A CASA Volunteers’ Two Year Journey with Two Brothers

Two young boys – 2 ½ and 7 years old – sit huddled on the couch in their living room watching the police burst through the door and arrest their mom and dad for selling drugs.  The boys are taken by the caseworker to a foster home, the first of five they will move through over the next 18 months.

The little boy cries and moans most of the time and seems unable to speak more than a barely comprehensible word or two. Despite efforts by subsequent foster parents he has no interest in using a toilet and so must wear diapers all the time. When he turns 3 he is evaluated by the child study team and found to be functioning at the developmental age of a two year old. He continues to be withdrawn and the crying often turns into screaming.

His older brother believes it is somehow his fault that they were removed from their home and so tries to “be good” so he can go back home. His school records indicate that he has repeated kindergarten twice and has not been recommended to advance to first grade. An evaluation by the child study team indicates he has specific learning disabilities. He says he doesn’t like school but his teacher is nice.

Flash forward two years –

The little boy is laughing (Laughing!) as he animatedly talks about the game he is playing. He speaks clearly and in sentences.  He smiles and looks directly in my eyes as he talks. He talks about preschool, a party and the latest funny thing his brother did.

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His brother shows me his report card. He attends second grade and receives some special education services. He says school is okay now. His teachers say he is a “nice, kind young man” who “seems to enjoy learning.” He tells me he is looking forward to this weekend when he and his brother will be sleeping over at his mom’s house – one of the first steps in returning to live with her permanently. He says: “I’m going home!”

Yes – thanks to the concerted efforts of all the foster parents, therapists, child study team members, teachers and caseworkers – after two years, five foster homes, and four school district transfers – they are going home.  As for me, I can’t even find the words to express the joy and gratitude I feel for the small role I played in all of this.  It has been just an incredibly enriching and rewarding experience.

Court Appointed Special Advocate (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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They Need Someone to Speak on Their Behalf

Layla, 5, and her brother, Brian, 3, were abused and neglected at home. They were placed with their grandmother, an elderly woman who soon realized she was ill-equipped to care for two young children. Layla and Brian were moved to a foster home, the first in a series of five placements in six months. The one constant in the children’s lives was their CASA volunteer, Carole, who was the first to visit them in each foster home.

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With a sixth move pending, CASA Carole recommended during a court hearing that the children must be kept together in any placement. Shortly after Carole’s recommendation, the children were moved together to a new home, where they are thriving. #BeACASA

Court Appointed Special Advocate (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.

 

CASA Reward: Seeing a Child Reach Their Fullest Potential

Jacky is one of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for Children’s most tenured advocates – fighting for children’s rights for over eight years. She loves being a CASA. She loves that being a CASA allows her to use her knowledge as a school guidance counselor, but it also teaches her new skills. She loves when she sees the positive outcomes in her cases, and most of all she loves being a CASA because she loves the children.

Optimized-Fotolia_92496429_Subscription_Monthly_MA school guidance counselor when she started at CASA, Jacky’s experience was already grounded in guiding and assessing the needs of children. Now retired, she is very happy that she can still put her knowledge and practices to good use. Her knowledge of the education system has been invaluable when advocating for the educational needs of her children. On several occasions, Jacky’s knowledge of the education system and the Individual Education Plan (IEP) has helped foster parents. Jacky not only knows enough to ask for an IEP but also has the knowledge to contribute to the plan itself – which is crucial to a child who has not had a consistent caretaker.

Naturally welcoming, Jacky is friendly and communicates easily. Even so, she knows it can be awkward for children of any age to converse with an adult they do not know very well. Like a modern-day Mary Poppins (she has the British accent, too!), she uses conversational apps and games to get the children active and interested. Art books with open narratives are very useful. Tapping into her experience, Jacky says, “Having the children draw pictures and then express a narrative to go along with the picture is a really good way to gauge what and who is important to a child as well as the emotions attached to what is important.”

What she has learned by being a CASA is almost as interesting to her as the children she serves.  She credits CASA staff and the child welfare caseworkers for helping her work her way through the system and the paperwork. The family court system’s complexity decision making truly intrigues her. The computer work is the most challenging to her but she says the CASA staff makes themselves readily available to help.

What surprises Jacky the most is how fluid people’s lives are, how one variable sends a person’s life in a completely different direction. She is amazed at how good and bad decisions, and the reasons behind those decisions, can instantly change the direction of a child’s life. One case in particular that weighs heavy on her mind is a pair of siblings she advocated for – a toddler and an infant. They each lived with separate foster parents. The two foster homes were in the same town, just a few streets from each other. She visited both homes, but visitation between the two siblings was not granted, even though she advocated for it. So, she wonders, “Will these two siblings grow up blocks away from each other, possibly going to the same school, and not even know they are related?”

After her many years advocating, Jacky is taking a hiatus. Her most recent case closed and she is not going to take on another one right now, instead focusing on her daughter who just qualified for the Special Olympics’ Swim team. Even though she has temporarily stepped back from her CASA role, she will never lose the love she has for seeing a child reach their fullest potential.

 

casa_v_atca_redblue_rgb2Jacky 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. Take a stand against child abuse and join the CASA Movement today!

AtlanticCapeCASA.org   Facebook.com/casa4children   twitter.com/casa4children   (609) 601-7800

 

An Inspired Life

Maggie knows first-hand the tumult of a childhood spent in foster care. One of seven children, Maggie entered the foster care system at the age of two. But despite an unstable beginning, she is a remarkable young lady. At the age of 23, she has all the enthusiasm you would expect of one so young. What’s unexpected however, is her wisdom and her commitment to serving people.

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Maggie quickly counts off seven of the foster homes that she remembers; but said she can’t recall too much from her earliest days in care. She also quickly lists off the 12 schools she’s attended which include schools in Alabama, Nebraska, New Jersey and Michigan.

Maggie still carries a hint of her Southern accent. She speaks with deep gratitude of her adoptive parents who would “adopt these little black girls that looked nothing like them.”  She treasures a photo album – the only photos she has from her early childhood – entitled “My Little Margaret” given to her years later by her first grade teacher who was drawn to Maggie’s spirit.

That spirit is what defines Maggie, it guided her though foster care and it is what defines her life now. Unlike so many youth, who spent years in foster care, Maggie was somehow able to break away from the negative outcomes that have overwhelmed many foster youth – dropping out of school, teen pregnancy, homelessness, drug abuse and unemployment.

Certainly, her parents helped shape this young woman’s life by providing a supportive, loving home and giving her the opportunities to thrive. But Maggie attended 12 schools in four different states and still managed to graduate on time, with good grades. Each time a foster youth change schools, they usually loose three to six months of academic progress– which means that Maggie essentially lost 36 months – 3 years – of school, but still managed to graduate with her class. Truly an unbelievable achievement and a testament to Maggie’s remarkable spirit.

Thankfully, Maggie wanted to give back and help other foster youth reach their own potential – she was sworn in as a CASA advocate during her senior year in college. Maggie said, “My experiences as a foster child fuels a lot the reason I am a CASA.”

Just before Maggie’s 22nd birthday, she was assigned a CASA case with two young boys. As their CASA, Maggie ensured that the boys received all the services they needed. Her CASA court reports offered the judge recommendations in the best interest of the boys – which included keeping them together in the same foster home. She is thrilled that her recommendation of keeping the brothers together was ordered by the courts and is even more happy that the boys are now in the process of being adopted into a forever home.

When asked of her experience as a CASA, she admitted that sometimes it’s challenging. “Sometimes people don’t understand the role of a CASA,” Maggie said, “It can be hard to have your calls returned or schedule visits with the kids.” But, Maggie understands what needs to be done, and knows that these children need a CASA volunteer, like her.

“I know that everyone is doing their best, so I am not discouraged by a system that doesn’t always work smoothly, or move as fast as you want it to,” said Maggie. Instead, she is persistent with a positive attitude and a commitment to make sure her CASA children were not just a case number in a file.

“I know in my heart, I made a difference in these brothers’ lives. They are being adopted together, just like me and my sister were, so I know first-hand how important it is to stay with a sibling.”

For Maggie, being a CASA is about breaking the cycle. “You have to try. When you put out consistent effort, there will be the desired effect.”  At a young age, Maggie was inspired by the movie Amazing Grace about the politician, philanthropist and abolitionist, William Wilberforce.  Maggie said, “His passion and concern for other people was an inspiration to me for my life’s ambition of serving others.”

Wasting no time to share her spirit again, Maggie requested another CASA child.  She lights up as she anticipates meeting the 14-year-old girl who will be her next CASA case.  “I’ve always mentored older youth in my community, so I am very excited to meet her and advocate for her!

“I chose CASA because of my personal life experiences as a foster child, and my passion for helping others directly relates to CASA’s mission,” said Maggie. “I never had a CASA while I was in foster care, but I understand the role of a CASA volunteer from growing up for seven years in foster care. It’s a CASA who makes sure the decisions for the child reflect his/her interests, needs and safety and not just the goals or interests of third parties.

“A CASA is an objective advocate that gives special focus to a child or children on an individual level rather than on an institutional level. I want to be that person. I care about the person. I care about people and I want to have an impact on society. I will not be happy at the end of my life unless I have used my life to empower others.”

 

Maggie 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. Take a stand against child abuse and join the CASA Movement today!

AtlanticCapeCASA.org
Facebook.com/casa4children   twitter.com/casa4children   (609) 601-7800

 

 

It’s All About the Kids

A diverse group of individuals, over 200 in fact, uses their unique skills and experiences to advocate for children living in foster care. Many are nurses, teachers or CEOs of companies large and small. Some are retired from distinguished careers, some still work full time. No matter what background and circumstances our CASAs bring with them, they always share one virtue in common – the spirit of giving back to their community and a deep commitment to changing children’s lives.

CASA Marsha’s path to child advocacy actually started at a very young age. Growing up in Reading, PA, Marsha’s childhood home was just blocks away from the Children’s Home of Reading, a home for abused and neglected children. As Marsha explored her neighborhood, she passed the Home, often seeing the children living there playing beyond the fenced-in yard.

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Marsha knew the children from school and church. She also understood that these boys and girls did not live at home with their moms and dads as she did. At a very young age, Marsha realized that the lives of some children were very different from her own.

In 1974, as a young woman graduating college with a teaching degree in special education, she entered an over-saturated education workforce where teaching jobs were limited.  Instead of waiting for a school opening, Marsha applied for and landed a job as a childcare worker at the Tabor Home for Needy and Destitute Children in Doylestown, PA. She was now working at a children’s home not unlike the one she remembered from her childhood neighborhood.

The children and youth living at the Tabor Home were troubled, suffering from social and emotional traumas. Because of their ages and complex issues, the 65 boys and girls living at the Tabor Home were hard to place in individual foster homes.  “We did everything for the kids at Tabor that a parent would do for their own children,” Marsha said. “We took them shopping, helped with their homework, ate with them at mealtime and would even take them to baseball practice.”

Marsha’s time at the Tabor Home and then at an Alternative School for youth facing similar challenges gave her the awareness that would eventually lead her to becoming first a foster parent, then a CASA advocate. When asked if she felt like she had made a difference in the lives of these kids, she said, “At the Alternative School, I felt like I was making a huge difference.”

Marsha continued her career at the school, and when her oldest daughter finished her first year in college, the family decided to become a foster home. Their first child was an eight-week old infant and he quickly won over the Burke family’s heart. Even her daughter committed her summer days to nurturing the newest addition to their family. When it became evident reunification was not an option, the Burke’s did not hesitate to consider adopting the baby boy.

Today, that boy has grown into a fine young man.

“I knew about the CASA program because my friends were involved in northern New Jersey and I knew that I wanted to be a CASA advocate when I retired,” Marsha said. “I saw child advocacy with CASA as a way for me to continue to support foster children.”

Marsha has been a CASA advocate for nearly two years. She is committed, as she always was, to making a difference in the lives of children, just like the children from the Children’s Home of Reading where she grew up. “Supporting foster children seems to have become my mission in life,” Marsha admits, “If I can contribute to a foster child, even if my contribution seems small at the time, I like to think I’m making a difference in these kids’ lives.” While, it is not always easy being a CASA, Marsha feels the reward of her hard work when she attends court hearings — where life decisions are made for foster kids.

“During family court hearings, when the judge turns to me and asks if the CASA has anything to add, I know my work as a CASA advocate is making a difference. I always appreciate the judge’s respect for my court reports and the work I am doing for these children. At the end of the day, I know it’s all about the kids.”

Learn more at http://atlanticcapecasa.org/

Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and with all of the holidays following close behind, it is, for many of us, a time to enjoy family and friends, celebrate and give thanks for the good in our lives. During this time of joy, we must not forget those less fortunate, especially children and youth who will spend this Thanksgiving away from their family in foster homes, group homes or institutions.

In New Jersey, over 12,000 children live in foster care. In Atlantic and Cape May Counties, over 1,000 children live within a child welfare system that designed as a temporary fix to a family crisis but has become, for many children, a way of life.

Youth can spend years in foster care, moving from one foster home to another without ever having a sense of permanency, roots or stability. This instability often leads to a lifetime of suffering, depression and hopelessness.

Remember that children enter foster care not because of something that they have done. Parental drug abuse, domestic violence, neglect and mental illness all contribute to the removal of children from their homes. Thankfully, access to resources and services often help parents overcome the issues that lead to the removal of their children, and many families are reunited. In instances where reunification is not an option, grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends, distant relatives and adoptive families set in to provide the stability that these children need and deserve.

Even with all of the people who choose to provide love and stability through adoption or other means, more than 100,000 children and youth across the country still live in foster care waiting for permanent families.

Of course, not everyone is able to be an adoptive family, but everyone can do something to improve the lives of children living in foster care. This holiday season, consider becoming a CASA volunteer, a youth mentor, or supporting an organization that helps children living in foster care. By getting involved in some way, not only will you transform a child’s life, you will transform your own.

thanksgiving_pager_1_0“There is a special sense of satisfaction in knowing that a child will live with love, rather than hate, kindness rather than abuse and acceptance rather than rejection.” – CASA volunteer