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 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.

boy with head down on chalk board

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.

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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When Families Reunite Everyone Wins

One day at school, a seven-year-old Jonas was found with an apple-sized bruise on the back of his neck. His teacher brought him to the school nurse, who found more bruises on the child’s back, sides, and arms. Most disconcerting were the long, thin, vertical marks that stretched from his neck to the middle of his back. The result of a belt, the nurse thought.

The nurse asked the boy how he got the bruises.

“I scratched myself,” he replied.

The next day, a worker from child services was called into the school to speak with the child. In addition to the linear, vertical bruises on his back, he also had similar horizontal marks across his rib cage. His ear was swollen, his legs were bruised and scabbed, and he had dark marks on his behind and his bicep.

When the division worker asked the child how this happened to him, he said he was not in pain and that he scratched himself.

“Is your mokids_drawingther nice to you?” The division worker then asked.

The boy was silent.

Back at home, Jonas lived with his infant sister Mia, his mother, and Mia’s father. As a child, the mother had been disciplined with a belt and used the same manner to discipline her son. But one day after the child had made a mess, she struck her son seven times with a belt creating the bruises that the teacher, nurse and case worker were looking at now.

A Notice of Emergency Removal was issued, and the siblings were placed under the custody and supervision of the Division. Fortunately, the children were able to stay with their grandmother during this time.

CASA Volunteer, Bill was assigned to the children’s case. During a visit to Jonas’ school, Bill learned that he was having difficulty interacting with his peers; he would act out aggressively if other students got too close. His ability to focus also needed improvement. Bill asked the teachers if there were opportunities for counseling or training that could help. They suggested interpersonal relationship or anger management training, and Bill put in a request to the courts for these services.

Bill also sought out the children’s medical records and visited them at their grandmother’s house. When Mia was diagnosed with medical problems that were not being corrected with medication, Bill recommended early intervention services for her, which were ordered by the courts.

While the children were doing well with the grandmother, the children’s mother and boyfriend received counseling and continued to see their children on a regular schedule. She was making progress, even being diagnosed and now treated for PSTD, which she suffered from because of her previous service in the armed forces.

While CASA Bill continued to monitor the children’s well being, he stayed on top of the mother’s progress as well. When she was involved in a domestic violence issue with her boyfriend, Bill recommended supervised visits and an anger management course for both adults.

After six months of living with their grandmother, both children were improving. Mia was reaching her development milestones and Jonas was doing well in school both with his grades and interactions and relationships with his peers. The children’s mother and her partner continued to attend counseling and were also improving their relationship with one another and with the children.

After a year, the mother and her boyfriend successfully completed all of the recommended course and were finally at a place to make a safe home for their young family. At this point, CASA Bill had seen the progress made by both adults and recommended that the children be reunited with their mother. A few months later, both children were happily reunited with their mother and her boyfriend, Mia’s father. Young Jonas now receives all  A’s and B’s on his report card and Mia is an active 18-month old and can point to her nose and ears when asked.

Had it not been for CASA Bill’s diligence and dedication to this family, Jonas and Mia may have never had the opportunity to grow up together with their parents in a safe, loving home. Jonas’ mother was grateful for CASA Bill’s investment in her family saying, “He believed in me and my ability to provide a home for my children, his dedication to my children and to our whole family allowed us to heal.”

My name is Madeline and I am a CASA Volunteer. I am you.

BellaPhotocolorI have been a CASA Volunteer for only six months, but I feel like I have made a lifetime difference for three young siblings Bella age 10, six-year-old Estevan and Rosa age four.

One morning Bella was beaten so severely with a belt that she was unable to sit down in school. Luckily her teacher took notice and after an inspection by the school nurse it was discovered that Bella was covered in fresh and weeks-old bruises and strap marks from her shoulders to her thighs. The Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) was called immediately and soon after all three children were removed from their parents care.

I was assigned to the children’s case soon after they entered the foster care system. The siblings, who immigrated from Mexico to the U.S. with their parents two years prior, spoke limited English when they entered the child welfare system and luckily were placed in one of the few Spanish-speaking foster homes in the region. As a Latina, I understood how important being in a Spanish-speaking home was for the children – not just for the language but for all of the unique cultural and traditional characteristics of a Spanish home. For Bella, Estevan and Rosa their foster home was a place were they would identify, be more familiar and comfortable.

When I first visited the children, they were happy and adjusting well to their foster family. They were speaking Spanish with their foster mother and enjoying the same food, culture and traditions that they remembered from home. However I quickly realized that while both Bella and Estevan were strong in their native language, they struggled with even the most basic words written or spoken in English.

I learned from their foster mother that Bella, despite being in the fourth grade, was failing a majority of her subjects in school because she was unable to do her homework. She would become frustrated and refuse to continue – even with the help of her foster mother. Estevan was having similar problems. Despite being in the first grade, he was unable to recognize the letters of the alphabet and his teacher was considering holding him back a year. Even though I knew how important Spanish culture and traditions were to these children – an education was equally important and necessary for them to succeed.

The children’s foster mother and I came up with a plan to improve Bella and Estevan’s language skills and it started with my visits being conducted in English. On my second visit,  I also brought alphabet flash cards for Estevan so we could practice his ABC’s. That first day went better than expected. Rosa was reluctant to speak in English at first, but she adjusted quickly. Estevan was elated to see the flash cards and I learned later from his foster mom that he played for hours with the flash cards long after I left.

This was a good start, but I knew that for Bella and Estevan to truly master the English language they would need a tutor from school. So, in my first court report to the Family Court Judge, I recommended Bella and Estevan receive additional education services at their school. The Judge agreed and ordered the services.

I am happy to report that after only six months of additional tutoring Bella, who could barley hold a conversation in English when I met her, is a talkative 11 year-old who can speak nearly perfect English, on her last report card she received all A’s and enjoys going to school and doing her homework. Estevan now knows all the letters in the alphabet and is exceeding his teacher’s expectations – he will advance to second grade next year. He will happily sing his ABC’s for you in the proudest voice a six-year-old can muster. And although Rosa doesn’t start school until this month, she has taken an interest to learning too. In fact, Estevan has been teaching her the alphabet using his flash cards!

Although my time as Bella, Estevan and Rosa’s CASA Volunteer has been brief, I know that in the lives of these children the last six months have been invaluable. I have watched them flourish in their Spanish-speaking foster home and, most importantly at school. I have witnessed their individual achievements in finally understanding and completing homework and being able to communicate with school mates and other neighborhood children. Bella, Estevan, and even Rosa, are more confident now then the terrified children who were removed from their home less than a year ago.  I am proud to say that I was a part of that transformation from scared child to self-assured student. I know that I had a hand in putting them on the path to reach their highest potential – I don’t want to imagine the story ending any other way.

Bella, Estevan and Rosa’s story is just one among the 1,000 children who are in the foster care system in Atlantic and Cape May Counties. Many more children have stories like Bella’s, Estevan’s and Rosa’s who need a helping hand. Will you help lift up their voice? To donate to CASA or to volunteer please call (609) 601-7800 or visit

CASA for Children at the South Jersey Leprechaun Leap

CASA for Children of Atlantic and Cape May Counties will have a booth at the South Jersey Leprechan Leap in Brigantine Sunday, Mach 13 from 12:30 – 3 p.m. Come out and learn about CASA, what we do and how you can get involved!

The South Jersey Leprechan Leap is an event put on by the South Jersey Cancer Fund. Proceeds from the event benetit the organziation. The day will have live music by the Irish Sand Crabs, a bonfire and a pet costume contest. The big event starts at 2:15 p.m. when attendees will leap into the ocean to teh music of live bagpipers!

See you there.