the years that relationships are key,” Trejos-Castillo said. “When children have a person who represents permanent relationship in their lives, it puts them on a more positive trajectory. Having a third person who guides and helps them build a sense of themselves will help them develop positive coping skills that will keep them in school, for example.”
That is just one instance of the extensive background knowledge that will help Trejos-Castillo navigate the ODR grant work.
That, and her personal experience as a mother of two sons, who could not imagine how difficult it would be to foster a relationship on a time constraint – especially without having the child at home, conversing over meals and being able to witness their likes, dislikes and other traits.
“Sometimes parents may not know what's going on in their child's life,” Trejos-Castillo said. “So, when we think about the timeframe they have available during supervised visitations, the two things we would like to accomplish is to build trust and positive communication while we can create an opportunity for them to play and have a good time together.”
Unfortunately, these less-than-ideal designated playdates are on the rise across the South Plains ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020.
“It seems the level of animosity has gone up between moms, dads and everybody else,” said ODR Director Gene Valentini. “For example, last year we received more subpoenas and requests to testify than we ever had in the nine years prior. Obviously, something's going on in high-conflict families.”
Valentini and Trejos-Castillo both strive to create better circumstances for children across the South Plains. They have undertaken several projects with the ODR over the years, such as using art therapy animation as an alternative diversion program for youth and young adults in legal trouble for relatively minor offenses.
Knowing she would not likely shy away from another challenge, Valentini asked Trejos-Castillo if she could address their most recent problem.
“Thankfully, Elizabeth was on board,” he said. “She was willing to help because she recognized the problems.”
When the Texas Bar Foundation grant review team read Trejos-Castillo's application that voiced the need for parenting skills resources, they were fully convinced.
As a member of the Texas Bar Foundation Board of Trustees, 237th District Court Judge Les Hatch attended the meeting in which they voted to accept, decline or reduce the ODR grant application.
Hatch abstained from the discussion and vote because of his connection to the ODR, but he was very pleased with the outcome.
“I can tell you that it was funded in full, which is rare because the number of requests far exceeds the amount of money available,” Hatch said.
For court-ordered supervised visitations to end, Hatch said he needs a parent or their lawyer to file a motion to modify: a request for him to change the visitation order followed by testimony that the situation has positively changed. Unfortunately, he said, this process is rarely completed.
This means temporary court-ordered supervised visitations are extending six months to a year or beyond. In fact, Valentini said the term has stretched to seven years for one parent.
“She has watched her daughter grow up at the facility,” he said.
But if Trejos-Castillo can use her research to prove the need for additional court-ordered parenting services to allow parent-child relationships to flourish, this would give Hatch some of the reassurance he needs from testimonies following a motion to modify the order.
“I would like to hear testimony such as, ‘I went to this program that Ms. Trejos-Castillo designed, and I have learned a lot and I agree now that it is hard on my kids, if not dangerous, to put them through what we were putting them through that caused me to be supervised in the first place,'” Hatch said. “I would agree that it would help if they have done more than just behave at the supervised visitation, because that's a very controlled environment.”
A Process to Improve Parenting
There is a lot on the line, but Trejos-Castillo lives by a motto: "We have to dream big and do the work."
Faced with a year deadline that began once the grant was received last fall, Trejos-Castillo and her team started right away. They planned their approach, then moved to recruiting parents to provide the free, voluntary service to evaluate their parenting and address ways to improve.
“Basically, we want parents to understand how they've improved, so they can see their progress,” Trejos-Castillo said. “We want them to see meaningful change and learn some skills they can use.”
Kristi Thompson, the ODR assistant director, appreciates the approach Trejos-Castillo is taking with the grant.
“I think we're able to make it a little bit more tailored to the family instead of a group,” she said. “It's not just saying, ‘Here's a box with your training, figure it out.'”
As Trejos-Castillo and her PYD Lab review the playbacks, their research will focus on how parents' mental health issues and toxic stress can affect interactions with their children. She reports that many of the families involved with supervised visitation have experienced some level of trauma that has probably been ignored and needs to be addressed.
“We want them to learn how to be able to deal with their personal anxiety and trauma,” she said, “or even some related mental health issues that will help them maximize time with their child.”
Even though some parents involved may face addictions and substance abuse, Trejos-Castillo said they deserve to share their background.
“We don't know if they were coming from a family that was disruptive, so they did not learn from a good example,” she said. “Maybe they didn't have a good relationship with their parents themselves. So, we need to shed some light on this instead of penalizing them because we have the wrong impression about them.”
The public stigma that mothers and fathers who find themselves in court-ordered supervised visitations are considered “bad parents” is a viewpoint Trejos-Castillo wholeheartedly disagrees with.
“There are so many different situations, so many different factors that play into why families are separated or why parents are not raising their child together,” she said. “Sometimes, it's because there is a lot of conflict, misunderstanding or miscommunication.”
Then, there is the fact Trejos-Castillo knows firsthand: inevitably, parenthood has struggles.
That is why she wishes to humanize the process, supporting parents rather than labeling or criticizing them.
“People can internalize embarrassment and feel inadequate,” she said. “They might feel like they don't have any confidence, like they're never going to be able to have their child back, and there's not going to be a normal relationship.”
Moving past those negative perspectives, Trejos-Castillo and her team will use the collected data to provide tools that will develop parenting skills and foster a positive relationship with children.
“The supervised visitation already is a complex situation, with the two parents being separated or the two parents not agreeing on so many different things,” Trejos-Castillo said. “We want to build the person up with self-reflection, self-assessment and also self-help, so they will be able to develop skills that will help them not only with their child, but also in their personal relationships, too.”
For example, parents will be discouraged from practicing unhealthy tactics during their visitation time, which could involve using the child as a messenger or trying to get information from them about their ex-partner. Each minute of their visit must be used wisely.
“It's basically about spending quality time with the child,” Trejos-Castillo said. “The philosophy behind this is that the child and parent can develop a positive relationship that will last for a long, long time.”
That is the goal that unifies Hatch, Valentini, Thompson and Trejos-Castillo, despite their different roles. They care enough about the high case volume of court-ordered supervised visitations to combat it.
While they have a long way to go, Trejos-Castillo and her team take a step forward each day as they focus on empowering parents to build the confidence they need to reach their full potential – moving the bond with their children far beyond the muraled walls of the ODR.
“When they build their self-esteem and self-reflection, those skills will last for a long time,” Trejos-Castillo said. “I feel like once a person can internalize and reflect on that, it becomes part of everything they do. This also is going to impact how the children grow up and eventually, maybe, how they parent their own children. So, the potential impact spans across generations.”