Community Awareness Event Hits Home The Need for CASA Volunteers

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There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. That was the general feeling on October 16 when guest speaker Tanisha Cunningham told her foster care story to community members who attended CASA’s annual Community Awareness event.

Tanisha grew up in New York City. Her earliest memory is of her mom telling her to wait on the steps of her project home and she would be right back. She was three years old. Tanisha’s mother never came back but the child welfare division did, beginning her long relationship with what Tanisha described as her “mother,” the city, and her “father,” the state. What happen to Tanisha over the next 16 years is, unfortunately, the rule instead of the exception.

In and out of foster care, Tanisha was returned to her mother too many times to count and endured abuse so violent that she wondered each day if it would be her last.

Each day she became more angry, until one day, when she was 13, she contemplated hitting her mother with a porcelain elephant and actually had the figurine in her hand when her mother turned around. Tanisha believes that someone was watching out for her, and her mother, that day. After her mother left that fateful day, so did Tanisha, putting what she could grab in a trash bag and running in the opposite direction away from her mother.

She thought her life would be better, away from the hands that did so much physical damage. But being a teenager landed her in a group home with other abused and abandoned youth instead of with a foster family who could have provided the guidance she needed. In the group home, the teens taught each other how to cope and manage the system. Tanisha recalled that nobody questioned the residents if they didn’t attend school, or rarely gave any guidance to prepare the youth for their future. Most vividly, she remembers being known only as her case number instead of her name. Something that made such an impression on her that she still recalls the number some 30 years later.

Fortunately, Tanisha made choices that positively affected her ability to survive after leaving the foster care system. Many of her peers were not as fortunate and became homeless, addicted to drugs or criminals. Tanisha recounts a day that she was taking a lunch break about a year after she started working. She hears someone call her name on the street and turns around, but doesn’t see anyone she recognizes. She continues walking, and hears her name again, this time when she turns a man is walking towards her. “Don’t you remember me?,” he asks. She still doesn’t recognize this man until he smiles and then she knows it is “Big Mike.” They spent time at the same group home and he was always a kind, quiet soul. But today he looked different, skinny, dirty, scratching and twitching, eyes darting back and forth. This was not the boy who Tanisha remembered.

“Look at you,” he said, “all professional. You’re one of the lucky ones.”

“I don’t consider myself lucky, Big Mike. I just took a different path than you.” Tanisha knew that she could have just as easily ended up in Big Mike’s shoes.

Had Tanisha and her peers had a CASA volunteer, Cunningham said, they would have been better prepared for living independently. Unfortunately, the CASA program was not available when Cunningham was in foster care. Thankfully, CASA programs operate all across the nation and in every county in New Jersey. With CASA volunteers paired with foster youth, we can give them an advocate, a voice and a chance to thrive.

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CASA Volunteer Advocates for Foster Child Born to Mother with Severe Mental Illnesses

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Borderline personality disorder. Asperger syndrome. Mood disorder not otherwise specified. Schizophrenia.

Rachel was diagnosed with these mental illnesses and disorders. Then she gave birth to her first son, Henry.

During Henry’s first year of life, Rachel was frightened by him. She heard him speak to her at length, even though his mouth was not moving, and she feared that he wanted to kill her. For almost an entire year, Rachel kept a barrier over her son’s crib so that she would not have to see him. She told her case worker that she hated Henry and wanted to hurt him, even though she knew she could not act on these feelings. To treat her mental illnesses, she took several different anti-psychotropic medications. But she also had a history of abusing heroin, marijuana, and alcohol, combinations that can be increasingly dangerous when paired with such powerful prescription medications.

After nearly a year of being neglected by his mother, the Division of Child Protection and Permanency removed Henry from his home and placed him into a caring foster home. Henry was a very intelligent boy, but it is not surprising that he had some behavioral problems, as he had spent a year in a neglectful home. Sometimes he banged his head against a wall if he did not get his way, and occasionally he would hit others when angry.

By age two, he entered daycare and did well socializing with other toddlers and following teachers’ instructions. Henry’s CASA volunteer, Kathy, was assigned to his case at this time. She visited him in his foster home and also spoke with teachers to make sure he was adjusting well and receiving the care he needed.

Because of Henry’s traumatic childhood, Kathy knew how important a permanent home would be for the boy. When she realized that Henry was starting to form bonds with his foster family, who had no intentions of adopting him, Kathy quickly advocated for him to be placed in a pre-adoptive foster home.

Thankfully, the family court judge agreed with Kathy’s recommendation and soon after, Henry was placed in a new pre-adoptive foster home with a young couple. The new foster family made a book for young Henry to teach him what it means to be adopted. “This is your new brother,” one of the pages read, with a photo of their young son.

At first, Henry was doing well in his new home and was getting along with his new brother. But a few months later, his pre-adoptive family indicated to Kathy that Henry’s behavioral changes were upsetting. The couple was concerned for the safety of their biological son, who Henry sometimes treated aggressively.

Unfortunately, the family felt they could no longer go through with the adoption process.

To many involved with Henry’s case, he was showing early signs of Asperger syndrome, an illness that affected his mother. However, all testing came back negative. Kathy does not believe Henry has any type of mental illness.

“I know that it is very easy to look at the record and say, ‘Oh, yeah, he’s probably got a mental illness,'” Kathy said. “I don’t think that’s fair. He was never given a chance to be who he is… he has been traumatized twice, first from his family and then from the system. He hasn’t been given any consistency or permanency for any aspect of his life. He has switched families, brothers; how can you evaluate a child’s mental health when there’s been no normalcy in his life?”

She believes his behavioral issues were related to the trauma he experienced since he was born. Kathy advocated for Henry to receive specific trauma therapy, which the judge ordered. Kathy said this therapy is helping him tremendously.

Now four years old, Henry is preparing to move out of state to live with a family friend. Kathy has spoken to his new adoptive mother, and she is fully aware of what Henry has been through and what he needs–specifically, the continuation of his therapy.

Most importantly, Kathy said, his behavioral modifications, put in place by his therapists, must be used by everyone in his life. “It has to be consistent. Parents need to use it; not just the school. Everyone has to know how to respond to him when he’s acting out,” Kathy said.

Kathy is hopeful for Henry’s new placement. “His [adoptive mother] seems very willing to cooperate… she is expecting a rocky transition; it’s not like she is going to be surprised if [he acts out], which I think is very good.”

Henry’s spirit hasn’t been broken thus far, Kathy added. “It really speaks volumes of what a survivor he is.”

Kathy is one of over 200 CASA Volunteers in Atlantic and Cape May Counties fighting for the rights of children living in foster care. CASA is central to fulfilling society’s most fundamental obligation by making sure a qualified, compassionate adult will fight for and protect a child’s right to be safe, to be treated with dignity and respect and to learn and grow in the safe embrace of a loving family. Join the Movement by calling CASA today at (609) 601-7800.

Kids Fit Final Mile 2013

Rainy weather did not stop nearly 100 children from participating in the annual Atlantic City Marathon Kids Fit Final Mile on Saturday, October 12. The one-mile run benefited CASA for Children of Atlantic and Cape May Counties.

Before the run, children had the opportunity to decorate their running bibs, get their faces painted, and interact with different mascots from the area, including McGruff the Crime Fighting Dog and the Law Enforcement Explorers, of the Cape May County Sheriff’s Office; Seaweed the Sea Turtle, of the Atlantic City Aquarium; the Red Raider, of Ocean City High School; Supercan, of the Atlantic County Utilities Authority; the Cat from WPUR Cat Country 107.3; The Brave, of Absegami High School; Ocean City’s Martin Z. Mollusk; and the Rain Forest Café’s Cha-Cha the Tree Frog.

Texas Avenue School of Atlantic City was a big supporter of this event for the second year in a row, with 50 students participating this year. It is an opportunity for the school to promote health and fitness, and several of the teachers set an example by running alongside their students. The students’ and teachers’ enthusiasm showed, as they held up signs as they ran, which read, “Texas Ave School Runs for CASA!” Their student Hrithik Mazumder, 12, finished in first place, carrying his Texas Avenue sign with him across the finish line.

Thank you to Texas Avenue School; our sponsor: the Atlantic County Council of Education Associations, all of our runners, and all of our wonderful volunteers, including 14 students from the Egg Harbor Township High School Interact Club.

Kids Fit Final Mile 2013

Kids Fit Final Mile 2013

Kids Fit Final Mile 2013

Kids Fit Final Mile 2013

Kids Fit Final Mile 2013

Kids Fit Final Mile 2013

Kids Fit Final Mile 2013

Kids Fit Final Mile 2013

Kids Fit Final Mile 2013

Kids Fit Final Mile 2013

Kids Fit Final Mile 2013