Community Members Can Make Life Better for Vulnerable Children

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and our attention rightly turns to ways we can support children who have experienced abuse or neglect. According to the US Children’s Bureau, 687,000 children lived in foster care in the United States due to abuse or neglect in 2018. According to Kids Count New Jersey, nearly 500 children and youth lived in foster care in Atlantic and Cape May Counties during the same year.

For children to thrive despite abuse or neglect, resilience is the key. The most common factor in developing resilience, according to the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, is having a stable relationship with a supportive adult.

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That is where Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for Children of Atlantic and Cape May County steps in. We recruit, train and support volunteers who get to know the children and their families, and advocate for those children’s needs in court. Our volunteers are part of an expansive network of 93,300 volunteers across the country who care deeply about children and are working to make life better for those children living in foster care

The children that CASA serves have often been disappointed or hurt by the adults in their lives. Parental drug abuse, and the child maltreatment that is often associated with drug abuse, accounted for more than one third of child removals nationwide in 2018. For children living in these situations, they become accustomed to being over looked and it is difficult for them to trust or open up to others – even those who may be able to help them.

By developing relationships with these children and advocating for their needs, CASA volunteers can make a major impact in mitigating the long-term damage from abuse or neglect.

Although babies are at the highest risk for maltreatment, older youth are most in need of advocates. Nearly 20 percent of children in foster care nationally are age 15 or older. In Atlantic and Cape May Counties, that number is 12 percent. Experiencing abuse or neglect has long-term consequences for these youth.

The US Children’s Bureau has found that at age 17, more than one quarter of youth in foster are referred for substance abuse treatment or counseling at some point. By age 21, 20 percent of youth who were in foster care at age 17 had been incarcerated within the prior two years. Additionally, by age 21, 22 percent of former foster youth had given birth to or fathered a child and 42 percent experienced homelessness at some point.

A stable relationship with a supportive adult – like a CASA volunteer – can help children do well even when they have faced significant hardships. At age 17, 94 percent of youth in foster care reported that they had a supportive adult in their lives who they could rely on for advice or emotional support. Because of this, we continue to have great hope for these youth despite the long odds against them.

Nationwide, CASA programs serve approximately one-third of older youth in foster care. In Atlantic and Cape May Counties, 94 percent of foster youth have a CASA volunteer. Our volunteers undergo training to understand the impact of trauma on children. They advocate for services that promote healing and help children build resilience. The work CASA volunteers do is life changing, and sometimes lifesaving.

Especially now, as we are experiencing a global health crisis, foster youth need advocates. Many of our children are from vulnerable populations who will be dramatically affected by this pandemic – losing the meals they depend upon at school, missing school lessons for lack of internet, or simply increasing the anxiety in children already traumatized by their experience.

Additionally, we have to consider the children not yet assigned a CASA volunteer, or those who will enter the system while this crisis is still unfolding. We need to ensure that those children will also have the benefit of a CASA volunteer to advocate for their best interest – especially during this complex time and long after this crisis ends.

Visit https://atlanticcapecasa.org/getinvolved/ to start the process now.

 


Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for Children’s mission to speak on behalf of abused and neglected children is central to fulfilling society’s most fundamental obligation to protect a child’s right to be safe, treated with respect and to help them reach their fullest potential. For more information about CASA, visit AtlanticCapeCASA.org.

Foster Parenting as a Career

Although controversial, the idea of treating fostering as a full-time paid position, is gaining in popularity. A handful of governments are experimenting with this idea. In 2016 Illinois implemented a pilot program with professional foster parents. Parts of Texas started using professional foster parents in 2017.

Increasingly, children come into foster care with serious behavioral and mental issues. These issues require intensive training and understanding.

Jill Duerr Berrick, professor at the School of Social Welfare at UC – Berkley, states that the idea emerged from a realization that some foster children have extreme needs. Also, over the past 70 years, the number of foster homes have declined significantly. Two parent homes, with a stay at home wife, is no longer the norm as it was in the 1950’s.

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Berrick states “professionalizing foster care isn’t just about the money. It means you’ve been thoughtfully trained and supported to do a good job.”

Retention rates are low for foster parenting. In fact, a study of over 5,000 foster parents showed a 30-50% of foster parents quit within the first 18 months. Half of those cited lack of support and training.

Controversial? Yes. Many believe fostering should remain altruistic. “Kids know the difference between a job and not a job,” Tracey Field is the director/manager of the Child Welfare Strategy Group for the Annie E. Casey Foundation. She feels this model, “really reimagines foster care – but not in a good way.”

Professional foster parents usually foster the children with serious mental, emotional or behavioral issues. In Milwaukee’s Professional Foster Care Program, these children have many appointments throughout the week. This requires a full-time commitment from the foster parent; they cannot hold another job and still support the child’s needs.

Some children feel they are just cash cows when any money is involved. Others feel differently. Heavenly Morrow, lived with professional foster parents in Milwaukee from age 16 – 17; she stated she never felt like her foster parents were in it for the money.

 


Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for Children’s mission to speak on behalf of abused and neglected children is central to fulfilling society’s most fundamental obligation to protect a child’s right to be safe, treated with respect and to help them reach their fullest potential. For more information about CASA, visit AtlanticCapeCASA.org.

 

Foster Care & The Holidays

Guest post by Dr. John N. DeGarmo, Ed.D Originally written for Foster Focus Magazine https://www.fosterfocusmag.com/articles/foster-care-holidays

The stockings are hung, by the chimney with care, in hopes that…In hopes of what? For many children who have been placed into the foster care system, they have come from homes where there was no Christmas, there was no hope. They have come from families that did not celebrate a holiday. They have come from environments where there were no presents, no tree. They have come from homes where there was not holiday joy or love.

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The Holiday season is upon us. Christmas, Hanukah, New Years, Kwanzaa; these are times that can be extremely difficult for many foster children. During this time of Holiday Cheer, many foster children are faced with the realization that they will not be “home for the holidays,” so to speak, with their biological family members. When they wake up Christmas morning, and are surrounded by people who just may be strangers to them, strangers who are laughing and having fun, it can be a very difficult time for them, indeed. To be sure, it is a day that is a stark reminder to these children that they are not with their own family. It is during the holidays when families are supposed to be together, yet these children in care are not. They are not with their families, and they may not know when they will see them next.

Along with this, foster children also struggle with trying to remain loyal to their birth parents while enjoying the holiday season with their foster family. There are those moments when a child from foster care may feel guilty for experiencing joy and laughter with their foster family, they may feel that they are not only letting their birth mother or father down, they might even be betraying their birth parents and member of their biological family, causing even more grief, guilt, and anxiety within the child during this season of holiday joy. Indeed, this can be a very emotionally stressful time for all involved.

As one who has fostered many children, myself, during the holiday time, I have found that it is important to address these issues beforehand. Before Thanksgiving, before Christmas, before Hanukah; even before family members and friends come to visit, foster parents need to prepare their foster child ahead of time.

To begin with, foster parents can best help their foster child by spending some time and talking about the holiday. Perhaps the holiday being celebrated in their new home is one that their birth family never celebrated, or is a holiday that is unfamiliar with them. Let the foster child know how your family celebrates the holiday, what traditions your family celebrate, and include the child in it.

Ask your foster child about some of the traditions that his family had, and try to include some of them into your own home during the holiday. This will help him not only feel more comfortable in your own home during this time, but also remind him that he is important, and that his birth family is important, as well. Even if his traditions are ones that you do not celebrate in your own home, try to include some of his into your own holiday celebration, in some way and some fashion.

Far too many children have come to my own home and have never celebrated their birthday, have never sung a Christmas carol, have never opened up a present. Perhaps you have had similar experiences, as well. Sadly, this is not uncommon for children in foster care. It is important to keep in mind that many foster children may come from a home where they did not celebrate a particular season, nor have any traditions in their own home. What might be common in your own home may be completely new and even strange to your foster child. This often includes religious meanings for the holiday you celebrate. Again, take time to discuss the meaning about your beliefs to your foster child beforehand.

More than likely, your foster child will have feelings of sadness and grief, as he is separated from his own family during this time of family celebration.

After all, he is separated from his family during a time that is supposed to be centered AROUND family. However much you provide for him, however much love you give to him, you are still not his family.

Like so many children in foster care, they want to go home, to live with their family members, despite the abuse and trauma they may have suffered from them, and despite all that you can and do offer and provide for him. Therefore, this time of holiday joy is especially difficult.

You can help him by allowing him to talk about his feelings during the holidays. Ask him how he is doing, and recognize that he may not be happy, nor enjoy this special time.

Look for signs of depression, sadness, and other emotions related to these. Allow him space to privately grieve, if he needs to, and be prepared if he reverts back to some behavior difficulties he had when he first arrived into your home. You may find that he becomes upset, rebellious, or complains a lot. Along with this, he may simply act younger than he is during this time. After all, he is trying to cope with not being with his own family during this time when families get together. These feelings and these actions are normal, and should be expected. You can also help your foster child by sending some cards and/or small gifts and presents to their own parents and birth family members. A card or small gift to his family members can provide hope and healing for both child and parent, and help spread some of the holiday cheer that is supposed to be shared with all.

Each family has that crazy old Aunt Ethel, loud and obnoxious Uncle Fred, and the ever hard of hearing and over whelming Grandma Lucy.

Your family is used to these relatives and their personalities, your child in foster care is not.

If you have family members visit your home, prepare your foster child for this beforehand. Let him know that the normal routine in your home may become a little “crazy” during this time, that it may become loud, and describe some of the “characters” from your own family that may be coming over to visit. Remind him of the importance of using good behavior and manners throughout this period. Along with this, remind your own family members that your foster child is a member of your family, and should be treated as such.

Remind them that he is to be treated as a member of the family, and not to judge him or his biological family members, or fire questions at him. This also includes gift giving. If your own children should be receiving gifts from some of your family members, your foster child should, as well. Otherwise, your foster child is going to feel left out, and his sadness and grief will only increase.

Be prepared, though, for some in your family not to have presents and gifts for him. Have some extra ones already wrapped, and hidden away somewhere, ready to be brought out, just in case.

With a little preparation beforehand from you, this season of joy can be a wonderful time for your foster child, one that may last in his memory for a life time, as well as in your memory, too. After all, the gift of love is one that can be shared, not only during the holidays, but all year long.

Dr. John DeGarmo is an international expert in parenting and foster care and is a TEDx Talk presenter. Dr. John is the founder and director of The Foster Care Institute. He has been a foster parent for 17 years, and he and his wife have had over 60 children come through their home. He is an international consultant to schools, legal firms, and foster care agencies, as well as an empowerment and transformational speaker and trainer for schools, child welfare, businesses, and non profit organizations. He is the author of several books, including The Foster Care Survival Guide and writes for several publications. Dr. John has appeared on CNN HLN, Good Morning, America, and NBC, FOX, CBS, and PBS stations across the nation. He and his wife have received many awards, including the Good Morning America Ultimate Hero Award. He can be contacted at drjohndegarmo@gmail, through his Facebook page, Dr. John DeGarmo, or at The Foster Care Institute.  Watch my TEDx Talk on Foster Care HERE

 


 

Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for Children’s mission to speak on behalf of abused and neglected children is central to fulfilling society’s most fundamental obligation to protect a child’s right to be safe, treated with respect and to help them reach their fullest potential. For more information about CASA, visit AtlanticCapeCASA.org.

Everyone Can Be A Youth Advocate

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Every year more than 20,000 youth across the country age out of the foster care system. Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for Children of Atlantic and Cape May Counties is one local organization that is trying to help older foster youth make lasting connections and prepare for adulthood if they leave foster care without a permanent home. As many as 50 percent of youth who age out of foster care are likely to become homeless.

CASA has seen first-hand the negative effects of youth lingering in the foster care system. Youth ages seven to 17 are at greater risk of not finding a permanent home and aging out of the system. This means many age out of the child welfare system at age 18 with no family to call their own. These youth have minimal skills, a high school education, at best, and lack the basic knowledge to live on their own. You can imagine what happens to these youth. Homeless, jobless or underemployed, these youth can turn to crime and drugs as a means to survive. A young person bereft of any family ties lacks the foundation and guidance that all youth need as they mature into adulthood.

Having permanent adult and family connections, like a CASA volunteer, provides teenagers with the critical legal and emotional support that all young people need as they transition into adulthood and possibly continue their education, seek employment, and start new relationships.

CASA volunteers specifically help this age group by encouraging educational achievement, ensuring sibling and parental visits to keep family relations intact, recommending appropriate long-term placements and helping improve social relations. CASA’s number one priority is to help them find a permanent home so they do not age out of the system. If a permanent home is not possible, we want them to be as prepared for the future as they can be.

Not everyone will be a CASA volunteer, but everyone can be a youth advocate.

Here are some thing you can do to help older youth in need:

  1. Become a CASA volunteer or mentor an older youth
  2. Financially support organizations that work with teens
  3. Volunteer with an agency that provides assistance to teens
  4. Support legislators who promote laws supporting positive outcomes for foster youth
  5. Speak out and advocate against laws that may negatively effect foster youth
  6. Help others understand the need to help all youth experience equal opportunity

When we work together to protect vulnerable youth, it literally saves lives. We all have a role to play, what will yours be?


Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for Children’s mission to speak on behalf of abused and neglected children is central to fulfilling society’s most fundamental obligation to protect a child’s right to be safe, treated with respect and to help them reach their fullest potential. For more information about CASA, visit AtlanticCapeCASA.org.

When Something Goes Right

Merv was looking for something to do in retirement. Something meaningful. As a former trial attorney, Merv knew the court system and bureaucracy and felt comfortable advocating on behalf of others, so he felt well prepared to take on the role as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA).

Through his professional experience, Merv knew that the wheels of bureaucracy move slow, and working within that system takes persistence, and more often, strong-willed persistence. Ultimately, it was Merv’s prior work as a family therapist that he believes prepared him for his work as a CASA volunteer. His perspective into socioeconomic issues facing families gave him the knowledge to effectively counsel parents and sort through the challenges facing the children and their families. These insights proved the most helpful as he took on some of the more challenging cases as a CASA.

Merv is no stranger to the unique challenges children in foster care face. Now advocating for a brother and sister, placed in separate homes, Merv does what he can to help the siblings connect. Recently, the sister made a birthday card for her brother and asked Merv to bring it to him. The brother was overjoyed to receive a special message from his sister on his birthday – so much so that he asked Merv to read the card to him twice.

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While Merv acknowledges that some cases can be frustrating, he knows that he is striving for what is best for that child.

Merv’s dedication to making a difference in a child’s life keeps him engaged during the toughest situations. Merv notes that, “you may not always get the outcome you may want most for a child – such as reunification or adoption, but the people who work on behalf of these children have good intentions and work hard to get them services they need.” Sometimes, even the toughest cases have silver-lining outcomes. “It is rewarding when something goes right for these children,” Merv says.


Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for Children’s mission to speak on behalf of abused and neglected children is central to fulfilling society’s most fundamental obligation to protect a child’s right to be safe, treated with respect and to help them reach their fullest potential. For more information about CASA, visit AtlanticCapeCASA.org.

Understanding How Trauma Affects Children

Guest Blog by Jeff Warren for CASA SHaW (Somerset, Hunterdon and Warren Counties)

Over many decades we have learned more about foster care and the children placed within resource homes. They are moved because of outside circumstances beyond their control. They are often confused. There is massive stress permeating their lives.  There are struggles. And there is trauma inflicted within them.

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We have accumulated more widespread knowledge over the past decade about how mental and physical trauma affects children, their growth, education, overall well-being, and how it has negatively manifested itself into a societal cycle we aim to break. We are becoming more and more aware of what trauma is and how we can combat it. Our Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) understand, through their training, how traumatic experiences in children impact them in an array of ways. We must continue to educate the public at large if we want to see more positive results and vicious cycles broken.

Based on a report commissioned by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), we know that nearly half of all children in the United States, a staggering 46%, have experienced at least one traumatic incident in their lives. These traumatic experiences are:

  • Abuse and neglect
  • Exposure to substance use and abuse
  • Parents or guardians who spent time in prison
  • Experiencing economic hardship
  • Divorce
  • Witnessing domestic abuse
  • Living with a mentally ill adult
  • Victim of or witness to violence in their neighborhood
  • Death of a parent

Childhood trauma a very serious public health issue, and the effects are profound.  More of our population in the United States is in prison than any other time in the history of our country. More of our population continues to become addicted to alcohol and other drugs. If we want to alter how childhood trauma affects us as a society in general, we must look to combat the aforementioned issues that deeply affect children and their families.

There is a good chance that you know someone – and it doesn’t matter what age – who has been through a traumatic event in their life. The trauma they’ve faced will, in some way shape or form, dictate aspects of their life. Now is the time to consider what happened to them, not question what is wrong with them. Let’s continue to educate our communities about the harmful effects of childhood trauma and embrace changes to the way we think so we can all get better as a society. If we all make a small difference, we can all help families and children make a big difference in their lives. By having just one caring, trusted adult in a child’s life can buffer the effects of trauma. That’s why CASA is here for our local community.

 


Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for Children’s mission to speak on behalf of abused and neglected children is central to fulfilling society’s most fundamental obligation to protect a child’s right to be safe, treated with respect and to help them reach their fullest potential. For more information about CASA, visit AtlanticCapeCASA.org.

Seeing Things Through

Marylou rolls up her sleeves and gets things done – whether it was during her career in consulting or as a volunteer at the Ronald McDonald house where she has volunteered for years. As she explained, “I like to be hands on not behind the scenes but directly with the people who need the services.”

Responsibility comes first

So, when Marylou “failed” retirement, not once but twice, she began searching for a place to volunteer in the Cape May County area where she and her husband have a home. Her husband attended an Avalon Lions Club meeting where CASA presented. That night, he told her that he had found a perfect fit for her – matching her need to be hands on with her great organizational skills.

Four years ago, Marylou embarked on her new role as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) and has since advocated for eight different children. “My husband says I am relentless,” she said. “I want to see things through and as a CASA you have to persist to get the resources the children need.”

CASA Marylou also credits her ability to build relationships with creating opportunities for dialogue between biological parents, foster parents, caseworkers, and the many other people who are involved with the children. She says it can be overwhelming particularly for the child to have to interface with so many people. Sometimes the case will go on for an extended period, and caseworkers may change, the child may go into a different foster home, often out of the county of origin. Then the child and the CASA have to start anew with a different system and different people. The only constant in the child’s life is the CASA volunteer.

CASA Marylou’s compassionate character means she wants to solve all the children’s problems and it frustrates her knowing she sometimes cannot. She noted that teenagers present unique challenges. Younger children are adopted more often, and teenagers sometimes are in the system until they age out. Marylou wishes there were more resources to help these teens transition from the foster system to adult life. She has been working on one case for nearly four years and the teenager is likely to age out.

Despite these challenges, CASA Marylou has been able to see many of the children end up in stable environments – either through reunification or adoption. She will continue to use her energy and talents to benefit children through her volunteer efforts at the Ronald McDonald House in Philadelphia and in Cape May County as a CASA. Marylou’s husband was right: CASA was a good fit for her and the children of Cape May County who need advocates like her.

 


Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for Children’s mission to speak on behalf of abused and neglected children is central to fulfilling society’s most fundamental obligation to protect a child’s right to be safe, treated with respect and to help them reach their fullest potential. For more information about CASA, visit AtlanticCapeCASA.org.