Forever Families Come in All Shapes and Sizes

From dedicated foster parents, to a biological grandmother single-handedly raising her grandchildren, it is a family’s love and support that makes them picture perfect. In Atlantic and Cape May counties, more than 1,000 children are living in foster care over the course of a year, and with the help of a CASA volunteer, lingering in the child welfare system is not an option.

back-light-black-background-business-907486Once a child is removed from their home due to abuse and neglect, three different outcomes can arise:  reunification, kinship legal guardianship, or adoption. Behind each court docket, a child is hoping for a forever family, and here are their stories, as told by their CASA volunteer.

Reunification
When CASA volunteer, Ann met the little boy on her case, he was in a body cast to properly mend his broken bones. After being injured at home, he was removed from his mother and placed in care with a cousin. “When I first got involved with the case, he was delayed in speech, mobility, and potty training,” Ann said. Reunification with his biological mother did not seem to be a viable option.

Ann ensured he received special services and was enrolled in special education classes. For the first time, he was not merely surviving but thriving. While he progressed, his biological mother was determined to have her child back home. “From parenting classes to counseling, she did everything she was advised to do,” Ann said. “She worked hard to get her boy back.”

CASA Ann continued to visit with the case workers, foster parents, and the biological mother, and despite the obstacles, reunification with mother and child became more than a hope – it became a reality. After much work and support, the boy’s mother was ready to make a home again for her son and he finally returned to his mother’s arms and his forever family. “Reunification is a good option when the parent and child have a warm, comfortable relationship, and the parent will do whatever it takes to get the child back,” Ann said. “Luckily in this case, his mother was once again able to provide a safe, loving home and I could fully support him being returned to her care.”

Kinship Legal Guardianship
As a cockroach crawled across her foot, CASA volunteer Kathy knew this was not a safe home for children. Brother and sister, ages 5 and 3, were removed from the bug-infested apartment and safe from their father’s drinking, after neighbors called child services. When CASA Kathy took the case the children were delayed mentally, and although they were safe in their grandmother’s home, they were still swatting away invisible bugs as they struggled to sleep. “The parents were not emotionally capable of caring for their children, and they would show up in preschool with diapers that were days old,” Kathy said.

The children adored their grandmother, and the transition to their new home was smooth, but parental visitations proved to be problematic. “When the children had visited with their parents, the next day at school the boy would be agitated and crazy, and the daughter was nervous,” Kathy said. Finally, the biological parents abruptly decided to move out of the state, leaving their children’s court case unfinished and their grandmother with the responsibility of raising the children on her own.

“There was no question where these children should be; It was a no brainer, and I made clear in my reports that I supported the grandmother caring for the children,” Kathy said. Their grandmother happily became the children’s Kinship Legal Guardian (KLG). “This (KLG) is a great option. Why go into foster care if you have a caring family member who is willing to take on raising the children. In this case the grandmother was more than able, and the children adored her,” Kathy said.

 

Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for Children’s mission to speak on behalf of abused and neglected children is central to fulfilling society’s most fundamental obligation to protect a child’s right to be safe, treated with respect and to help them reach their fullest potential. For more information about CASA, visit AtlanticCapeCASA.org.

 

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The Importance of Cultural Competence

Cultural Competence is the ability to understand, communicate with and effectively interact with people across cultures. Cultural competence encompasses being aware of one’s own worldview, while gaining knowledge of different cultural practices and worldviews.

As a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteer, we meet families who may be very different from our own friends, families and colleagues. Their cultures, values, and parenting styles may be completely unfamiliar to us. Even though our brains naturally categorize information with negative judgments, as a CASA, we want to suspend those judgments so we may develop higher levels of cultural competence.  This will allow us to be more effective with the various and diverse parties involved in our cases.

Image via Taney County Partnership

Image via Taney County Partnership

Our cultural competence affects how we respond to those of a different race, gender, and socio-economic status, just to name a few. It is not always easy to release years of carefully, or carelessly, formed opinions and values when we encounter new people. When we considers the myriad of verbal and nonverbal communications we use, poor cultural competence skills open the door to misunderstandings and unintended insults. Our own biases can led to ineffective interactions, to hurt feelings or worse. As CASA’s, we must not only understand our biases, but learn to recognize and put aside these feelings in order to best serve the children on our cases.

Consider a woman executive as a new CASA entering the family home of a patriarchal culture meeting the family for the first time. Deeply ingrained stereotypes and judgments are likely on both sides. To be an effective CASA, she needs to be the one to create a bridge to cross this expansive cultural gap.

Stereotypes are even more complicated and can derail the best of intentions. Recent studies in neuroscience show our brains function in ways that predispose us to negative stereotypes. In fact, scientists believe that our brain’s predisposition to categorize information with a negative slant is a primitive survival mechanism.

Something as simple as the use of silence in different cultures can lead to dramatic misunderstandings. The Greeks use silence as a way to refuse things but Egyptians use silence to communicate consent. Alternatively, Americans can see silence as a void to fill, or an indication the person is indifferent, angry or disagreeing with them. It takes hard work and a willingness to be flexible to unlearn deeply ingrained stereotypes. The ability to set aside our stereotypes can be a powerful tool in developing cultural competence and reaching our desired outcomes.

Four components to cultural competence exist:

Awareness — The first step in building cultural competence is developing an awareness of our own, sometimes deeply ingrained, prejudices and stereotypes, which can create barriers to our learning and development. It is also important to be thoroughly acquainted with our culture – and the identity we have taken from that culture. Taking the time to openly, and without judgement, discover our blind spots when it comes to our beliefs, will take us to a deeper understanding of the families and all those involved individuals we meet as CASAs.

Attitude – How open are we to differing views and opinions? If we feel strongly about our beliefs and values, we are more likely to react emotionally when we encounter a cultural difference. If we react emotionally, we are more likely to convey our disapproval to those we encounter. With awareness and intention, we can develop new habits – we can decide to suspend our views and opinions before we walk through the door.

Knowledge – As a CASA, we regularly cross cultures that are not limited to the families we visit. We likely hold opinions and beliefs regarding social workers, lawyers, as well as educational and medical professionals. To stay connected in cross-cultural situations, we need be open to learning as much as we can about those we encounter. We want to really question what it like is to walk in someone else’s shoes. How much we learn and assimilate into our own worldview affects or ability to work effectively and respectfully with people from all different backgrounds, experiences and cultural norms.

Skills – To build skills, we can interact with diverse groups.  Attend cultural events or religious services; this can put you in situations where you are the only one of your cultural group.  Ask others questions about their beliefs, culture and values.  We can also read books about different cultures and expose ourselves to the discrimination they can experience – memoirs are a great opportunity to discover insights into another culture.  Being careful not to stereotype, we can then apply our new understandings as we interact others.

Sources:
The Guardian, [Neuroscience] Human Brain is Predisposed to Negative Stereotypes.
Diversity Officer Magazine, What is Cultural Competence and How is it Measured?  American Psychological Association, How do I become culturally competent?

 

Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for Children’s mission to speak on behalf of abused and neglected children is central to fulfilling society’s most fundamental obligation to protect a child’s right to be safe, treated with respect and to help them reach their fullest potential. For more information about CASA, visit AtlanticCapeCASA.org.