How Tiddlywinks Helped a Family Reconnect

David, 3, and his sister, Allison, 2, were placed in foster care when their mother entered a year-long substance abuse program on the West coast. A CASA volunteer was appointed to their case. Unable to visit their mother, the children’s memories of her began to fade. Later, their mother, successfully discharged from her program, contacted child welfare to arrange visitation with David and Allison. She feared they would not remember her and that the reunion would be awkward. She shared her concerns with the CASA volunteer, who suggested she break the ice by playing the children’s favorite game – Tiddlywinks.

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The mother was unfamiliar with the game, but the CASA volunteer taught her how to play. When David and Allison arrived for their visit, they were thrilled to find their mother and CASA volunteer engaged in the game. The children joined in, and the CASA volunteer quietly excused herself from the room. Visits with their mother continued and eventually, David, Allison, and their mother were permanently reunited.

More CASA volunteers are needed.
Learn how you can become a CASA. https://atlanticcapecasa.org/getinvolved/

 

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 Role of a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) Volunteer

What is a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteer? A CASA volunteer is an individual appointed by the family court to advocate for children placed in foster care as a result of abuse or neglect with the goal of finding them a safe and permanent home.

What does a CASA volunteer do? Most importantly, the CASA visits the child regularly and establishes a relationship with the child.

The CASA volunteer also communicates with all parties involved with the family such as the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCP&P, formerly DYFS), the family courts, law advocates, school personnel, medical professionals, foster parents, and, biological parents.

The CASA reviews all information collected from the various sources and makes recommendations to the judge as to what would be in the best interest of the child.

Why did you become involved with CASA? I wanted to become involved in a volunteer activity that would help someone, as well as being a satisfying experience for me. I learned about CASA through a friend who is a CASA volunteer and decided it was an extremely worthwhile cause for me to give my time and energy.

How important is the work of a CASA in the life of an abused and neglected child? I believe the work of a CASA is tremendously important in the life of abused and neglected children. The CASA is the one person in the child’s life who can focus on that particular child. They are a consistent adult during a time when other adults may be in and out of their lives, and they help put all the pieces together in an effort to more quickly facilitate finding a safe, permanent home for the child.

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What are the greatest rewards of being a CASA volunteer? I find the most rewarding experiences are the interactions with the children. Getting to know them, and letting them know that they can trust me. Their trust in me allows them to open up and talk to me, as they may not with anyone else. This trust is how I can best advocate for them, making sure that their concerns and wishes are heard by the family court judge. It takes time to develop trust on the part of the children. However, once it is there, it is a wonderful feeling to see that the children look forward to your visits and share their life with you.

The greatest gratification is when a CASA has seen a case through to permanency and the child or children are in a safe and happy home.

What are the greatest challenges? Working with people whose lives are in turmoil is rather challenging. I think learning how to relate to people who may be living in a situation that is not in one’s realm of experience is probably the greatest challenge.

Why should others get involved? Helping a child is one of our most basic instincts. If a child is standing in the middle of the road, would you stop to help them? If a child falls, would you not stoop to pick them up? Children in foster care are standing in the middle of the road, they have fallen, and an adult can help lead them to safety. The CASA volunteer is that adult and right now 35% of the children living in foster care in Atlantic and Cape May Counties do not have that guidance or support – and they need it.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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.

Summertime in Foster Care

Finally, the end of the school year, it’s summertime!

Childhood summers prompt memories of the beach, heading off to summer camp and playing outside with friends until dinner. Summer days should be for making lifelong, cherished memories.

When you live in foster care, however, just because the school year ends, does not mean that your life is any less upended or uncertain. Unfortunately, for children living in foster care, the normally carefree summer months can signal more uncertainty and despair.

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The little things that make the end of the school year special – making plans with friends, signing yearbooks, and looking forward to family vacations – can be a source of increased anxiety and depression for youth living in foster care.

Changing of schools and homes happen frequently for foster youth, meaning many youth do not know if they will be living in the same home next month, let alone going to the same school the following September. Frequent moving also negatively influences educational achievement – on average every time a youth moves, they lose three to six months of academic progress, which further alienates them from their peers.

Foster youth may enter a new school mid-year, so they might not even be part of the yearbook, their picture missing from the smiling-faced rows of their classmates. Entering school late, changing schools or moving as much as foster youth do also hampers their ability to create bonds that lead to lasting friendships, especially when their classmates may already have deep friendship bonds from growing up together.

As for vacations or any activity that takes a foster youth out of their placement, approval from the courts must be sought. That means that for a foster youth to attend summer camp or visit a sibling, who lives in a different foster home in a different town, is at the mercy of a slow-moving court system that is buckling under the weight of too many children under their care. This process halts the freedom of planning trips or the ease of participating in activities that could a provide much-needed distraction for the youth.

These challenges can lead children and youth living in foster care to see the summer months as an extension of ambiguity, confusion and isolation, rather than as a time to enjoy.

For these reasons, we must continue to fight and advocate for all foster youth so that they realize a permanent home – reunited with their family, placed with relatives or adopted as quickly as possible – so they too can enjoy the lazy, sun-drenched days of summer and create their own lifelong summertime memories.

 

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.

Change a Foster Youth’s World

My siblings and I were all exposed to prenatal drug and alcohol use at birth. For the first 12 years of my life, I was never allowed to be a child. My mother beat me every day – sometimes so severely I thought my last breath was imminent. At 12, I was desperate to find help and confessed the abuse to a coach. Shortly after, we entered foster care.

During our time in foster care, we relied on our CASA volunteer. She comforted and guided us through the process. She was a constant in our lives and our voice in court.

The support of my CASA volunteer enabled me to see my past as a source of strength. It allowed me to leave the suffering behind and graduate valedictorian of my high school class.

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My focus and worldview – believing that we must rise every time we fall – is due to the attention that my siblings and I received from our CASA volunteer.

She transformed our lives.

 

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.

 

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.