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

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Let’s call it what it is – Peer Abuse.

Let’s call it what it is – Peer Abuse.

Let’s call it what it is – Peer Abuse.  With bullying, the dominant figure unsuspectingly presents as your peer, your equal and traditionally during childhood a crucial time for brain development, social skill development and confidence development.

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Studies consistently show that victims of peer abuse are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, isolation, and fear. Often times, the abused do not confide in their parents or teachers. These feelings fester, and if left untreated, can have profound, long-term effects on a child’s social development that carries into adulthood and presents in a myriad of emotional, physical and psychological symptoms ranging from sleep and eating disorders to mental illness.

It is well understood that abusers target the vulnerable, those unlikely to retaliate. So bullies target the one in their midst who tends to be different, the one who does not have the support, the confidence or the coping skills to properly stand-up for oneself.

The child-victim is most vulnerable.

Bullies find the children who are different, the children who “do not fit in.” The taunting only emphasizes to that child that they may be different, and stresses their vulnerability with their peers.

Imagine that you are a displaced child – like many children living in the foster care system. If children in a familiar environment with strong family and other relationships do not vocalize the abuse to trusted adults, what are the chances a child feeling alone and unsupported will reach out for help?

Many believe some type of intimidation is a normal, childhood rite-of-passage. To many, the thought of a “bully” brings to mind the caricature of the biggest kid on the playground not picking you for his dodgeball team. But today, with the many additional electronic, and often anonymous, ways that children can be bullied, the big kid on the playground represents only a small fraction of the modern bullying reality.

But whether the bully is the big kid on the playground or the anonymous text stalker, one thing remains constant – when you consider the victims – who and why they are victims – and the long-term effects of their being victims – you clearly see that bullying is and always will be abuse.

 

The Beginning of the School Year is Challenging for all Students, but especially for Foster Youth

The start of a new school year is an exciting and scary time for all children. However, for children living in foster care, the start of a new school year can be overwhelming.

First, foster youth move frequently, which puts them at least six months academically behind their peers. The frequent moves also mean that many foster youth are beginning the year in a new school, without the safety network of returning friends, familiar teachers or an understanding of the school culture.

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In addition, these students face enormous personal emotional challenges. First, is the abuse or neglect that put them in care, but there is also the embarrassment of being in foster care, being separated from siblings and parents and living in a strange home. All of these factors weigh heavily on these young people. It is imperative that teachers, administrators, foster parents and all of those in the foster youth’s life to pay special attention to how these students assimilate into the classroom and watch for any bullying or shaming that may occur. Any additional emotional trauma would devastate an already fragile situation.

Research shows that youth living in foster care are more likely to drop out of high school and are least likely to attend college. An organized effort to safeguard a smooth school transition for these youth is the key to a positive educational experience that can offset some of the damage done by the abuse, neglect and the barriers that these youth experience. Additionally, and most importantly, an improved educational experience will enhance the overall wellbeing of each student and provide a pathway to self-sufficiency and a successful adulthood.

A CASA Child Advocate Talks About ‘Giving Back’

MCambridgeWhen I asked Margaret why she was a child advocate for CASA, she smiled and slid a sheet of paper, in child’s handwriting, across the table. It was a child’s poem, encased in a plastic sleeve. “I’m going to frame this”, she said.

Often, children living in the foster care system can be slow to trust or warm up to another new person entering their lives. This was Margaret’s experience when she first met one of her CASA children, a 9-year girl.  Seasoned CASA advocates told Margaret, “Just be patient”.

With consistent visits, the cornerstone of the CASA program, the little girl warmed up to Margaret. Margaret had asked for a poem. A couple visits later, her CASA child came running up to Margaret, arms wide, waving a sheet of paper.  The stranger who had entered a little girl’s life had become a trusted friend.

A CASA child advocate steps into the lives of children after they have been removed from their homes and are living with foster families.  This can be very disruptive and disturbing for these children.  Margaret, like all CASA advocates, is a trained volunteer who is committed to making a difference one day at a time, one child at a time.

Actually, Margaret’s background had its own very rocky start. As a 3-day old infant, she was surrendered by her biological mother. Margaret feels fortunate to have been taken into a loving and stable home. Having raised 2 children of her own, Margaret appreciates the open hearts it took for a couple in their 50’s and 60’s, with 3 adult children, to adopt her as an infant.

“I was fortunate and now it’s my turn to give back”, said Margaret.  “Some of my other volunteer work brings me to Family Court. It was there that I saw CASA volunteers and saw the work that they did.  I knew then that I wanted to be a CASA. I knew I wanted to be the Voice of the Child in foster care.

“One day, I told my 9 year old that I’m her voice and that she could ask the judge anything she wanted.”  She said, “Tell my mommy I said, ‘Hi!’. And tell the judge I said, ‘Hi’ too!” Margaret said she will never forget the day of the hearing, the judge asked me for my opinion and he called me up to read my court report. I told him that the little girl wanted me to say ‘Hi’ to him. He responded so positively that, “I was overwhelmed. I admire him and he inspired me. He cares. And he is for the kids.” I see how committed all the judges are to reunification wherever possible.” Margaret said.

“CASA has given me new life,” said Margaret. “They have given me a whole new non-judgmental vocabulary. But most of all, they’ve given me an understanding of these families who are struggling every day.  I view people differently since CASA.”

“My role as a child advocate keeps me busy and I like that. I also like that I can make my own schedule as a CASA volunteer,” said Margaret. “And I cannot say enough about the support I have gotten from Tina, my CASA advocate coach, and John from the CASA staff – they are always there for me.”

If there is a single word to describe Margaret, that word would have to be “Grateful.” Adopted as an infant. “I was given a Norman Rockwell life. My father was a pastor. My mom worked hard cleaning homes and would bring me along. I was given piano lessons and Buster Brown shoes. My parents were very well respected in my community and instilled in me the importance of getting involved. We were taught to ‘stand up straight’ in church. I had rules to follow and parents who cared for me.”

Margaret had no idea the struggles other families were having until she began her volunteer ‘career.’ She feels blessed for the life she has been given. She is busy and committed to giving back to those less fortunate. She feels that CASA and her other volunteer work in domestic violence gives her a softer side, “It balances me out.”

We are so grateful to Margaret and all of the other CASA’s who give their time and hearts to children in need.

A Bumpy Road Leads to a Happy Ending

Life is complicated. Life is really complicated with parents living apart, sharing custody of six kids, one works two jobs while the other is trying hard, but still self-medicating to cope with the stress. Yeah, it is complicated.

ibuI meet Ibu on his day off.  He rides up on his bike to meet me, eager to share the story of the day his children were removed from their home by the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCP&P). That was two and a half years ago.

This is how it all started…a fight between two of the boys, landed one in the ER. A well-meaning aunt took the boy from the ER to another hospital in Philadelphia, leaving a discord between the boys’ mother and her well-meaning sister and an open door for a DCP&P investigation.

When DCP&P showed up at the home, mom was, understandably frightened. Strangers were coming into her home to investigate the welfare of her children and potentially their removal – that would frighten and anger anyone and perhaps make you not very cooperative. Which was the case for Ibu’s ex-wife. Once the investigation was complete, all of the children were removed from her care. Another aunt took in Ibu’s two girls, the two older children went to live with their biological father and a foster family takes in Ibu’s two boys.

DCP&P, CASA and the courts, work hard to keep families together, that is always the first choice whenever possible. Cooperation from all parties, especially the parents, is the key to ensuring reunification. Ibu understood this immediately and made sure he did everything necessary to bring his kids back home. Ibu’s ex-wife took a little longer to understand the process and the importance of her cooperation, but eventually she did, entering a recovery program for her drug addiction.

At first, DCP&P only granted supervised visits with their children in public places. Next, DCP&P allowed supervised visits with Ibu, then sleepovers supervised by Ibu.  Then Ibu’s six and 10-year-old sons returned to him.

Still, challenges existed that needed solutions. Childcare was a big obstacle, Ibu had to work, but who would watch the boys? Luckily, DCP&P helped secure affordable childcare. Ibu’s two girls were unhappy living at their aunt’s home so DCP&P granted permission to stay with Ibu’s girlfriend – a week before a court hearing. The two younger boys had trouble in school, so CASA Merv helped get them into an aftercare programs. The children’s mom continued to struggle with her addiction so CASA Merv helped her get the services she needed that would bring her kids back home.  Even transportation was an issue – Ibu and his ex-wife had to take two to three busses every week to visit their boys in their foster home.

The process was slow and difficult, but it was working and support came from all corners.

CASA Merv said, “The first time I met Ibu, he stood up in court, and clearly stated his intentions to reunite his family. I was so impressed with Ibu. We became friends.  Ibu did everything.”

In time, mom became more and more cooperative. She too, began to do what needed to reunite her family.  One by one, the children returned to their parents’ homes. Ibu has his two boys.  The others are with their mom.

Ibu finished our talk with on a positive note, “In the end, good came out. My kids never had Godparents. Through my visits with my kids while in their foster home, I came to know this wonderful couple. During a phone call, after the boys returned home, the foster parents asked if they could maintain their relationship with my boys. They asked if they could call the boys once a week and sleep over once a month to see the friends that they had met in the neighborhood. They also asked if they could be the boys Godparents.” Ibu responded to this heartwarming request with, “I’ll check with their mom.”  The kids now have Godparents and monthly sleepovers with their new friends.

Ibu said his relationship with CASA Merv continues with calls once a month to check in to say, “If you need anything at all, just ask.” Ibu said, “CASA Merv’s role was instrumental in getting my kids back home. He cared, was always there, and gave us the resources we needed.”

CASA Merv and DCP&P told the judge that this foster family has fostered many children but Ibu’s children, “are the best kids we’ve ever had, they were kind and respectful and well mannered.” As a parent, those are the best words that you can ever hear, especially with the challenges that this family faced.

We all know that life is complicated, but helping each other over the bumps in the road makes our journey together a little lighter.

Domestic Violence Has Long Range Consequences

What happens to children exposed to domestic violence? A lot–and none of it is good.

Children not only watch the abuse. They hear the sounds of abuse, see the bruises, and of course, very often, they too are the victims. They are taught to keep the family secret. They suffer in silence and shame.

The effects follow into adulthood with long range consequences. Several studies agree that children who witness domestic violence have a variety of effects depending upon the their age, the severity of the abuse and length of time and frequency of the abuse.

dvhurtsallInfants will exhibit:
Extreme irritability
Immature behavior
Separation anxiety
Difficulty with toilet training
Sleep disorders
Problems with language development

Older children experience:
Problems with schoolwork
Attention disorders
Depression
Suicidal tendencies
Bed-wetting
Teenage pregnancy
Criminal behavior
Substance abuse

Later in life they can expect:
To be a victim or perpetrator of domestic violence
To lose empathy for others
Social isolation
Aggressive behavior
Difficulty forming friendships
Difficulty maintaining employment

The list of problems goes on. Anyone can infer, that once domestic violence enters the life of a child, the cycle of abuse has been created. And in many cases, it continues into future generations.

What do children victims of domestic violence need?

To start, children need to be heard and believed. Adults that work, live and interact with children and the family members need to be aware of the signs of domestic violence and they have to be willing to break the silence and speak out.

Children also need support services to begin to heal. A holistic, individualized plan is important as each child can be affected differently from exposure to domestic violence. Additionally, studies show that interventions for abused mothers and fathers will ultimately help the children involved as well.

Children must be taught – repeatedly – that domestic violence and aggressive behaviors are wrong. They need positive relationship role models to understand how to avoid violence in their own personal relationships. And finally, and most importantly, they need what we all need – love, understanding and compassion from everyone around them.

Top 8 Ways To Help Your Foster Child In School

Top 8 Ways To Help Your Foster Child In School

By Dr. John DeGarmo Leading expert in Parenting and Foster Care Field.

Published in The Huffington Post 08/19/2016 04:35 pm ET | Updated Aug 19, 2016

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School. For so many children, it is a place of learning, of laughter, and a place to make friends and form relationships.

Not so for children in foster care. It is a very difficult place, where academic failure and behavior problems are the norm.

 

For your child from foster care to truly have a chance to succeed, you as a foster parent must lead the charge and blaze a path as an advocate, fighting for your child’s every chance. Most likely, you will be the only one fighting for your child, as the caseworker and teacher are overwhelmed with all they have to do. Therefore, it is up to you. You need to become as involved as possible. The more active foster parents are in school and activities, the more likely children will succeed. Here are the top eight things you can do to help your child from foster care succeed in school.

 

1. Keep in Contact.
Reach out to school employees and form a positive working relationship with them. Let school counselors, teachers and administrators know that they can always call or email you if needed. Also obtain contact information from your child’s teachers. Attempt to remain in regular contact with them. Use all forms and means of communication. Through text messages, email, cell phones, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms, there are numerous ways to reach out to teachers and school employees. It is essential that you remain up to date with your child’s progress, both with academics and behavior.
2. Update Teachers
Not only should you as a foster parent request regular behavior updates from the child’s school, but a responsible foster parent will provide such information to the school as well. If your foster child is having a particularly difficult time at home, let the teachers and counselors know, allowing these educators to be prepared and equipped to handle any difficulties that might come their way.
3. Let School Know About Visitation Day
Visitation day can be hard sometimes. It is likely that your child from foster care will have a difficult time concentrating and focusing on school work the day of a visitation, and many times the day after, as well. When your child is having a emotional or challenging time with visitations, you can help your child by informing the teachers beforehand, giving them some notice in advance. A note in your child’s school agenda, an email, a text message, or a phone call are all means that you can use to notify teachers and school counselors. Along with this, you can suggest to the child’s caseworker that visitations and medical appointments be made after school or on weekends, in order to not miss any more days of school, so the child doesn’t fall even further behind.

 

4. Help with School Work
School work will likely not come easy. Foster children, in general, tend to perform below level in regard to both academic performance and positive behavior. And most children in foster care are behind in math and reading skills. It is important that you and the child’s teachers set realistic goals for the child. Find out where the child’s learning ability and level of knowledge is, and work with him at this level. Talk to your child’s teachers about his/her abilities and if any accommodations need to be made. You should encourage your child to set goals and expectations, and celebrate every success, no matter how big or small they may be.

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5. Be Involved
You can help your foster student in his development by encouraging your child to participate in activities outside of the classroom. Many schools have extracurricular organizations and activities with various school sports, music, and clubs. Along with this, community sports and organizations also allow kids the opportunity to not only participate and develop these skills, but to learn new skills, develop talents and to exercise.

 

6. Be Ready
It is going to be tough for your child. A child in foster care often has a very hard time exhibiting proper school behavior during the school day, as school is simply a constant reminder that they are, indeed, foster children without a true home. The continuous reminder that their peers are living with biological family members, while they are not, is a difficult reality for them and can be manifested in several ways. Some foster children simply withdraw and become antisocial in an attempt to escape their current environment. Others may lash out in violent behavior.

 

7. Take A Tour
This is yet another unfamiliar place for your child from foster care. Before his very first day in class, take some time to go on a tour with your child through the building. Ask an administrator or school counselor to guide you and your child through the school. This will allow your child to feel more comfortable once he begins class.
8. Understand This Is Probably Not Fun
School is the last place your foster child wants to be at. He wants to go back to his home, his famiyl, and is simply trying to survive each day. Foster children often have a difficult time exhibiting proper school behavior during the school day. For many, school is a constant reminder that they are, indeed, foster children without a true home. The continuous reminder that their peers are living with biological family members, while they are not, is a difficult reality for them and can be manifested in several ways. Some foster children simply withdraw and become antisocial in an attempt to escape their current environment. For many foster children, violent behavior becomes the norm, as they not only act out in a negative and disruptive fashion in school, but in their foster home as well. This can prompt yet another move to a new foster home and another school.

Your child from foster care is depending on you to help him, not just in your home, but at school, as well. Quite simply, if you don’t help him succeed, who will?