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.


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.”

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The Best Decision I Ever Made

Like most of us, Judy leads a busy life. Business appointments, errands and family responsibilities can stretch Judy to the limit. Some may balk at the busy pace, but it does not bother Judy. She is used to the mileage and the challenges of a busy life. She is a mother, a grandmother, a business owner, a board member and a Court Appointed Special Advocate.


Judy first heard of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) and their work with children living in foster care at a local Chamber of Commerce meeting. She was interested enough to schedule a one-on-one interview. It was at that meeting with a current CASA that she seriously considered adding another cog to her already very busy wheel. Already active in her community and running a thriving business, Judy wondered if she could balance those things with her family life and CASA responsibilities. Her only concern, “Could she commit to the time?” Thankfully, her answer was a resounding “Yes!”

Like many business owners in southern New Jersey, Judy’s business is seasonal. She attends to a lot of maintenance, prep-work and business travel in the off-season and full-force management and customer service during the in-season. Ultimately, it was Judy’s family-oriented business and the interactions that she had with children as a result, that convinced her to become a CASA. She knew that her rapport with the children that she encountered in her business, and the way that they responded to her would be beneficial to her role as a CASA. Despite her initial hesitation, she made the commitment to CASA.

“As an advocate, you are truly the eyes and ears of the family court judge and a voice for a child who might be floating aimlessly in the system or is being pulled in different directions,” said Judy.  In this work, “It is so easy to be directed by emotions and opinions,” which makes it doubly important to “keep emotions, frustrations and opinions in perspective.” Judy’s natural practicality helps her understand this important part of the CASA mantra – abandon all of your pre-conceived biases. That is the best way to help the children. “Courts have laws to work within,” Judy says, “and there are rules and systems that must be adhered to. It is what it is.” It is this system, this set of laws that the CASA volunteer must work within to provide the best quality advocacy that they can deliver.

When asked if she felt good about her role as an Advocate, the pragmatist in her was quick to point out that her efforts as a CASA are not about making her feel good. It is about the children. Rephrasing the question instead to ask if she thinks she has made a positive impact, “Yes, yes she does.” She explains that over time she began to have concerns about her youngest CASA child, a concern she discussed with the child’s state caseworker. As a result, the infant-soon-to-be-toddler was placed in a new foster home. That child is now thriving – happy, vocal and affectionate. The positive changes to the young child make Judy happy, “very happy for the child,” she stresses.

On Judy’s last visit, she was touched when the new foster mom gave her a picture of the child all dressed up, smiling, confident. The little girl was finally happy.

It was that little girls’ smiling face, her newfound happiness, which turned this mother, grandmother, business owner, board member and CASA’s heart to joy. With tears in her eyes, she got back on the road knowing that becoming a CASA was one of the best decisions she had ever made.



The Role of the CASA Advocate is One of Patience

Hank greets everyone with a big, welcoming smile and friendly 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.


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. @CASA4Children

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

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.

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


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.


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?


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.

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