The Role of the CASA Advocate is One of Patience

Hank greets everyone with a big, welcoming smile and sparkling blue eyes. His presence is comforting, and that is especially important because Hank is a CASA for Children advocate who speaks on behalf of children living in the foster care system.

Children living in foster care have experienced traumatizing abuse or neglect. A comforting, consistent, caring adult, like Hank with a bright smile and a big heart, is just what these children need at what could be the saddest time of their young lives.

When you listen to CASA Hank talk about the two girls, ages five and seven, and their nine-year-old brother who he advocates for, you hear how much he genuinely cares about their welfare.

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You can hear the excitement in Hank’s voice when he talks about the boy, who we will call Jack, and all the potential he sees in him. The first time Hank met Jack at his school, Hank says, “He met me with a big grin and immediately interacted with me. It was a very gratifying experience.”

Hank and Jack formed their first connection over baseball, discussing the great Hank Aaron during one of his visits. On the next visit Hank says, “This little boy was so excited to tell me all about how Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record.” On the next visit Jack is “telling me all about Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King. He is such an impressive and engaging little boy. We can only hope the system we have can do right by him,” said Hank.

Jack’s two little sisters, who we will call Molly and Kristen, have also touched Hank’s heart. They live in a different foster placement from their brother, as often happens when multiple siblings are removed from their home.

In spite of the trauma the younger Molly has experienced, “she is still a typical five-year-old, excited as she runs to show me her latest craft or coloring project,” said Hank. However, Hank’s eyes sadden a bit when he recounts a conversation with seven-year-old Kristen. “When I asked her if there was anything she wanted me to tell the judge, she answered, ‘Tell the judge that I don’t want to be a foster kid anymore, tell him I want to go home,’” Hank said.

While Hank stays focused on the children, the case still involves the adults as well, including foster, biological, and adoptive parents. The challenges facing many of the adults in the children’s lives sometimes compound the trauma that the children have already experienced – their mom disappears for two months, then returns; their dad is not initially in the picture; the foster parents were not interested in adoption, and then later wanted to adopt. It is easy to see how the children’s voices can get lost in the process. Even when Hank was certain that the children were finally going to realize their “forever adoptive home,” the case took a different path as the children’s father, now in a stable home and relationship, stepped in to bring his children home.

When Hank met them at their family court hearing, he could not help but notice a close and affectionate relationship between dad and son. You could see that “Jack was proud of his dad,” said Hank.

For Hank, because regardless of each family circumstance, “As a CASA,” Hank says, “even though I may be conflicted at times…I give the court my observations and let the judge take it from there. In this case, there is a dad who loves his kids and the kids want to go home.”

Hank’s role as a CASA has changed his view of the child welfare system. It has also been both a spiritual and analytical journey for him. After years as a member of a hospital board, “It was time for me to have more personal contact. I wanted to be a positive person (making a difference) on an individual level,” Hank said.

CASA advocates bring so many skills and personality traits to their role. As Hank spoke about his case, it was easy to see how important every one of these traits are to be CASA. For Hank, he will continue to advocate for the best interest of Jack, Molly and Kristen…watching over them, hopeful that their journey will have a happy ending – that is what being a CASA is all about: making a difference, one child at a time.

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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

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.

Substance Abuse — The Thief that Robs Parent from Child

What do we really want for our children? We want them to grow into kind, functioning adults who are joyful, find their purpose and ultimately contribute to society. Easy stuff right? Under the best of circumstances, that’s a pretty tall order.

sadchildParents will do whatever it takes to help their children reach these goals. It can be challenging. For starters, kids need safety and security and food and shelter. But also important are clothing, medical care, heat in cold climates, lessons in hygiene, boundary setting, emotional support, socializing. The list goes on and on. But love and consistency are at the center of developing a young child, born full of potential, into a healthy adult.

But what if, as a parent, you don’t have the all the tools you need? What if you realize the big job ahead of you? What if you get scared? Or you don’t have the best coping skills? What if drugs or alcohol gave you relief? Or, you thought it did.

Enter substance abuse into a family, and even a child’s most basic needs are at risk.

Though each child’s experience will vary, most children of parents who suffer from substance abuse face a myriad of issues that affect the child’s entire life:

A parent might not come home at night, leaving the children to fend for themselves;

Mom cannot keep promises and may not even remember a promise was made;

Dad may have trouble keeping a job and struggle with paying bills, providing food or medical care;

Mom cannot help with homework, prepare meals or provide lessons in personal hygiene.

Consider this child, a child of a parent who suffers from substance abuse and you can imagine him going to school hungry, perhaps unwashed, in unclean and poor fitting clothes with incomplete homework. He or she, most likely on top of all that they endure at home, will experience teasing and bullying at school. He or she, most likely, has no coping skills to deal with the day they’ve been given.

Add family fights, neglect and emotional or physical abuse, and that’s a recipe that can lead to a child or children being removed from their home and placed into foster care.

Foster care can isolate a child, preventing them from forming healthy relationships with their peers. We can hope their teacher offers kindness instead of a reprimand for incomplete homework. Hopefully, the cafeteria server sees a hungry child and gives an extra helping and offers a smile. But in spite of the kindness offered, the feeling of hopelessness is a natural response to being removed from their home, and even though it is through no fault of their own, the child feels responsible for tearing the family apart.

With all that suffering placed on their small shoulders, the child begins to lose focus at school, they act out, they cannot see a future for themselves. All too often, they feel lost, confused and voiceless.

Fortunately, for a child living in foster care, their hope, their voice comes in the form of a CASA volunteer. A CASA volunteer may be the only compassionate, consistent adult in that child’s precarious life. One single bond from a caring adult can give hope to a child who deserves joy and the opportunity to reach their potential. One single bond can save a child’s life.

CASA volunteers are trained in the complicated issues of families dealing with substance abuse. A CASA volunteer can help guide families to the resources and the support they need to help break the cycle of substance abuse, get their family back together and ensure another child, another family, is given the opportunity to thrive.

Learn more at AtlanticCapeCASA.org