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.

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CASA Volunteer Advocates for Foster Child Born to Mother with Severe Mental Illnesses

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Borderline personality disorder. Asperger syndrome. Mood disorder not otherwise specified. Schizophrenia.

Rachel was diagnosed with these mental illnesses and disorders. Then she gave birth to her first son, Henry.

During Henry’s first year of life, Rachel was frightened by him. She heard him speak to her at length, even though his mouth was not moving, and she feared that he wanted to kill her. For almost an entire year, Rachel kept a barrier over her son’s crib so that she would not have to see him. She told her case worker that she hated Henry and wanted to hurt him, even though she knew she could not act on these feelings. To treat her mental illnesses, she took several different anti-psychotropic medications. But she also had a history of abusing heroin, marijuana, and alcohol, combinations that can be increasingly dangerous when paired with such powerful prescription medications.

After nearly a year of being neglected by his mother, the Division of Child Protection and Permanency removed Henry from his home and placed him into a caring foster home. Henry was a very intelligent boy, but it is not surprising that he had some behavioral problems, as he had spent a year in a neglectful home. Sometimes he banged his head against a wall if he did not get his way, and occasionally he would hit others when angry.

By age two, he entered daycare and did well socializing with other toddlers and following teachers’ instructions. Henry’s CASA volunteer, Kathy, was assigned to his case at this time. She visited him in his foster home and also spoke with teachers to make sure he was adjusting well and receiving the care he needed.

Because of Henry’s traumatic childhood, Kathy knew how important a permanent home would be for the boy. When she realized that Henry was starting to form bonds with his foster family, who had no intentions of adopting him, Kathy quickly advocated for him to be placed in a pre-adoptive foster home.

Thankfully, the family court judge agreed with Kathy’s recommendation and soon after, Henry was placed in a new pre-adoptive foster home with a young couple. The new foster family made a book for young Henry to teach him what it means to be adopted. “This is your new brother,” one of the pages read, with a photo of their young son.

At first, Henry was doing well in his new home and was getting along with his new brother. But a few months later, his pre-adoptive family indicated to Kathy that Henry’s behavioral changes were upsetting. The couple was concerned for the safety of their biological son, who Henry sometimes treated aggressively.

Unfortunately, the family felt they could no longer go through with the adoption process.

To many involved with Henry’s case, he was showing early signs of Asperger syndrome, an illness that affected his mother. However, all testing came back negative. Kathy does not believe Henry has any type of mental illness.

“I know that it is very easy to look at the record and say, ‘Oh, yeah, he’s probably got a mental illness,'” Kathy said. “I don’t think that’s fair. He was never given a chance to be who he is… he has been traumatized twice, first from his family and then from the system. He hasn’t been given any consistency or permanency for any aspect of his life. He has switched families, brothers; how can you evaluate a child’s mental health when there’s been no normalcy in his life?”

She believes his behavioral issues were related to the trauma he experienced since he was born. Kathy advocated for Henry to receive specific trauma therapy, which the judge ordered. Kathy said this therapy is helping him tremendously.

Now four years old, Henry is preparing to move out of state to live with a family friend. Kathy has spoken to his new adoptive mother, and she is fully aware of what Henry has been through and what he needs–specifically, the continuation of his therapy.

Most importantly, Kathy said, his behavioral modifications, put in place by his therapists, must be used by everyone in his life. “It has to be consistent. Parents need to use it; not just the school. Everyone has to know how to respond to him when he’s acting out,” Kathy said.

Kathy is hopeful for Henry’s new placement. “His [adoptive mother] seems very willing to cooperate… she is expecting a rocky transition; it’s not like she is going to be surprised if [he acts out], which I think is very good.”

Henry’s spirit hasn’t been broken thus far, Kathy added. “It really speaks volumes of what a survivor he is.”

Kathy is one of over 200 CASA Volunteers in Atlantic and Cape May Counties fighting for the rights of children living in foster care. CASA is central to fulfilling society’s most fundamental obligation by making sure a qualified, compassionate adult will fight for and protect a child’s right to be safe, to be treated with dignity and respect and to learn and grow in the safe embrace of a loving family. Join the Movement by calling CASA today at (609) 601-7800.

Back to School Advice for All Youth

It is finally September, and that means back to school! We put together a list with back to school advice for foster and adoptive children, as well as all children, teens, and college freshmen as they start school this fall. To see a version of this post that color-codes advice by grade level, click here.

For  Foster and Adoptive Children

When children are in foster care or with an adoptive family, sometimes their peers will ask them personal questions. Therefore, it is useful for parents and guardians to come up with a plan for their children to answer these questions ahead of time. About.com provides many useful examples:

  • When someone asks, “Why didn’t your mom want you? Do you know your real mom?” A child can say a few different things: “I don’t want to talk about this right now.” “I don’t share personal information.” “I know who my parents are, and they love me very much.”
  • “Why are you in foster care?” A child can reply, “I need to live where it’s safe right now.” Walking away is always an option, too.
  • “Why are you adopted?” Child: “My parents adopted me because they love me.”
  • The article also mentions how learning to develop a sense of humor can help a child in responding to these peer questions. For example, if a student asks, “Why don’t you look like your mom or brother and sister?” The child can say, “Because I’m better looking!”
  • It is important for children to learn the importance of privacy, and this is a great way to teach them.
  • For more examples, visit: http://adoption.about.com/od/fostering/a/coverstories.htm

For all youth

Organization

  • Write all homework assignments in a planner. For new middle school students, it is also helpful to write locker combinations in a planner as well.
  • To prevent children from forgetting their homework, it is a good idea to always keep backpacks in a designated area of the house. It is also helpful to pack backpacks, lunches, and select outfits the night before school, so that mornings are relaxed and no one is late in the morning.
  • If you are out sick from school, do not forget to makeup your homework. Ask a classmate if you can also copy the notes you missed in class.
  • Be aware of and utilize resources that are available to you. Does your teacher post assignments on her website? Is there a homework hotline, tutoring service, or does your teacher have office hours?
  • Read your entire syllabus for each class, and then write all of the due dates for papers, quizzes, and exams in your planner. This way, you will not need your syllabus on hand to know when assignments are due.

Learning

  • Ask the teacher if you do not understand something or if you are confused!
  • For classes that require memorization, like history, biology, and language classes, make flash cards! Study a little each day.
  • Try your best, but do not beat yourself up for mistakes. No one is perfect.
  • Professors are required to have office hours. Write the office hours on your notebooks for each class, or write them in your planner. Form a study group with your classmates.
  • Review your notes right after class! This reinforces what you just learned, and it only takes 10 minutes or less.
  • Try to learn new things. For the classes not required by your major, take those that will open you up to new ways of thinking.
  • If you are not sure what to major in, see if your school has a career center with resources that provide students with a better idea of what career paths are out there. Ask lots of questions to professionals in fields you might be interested in.

Extracurricular Activities & Socializing

  • It is great to get involved with new activities, like soccer or cheerleading or football, or art classes and karate. But be careful not to overdo it. More than two activities can sometimes lead to stress and burn-out.
  • Befriend students who make you feel comfortable and accept you for who you are.
  • Join clubs to meet new people! Do you like hiking? Join the Ecology Club!
  • Be confident. Sometimes “Fake it ‘til you make it” really works in terms of gaining self confidence.
  • In college, make time to socialize a couple days a week, even if it is just grabbing a cup of coffee with a friend. Life will get busy, but you need to have some down time.
  • If you live in a dorm, introduce yourself to the people on your floor.
  • Keep in touch with close family, friends, and mentors. This can also help if you feel homesick!
  • Join at least one extra curricular activity to meet new people. The options are limitless in college, and they go way beyond what is offered in high school. Do you like Ultimate Frisbee? Chances are, there is a group for that at college.

Health

  • Sleep. Did you know that after studying for a test, going to sleep helps people to better retain that information? Additionally, not getting enough sleep can contribute to lack of focus, depression, and weight gain. So making sure students of all ages are getting enough sleep is a key to success and health.
    • Recommended hours of sleep for different ages:
      • Children between ages 5-10: 10-11 hours of sleep
      • Children and teens between ages 10-17: 8.5-9 hours
      • Adults: 7-9 hours.
  • Set an alarm each day! This is especially important in college when it is 100% up to you to make sure you arrive to class on time.
  • Eat breakfast! It is common for youth to skip this meal, but it is important. It helps students focus better in class, and it prevents them from feeling extremely hungry before lunchtime. (Tips for teen girls).
  • Exercising is important. If an extra curricular activity does not involve exercise, try to make time for it at least twice a week. It relieves stress and promotes health. There are examples of quick workouts here: http://collegelife.about.com/od/healthwellness/a/16-College-Workouts.htm. Or you could try the New York Times’ “Scientific 7-Minute Workout:” http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/05/09/the-scientific-7-minute-workout/.

Additional Sources:

http://childcare.about.com/od/quicktipsforraisingkids/qt/survivingyear.htm

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/teen-angst/201308/five-back-school-tips-teens

http://kidshealth.org/kid/feeling/school/back_to_school.html

http://www.laparent.com/article/ten-tips-for-teen-girls-and-back-to-school-success.html

http://www.sleepfoundation.org/article/how-sleep-works/how-much-sleep-do-we-really-need

Atlantic City Kids Fit Final Mile is One Month Away!

There is a great opportunity for you to “DO AC” next month. The Kids Fit Final Mile is officially one month away! We are grateful and excited to announce that the Atlantic County Council of Education Associations has sponsored the fun run this year.
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There will be face painting, running bib decorating, and mascots interacting with kids before the run! Right before the kids run, there is also a Mascot Fun Run that you won’t want to miss.

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All proceeds from this event will benefit the efforts of CASA and its trained volunteers, who speak on behalf of abused and neglected children in the foster care system and ensure that they are placed in safe, permanent homes.

Have you signed up your children yet? It’s only $15 if you register before Oct. 1, or $20 the day of. Registration begins at 8 a.m. the day of the run. Register today! http://atlanticcitymarathon.eventbrite.com/

Date: Saturday, October 12, 2013

Start Time: 11 a.m.

Location: Bally’s Dennis Courtyard, Park Place and the Boardwalk, Atlantic City, N.J.

For more information, contact CASA at 609.601.7800, e-mail stef@atlanticcapecasa.org, or visit our website: http://atlanticcapecasa.org/FunRun.aspx.

Being the Voice for an Infant Living in Foster Care

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When CASA Volunteer Teresa first read David’s case file more than two years ago, she was horrified. David was sexually abused by his mother as an infant, and the Division removed him from her care when he was just six months old. Though shocked, Teresa did not hesitate to take on the case in her new role as a CASA.

“Right away, I thought, someone has to save this kid so he didn’t end up back there. If [sexual abuse] is already starting at that young of an age, I could only imagine how much worse it could get,” Teresa said. “I couldn’t even imagine someone doing that to their own child, especially at that age.”

In addition to the abuse by David’s mother, the mother’s boyfriend was previously charged with receiving child pornography, for which he was incarcerated, and he had received probation for having alcohol in the presence of an underage girl. He was perpetuating the mother’s sexual abuse toward David.

In the United States, the children most likely to be abused or neglected are younger than 18-months-old, and 80% of children who die from abuse are younger than four-years-old.

Teresa understands how important it is to advocate for foster children in this age group.

“They can’t speak for themselves; most of them are just learning to speak, and they don’t know what’s right or what’s wrong,” she explained. “They just want someone to love them and pay attention to them. If their parents aren’t the right ones for them, they may not know that. They need someone to be their voice.”

When David was removed from his mother’s home, he was placed in foster care with a very nice woman, and he stayed with her for more than two years. During that time, Teresa made sure that David was receiving the appropriate care at his foster home and that he had access to services that would ensure his continued safety and growth.

Teresa was always very happy with the foster mother; she took good care of David and shared Teresa’s understanding of advocacy, and the need to keep David healthy. Once David was in his foster mother’s care for a year, Teresa advocated to the court that he continue living there until permanency was established.

“From the beginning, if she saw anything, she would always fight for what he needed, medical-wise,” Teresa explained of the foster mother. “[David] had ear infections often, so his speech was delayed because it was affecting his hearing. So she pushed to get him to a specialist. She continued to push for his best interest in helping him reach his full potential.” Teresa also supported David by recommending these services through her reports to the court.

David was flourishing in his foster home. He was reaching his developmental milestones on time, he appeared happy during CASA visits, and he did well in daycare while his foster mother was at work.

“Every time I would go visit, David was always very affectionate [with his foster mother] and would go over and hug her and kiss her. You could tell from very early on that there was a bond,” Teresa said.

David’s foster mother had been very interested in adopting him for a long time, and Teresa felt that she would be a great fit for David. David’s mother has been in jail during his entire stay in foster care, and she signed paperwork to relinquish her parental rights. When potential placements with David’s grandparents and father were ruled out by the Division, David was finally able to be adopted by his foster mother.

Teresa was assigned to this case in early 2011, and David’s adoption took place just last month. We are so glad David had a dedicated CASA like Teresa and that he now has a forever family!

Teresa is one of over 200 CASA Volunteers in Atlantic and Cape May Counties fighting for the rights of children living in foster care. CASA is central to fulfilling society’s most fundamental obligation by making sure a qualified, compassionate adult will fight for and protect a child’s right to be safe, to be treated with dignity and respect and to learn and grow in the safe embrace of a loving family. Join the Movement by calling CASA today at (609) 601-7800.

CASA Volunteer and Child Bond Over Baseball

Brian was turning eight when he was removed from his home. His sister was born with opiates in her system, and the Division placed both children in foster care the day after she was born.

It was hard growing up with a dad and mom who suffered from drug addictions. Brian didn’t have what most people would call a “normal” childhood. He often times took care of himself, his father preferring his next high over any interactions with him.

When Brian met his CASA volunteer, Warren Iredell, he took a liking to him very quickly.

“I told him I will always be there for him,” Warren said when he first met Brian. “He’s a super little boy, a lot of fun, very polite, but he misses his mother tremendously.”

On their first meeting, Warren got to know him. What stood out is that Brian mentioned he liked baseball.

“Maybe I’ll bring a glove and we can have a catch,” Warren told him. And he stuck to his word.

When Warren showed up next week, Brian’s resource parent said, “Brian has been waiting for you to come; he’s so excited!”

“I brought a glove for him and me. I went to KMart and picked up one for his size,” Warren said. “After a while, I decided, well, that’s good but maybe I’ll pick up a wiffle ball and bat.”

Because Brian’s father did not play an active role in his life, Warren said Brian did not understand how to correctly throw a ball. So the two of them practiced during their visits, and Brian has learned a lot.

“He loves it; he’s doing real well,” Warren said. “We have a contest with each other. I try to strike him out and he tries to strike me out.”

Warren said it is extremely important for boys to have a male role model. He is the father of six children and has 11 grandchildren, and he said he realizes how important it is to have someone to look up to.

“You can see it with Brian; he now hugs me when I arrive and he hugs me when I leave,” Warren said. “You can see the effect you have on a young boy, just being there for him, and just playing.”

Warren  enjoyed spending time with the child so much that he decided to visit him once a week instead of once every two weeks. In addition to playing baseball together, Warren has also helped Brian with his math and reading homework.

“He was very happy I could help him. He read to me one time… I sat and listened and I helped him with some of the words he had difficulty with,” Warren said.

Sadly, something Brian struggles with is guilt. Brian’s counselor informed Warren that he feels at fault for being taken away from his mother because he witnessed her using drugs.

“I do talk to him and try and tell him that things can get better, but he has to be patient,” Warren said. He told him, “If you need something, I’m there.”

Currently, Brian’s aunt is very interested in caring for him and his sister, so they have been spending weekends there to get used to the new environment.

Warren says Brian likes it there, however, structure is not something the child is acclimated to.

“He had no structure in his life at all, staying up all night long, coming and going whenever he pleased,” Warren explained of Brian’s childhood with his parents. Now that Brian has been in the resource home, where there are rules, “He kind of complains because he has to go to bed at nine o’clock. His aunt also has rules and structure, so this is what he was lacking in his younger years.”

Because their aunt lives out of state, she made a commitment to the Division that she will bring the siblings back home every other weekend so they can spend time with their mother. Their father is currently in jail and has been sentenced to three more years.

Despite all of the adversity he experienced, Brian maintains a positive attitude toward school, and he hopes to join a little league team one day.

“I hope I am making a difference and helping in some small way,” Warren said, adding that he is happy the children now have a relative in their lives who can take care of them.

An Aunt’s Wise Words Inspired Trish to Become a Foster and Adoptive Parent

Trish always knew she wanted to adopt a child one day, but she was hesitant to become a foster parent at first. “I was terrified of falling in love with the child and then having them leave, especially if they left to a situation that wasn’t ideal,” she explained.

It is her aunt’s powerful words that led Trish to change her mind. Ten years ago, Trish’s 17-year-old cousin lost his life to cancer. After his death, his mother—Trish’s aunt—told her, “I had 17 years with my son. And I loved all that time that I had with him, and I would never sacrifice that to spare me the pain of losing him. You can’t not bring someone into your life for fear that you might lose them.”

Trish had not thought of it like that, and these words truly changed her outlook about becoming a foster parent. From there, she and her husband thought, “We have to go for it.”

Six years ago, Trish and her husband finally had this opportunity. The couple took in three sisters who were removed from their home due to suspicion of parental drug use and possible neglect. The sisters were 11, seven, and six years old when they were removed from their home, and they were placed with Trish and her husband shortly after.

The girls were struggling with many emotional problems. Their CASA volunteer, Clare McCarroll, observed that Erin, seven, seemed very angry and would frequently have meltdowns, while Maddie, six, appeared very nervous and clingy, often bursting into tears. Clare noted that a therapist helped Erin and Maddie ease their anxieties and better learn how to verbalize their needs. Lauren, the eldest sister, was also struggling emotionally and was upset about her mother not being there for her. She ultimately chose to live in a youth shelter, but Trish and her husband have always invited her into their home each week because they feel it is important for the girls to maintain a sibling relationship.

About year after taking in the sisters, Trish and her husband took in another foster child, Sally, who is the siblings’ niece. Sally, who was born premature, was six months old and weighed 10 pounds when she arrived at the couple’s home. Sally’s biological mother, age 20, was unemployed, habitually smoked marijuana, and had postpartum depression and untreated bi-polar disorder. She had truly neglected Sally; she routinely fed her diluted whole milk instead of baby formula, never treated Sally’s diaper rash, and had her sleep on a dirty mattress on the floor because her own belongings took over the baby’s crib. The biological father, also 20, struggled with substance abuse.

“When they brought Sally to me, I felt like she bonded with me immediately,” Trish said. She held a birthday party that night for one of her foster daughters and invited extended family. “Sally would watch me as I walked around house. She was so hungry, sucking down bottles. It was an immediate connection, I felt.”

CASA volunteer Robie McKinnon, who was assigned to Sally’s case, noted how much improvement Sally made with Trish and her husband. After just two months, Sally had already gained seven pounds, and her pediatrician said she was now at a healthy weight for her age group. She continued to reach appropriate developmental milestones during her time with them.

While there was a great connection between them, Trish said it was difficult at the same time. “I felt so connected and I was afraid that if she ever left… I didn’t want her to have that feeling that I didn’t care about her because I knew she wouldn’t understand why she left… She is just pure joy. I can’t imagine my life without her. She’s so precious.”

Sally came into Trish’s life at a time when she truly needed to be taken care of. However, it was more complex with Erin and Maddie because they were older and more aware when they came into her care. “They always thought they were going back [with their mother],” Trish said of their demeanor when they first came to live with her. “Their mom would make DYFS out to be wrong, and she put herself in the role of the victim, and the kids bought into that. This made it difficult for them to adapt.”

Three months after the sisters were brought into the couple’s home, CASA Clare observed great improvement. The family even went on a trip to Disney World together. Erin and Maddie expressed their desire to be adopted by Trish and her husband, and the couple was eager to adopt the sisters as well.

The day finally came when Erin and Maddie had to say goodbye to their mother, and a final meeting was scheduled. However, it was a very stressful day; their mother never showed up.

“[Their mother] kept saying she was late but on her way, but it went on to be three hours late,” Trish said. “Finally, I said, this is done. Their mom had no intention of saying goodbye to them. We had so much nervous tension bound up because the kids were afraid to see [their mother] and say goodbye. And they were wondering how she could not come say goodbye.”

Trish had an idea to ease the tension. When the goodbye meeting was called off, Trish resorted to music. She put on Pat Benatar’s “We Belong.”

“‘I said, ‘This is our song, girls.’ And we ran around house. I’ve never in my life had that much tension. I could have ran a marathon… And this morning, that song came on! Every time I hear it, I cry.”

When the girls finally accepted that their mother was not coming for them, Trish said it became a lot easier for them; they had a final answer. Trish commended their therapist, who she said was wonderful and helped them so much through the process.

Sally was adopted by Trish and her husband about a year after her aunts. CASA Robie said she was thrilled with the couple and was happy that they were planning to adopt Sally. She still sees Sally from time to time because the family keeps in touch. “She’s the brightest, most adorable little girl, and happy and a lot of fun. We have tea parties when we get together,” she said of Sally, who is now five.

“We’re a family, and families kind of morph and change and grow,” Trish said. “Especially these days; remarriages, divorce, step children. And I think that [adopting from foster care] doesn’t have to be an extraordinary situation. We’re just a normal family now.”