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.

I meet Jackson 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.

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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 Jackson’s ex-wife. Once the investigation was complete, all of the children were removed from her care. Another aunt took in Jackson’s two girls, the two older children went to live with their biological father and a foster family takes in Jackson’s two boys.

DCP&P, CASA and the courts, work hard to keep families tighter, that is always the first choice whenever possible. Cooperation from all parties, especially the parents, is the key to ensuring reunification. Jackson understood this immediately and made sure he did everything necessary to bring his kids back home. Jackson’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 Jackson, then sleepovers supervised by Jackson.  Then Jackson’s six and 10-year-old sons returned to him.

Still, challenges existed that needed solutions. Childcare was a big obstacle, Jackson had to work, but who would watch the boys? Luckily, DCP&P helped secure affordable childcare. Jackson’s two girls were unhappy living at their aunt’s home so DCP&P granted permission to stay with Jackson’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 – Jackson 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 Jackson, he stood up in court, and clearly stated his intentions to reunite his family. I was so impressed with Jackson. We became friends.  Jackson 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. Jackson has his two boys.  The others are with their mom.

Jackson 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.” Jackson responded to this heartwarming request with, “I’ll check with their mom.”  The kids now have Godparents and monthly sleepovers with their new friends.

Jackson 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.” Jackson 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 Jackson’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.


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.

Poverty and Toxic Stress in the Womb

Excerpted from: Harvard Research: Impact of poverty begins in the womb, but doesn’t have to
Click video link at end for full video

We all know about the effects of toxins, such as alcohol, drugs and lead paint, that are passed on to the developing infant during pregnancy. Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child is breaking new ground in neuro-chemistry and neuro-biology to expose the effects of toxic stress on the developing brain in the womb – and how to break the cycle. Poverty is a constant threat to the developing baby’s brain.

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At birth, the infant brain already has nearly all the billions of cells of a mature brain. The chronic stress a pregnant mom, living in poverty, experiences actually alters the infant’s brain. The mom’s stress system is constantly activated – and the baby’s stress system, in the womb, mirrors the mom’s. High blood pressure and high levels of cortisol rewires and prepares the developing brain for a dangerous world. These babies are born with hair trigger stress responses which affect every aspect of their lives, such as academic struggles, failed relationships and incarceration. However, the poverty cycle can be broken in utero.

An organization, The Nurse-Family Partnership provides struggling mom’s support systems which include food pantries, access to prenatal care and education. These caregivers provide one of the most important contributors to stress reduction – love. Some of these moms have no family or friends as a support network. Sadly, an overused coping strategy for those living in poverty is substance abuse. Studies show dramatic reduction in stressors and the associated toxins, with loving caregivers.

As a society, early intervention to break the poverty cycle benefits us all. We could see quantifiable improvements in chronic diseases and emergency room visits, education, unemployment and incarceration. Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child estimates dollars spent on early intervention will be recouped in 2-3 years.

You can view the full video (approx. 35 minutes) by clicking this link: Harvard Research: Impact of poverty begins in the womb, but doesn’t have to

 


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.

Hispanic Heritage Month: Representing the Children in Foster Care

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Bounced among foster homes, lawyers, and caseworkers, children in foster care need a consistent, caring advocate, and for children of Hispanic heritage, it is particularly important that their Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteer understand and respect their culture. In many instances the number of Hispanic and Latino children in foster care outnumbers the number of CASA volunteers, which means children are often assigned to a CASA volunteer with a different ethnic background.

 

Former CASA volunteer and Pleasantville resident, Yasna finds her heritage allowed her to develop a closer relationship with the children on her case. When Yasna first took her, her CASA child was frightened and unresponsive to those trying to help her. Then the young girl met Yasna, who spoke in the girl’s native Spanish language, and she immediately became comfortable and opened up to Yasna. “Everything totally changed when she could speak Spanish. We had a communication bond, and she came to me when she needed help,” Yasna said. Growing up in Miami, Yasna explained, it was easy for her to find someone who spoke Spanish, but in many communities, fluent Spanish speakers are rare. Navigating the foster care system is already complicated, but with English as a second language, the experience can be overwhelming.

 

Cultural competency is more than overcoming a language barrier; sensitivity to traditions and values builds trust between the CASA volunteer and the child. “Every single Hispanic culture is different, but the method of upbringing with a foundation of family is there (in all cultures),” Yasna said. Despite their differences, with most Hispanic and Latino cultures, there is a commonality of having deep passion for family. “We love to fight, but at the dinner table, we all love each other,” she said laughing. Although the CASA children have come from an abusive home-life, their propensity to reflect their culture is still there, she explained.

 

As a CASA Volunteer, you try very hard to keep emotion out of your interactions with the children. However, for Hispanic culture, Yasna says, “you need to bring emotion out to form a trust with the child.”

 

According to Casey Family Programs, Hispanic children are more likely to be placed in foster care and for longer periods than their White, non-Latino peers. Because of this, it is essential that the CASA volunteer and child relationship be based on trust, rapport, and an ability to understand and appreciate the child’s culture and traditions.

 

A more diverse volunteer base will better match the cultural make-up of the children CASA serves, but a shortage of Hispanic and Latino volunteers makes it difficult to meet the need. Understanding how children feel about their heritage and being able to communicate and relate to their traditions can make the difference between the child feeling alone or appreciated and self-assured.

 


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.

Inflection Point

Joseph was the community relations point person while he was working as an executive for a multi-national corporation in the Philadelphia region. The tri-state area United Way leader was speaking at a fundraiser about shifting donation strategies to charities that could make a difference at key moments in peoples’ lives. She called this the “inflection point,” where help had the potential to make a meaningful difference at a critical time in a person’s life. When Joe retired and began researching where he might invest his own time and talents, he used the “inflection point” philosophy to guide his choice. When he learned about Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), he found a fit where he thought he could influence outcomes in a positive way.

AM16757-1At first Joe and his wife, Mary Beth, who trained together as CASA volunteers, teamed to take on a complicated case involving five children who were temporarily housed with a relative.

The relative had stepped up to help the children in an emergent situation.

Joe explained, “The state’s goal is to reunite children, where possible, with the parents. CASA’s goal is always to do what is in the best interests of the children. So, my wife established rapport with the children, and I concentrated on working with the many adults who get involved in these cases – from the parents to the case workers to the special needs teachers to the medical professional and those in the judicial system. It takes a lot to get the information needed from many sources – you need to pursue it aggressively to make sure the children have the resources they need.”

Joe cites three key ingredients to making a difference as a CASA: 1. Influence management; 2. Building relationships, and; 3. Dogged determination. Joe demonstrated these traits as he advocated on behalf of those five children, often chasing down the resources the children needed when other doors were closed.

CASA does not always get the credit for their role in influencing outcomes but Joe says that the rewards of this work are intrinsic. He felt proud when the Deputy Attorney General in one case proposed to the judge to use his CASA report to guide the hearing because she knew it would be an accurate representation of the situation. The ultimate reward is knowing that you helped create a better physical, educational and emotional environment to improve their chances to thrive. “This work would not get done without CASA,” Joe said, “and CASA gets to do this critical work at “inflection points” in children’s lives.


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.

We All Have a Role to Play in Ending Child Abuse

April is Child Abuse Prevention Month

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By the time you finish reading this, more than 30 cases of child abuse will be reported to authorities nationwide. By the end of today, that number will swell past 9,000. Four of those children will die at the hands of their abuser. All in a single day.

When we take stock of these sobering statistics it is easy to be overwhelmed and to ask, “What can I possibly do to make a difference?”

The answer is that everybody can play a role in preventing child abuse and neglect by becoming advocates for children. Donate money, offer pro-bono support, become a mentor, or advocate with organizations that help children and families, like Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for Children.

CASA advocates stand up for abused and neglected children who are now living in foster care. CASA volunteers are people just like you – teachers, business people, retirees, grandparents who are simply willing to help a child in need. These advocates give children a voice in an overburdened child welfare system and can help break the cycle of abuse and neglect by helping children find safe, permanent homes as quickly as possible.

Children with a CASA are half as likely to re-enter the foster care system, and have improved educational achievement – making a profound difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of abused and neglected children across the country and nearly 700 children right here in Atlantic and Cape May Counties. Nevertheless, the increased number of children in care and the great need for advocates leaves many children without an advocate to fight for their rights.

While not everyone can be a CASA volunteer, everyone can be a child advocate.

Here are some steps you can take to make our community safer for our children: Keep the child abuse hotline number nearby, 1-800 NJ Abuse. If you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, you can report your suspicions confidentially; Donate or volunteer for a social service agency that helps children who have been abused or neglected, and; Educate yourself – and others – about the devastating toll that abuse and neglect take on children and our society as a whole.

If abused and neglected children do not get the proper support, they are more likely to drop out of school, end up homeless, and become involved in crime and drugs. Advocacy efforts will not only help end child abuse, it will improve our community where we live, work and play.

When we work together to protect vulnerable children, 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.

 

The Brightest Moments: Seeing the Children in a Good Situation

Before moving to Cape May in 2014, children occupied a central part of Sarah’s life in northern New Jersey, where she was an elementary school teacher and mother of five children. When she retired and moved more permanently to southeastern New Jersey, she considered how she could continue to influence children’s lives as a volunteer. Sarah got that answer one day in church when she heard a discussion about organizations the church supported and what they did. Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for Children was one those organizations.

Shortly after that, Sarah read a newspaper article about CASA and decided to attend an information session. Since then she has helped navigate the cases of nine children living in foster care. “Teachers bring the ability to coordinate with many different parties in the best interests of children’s academic success. That skill translates well when working as a CASA volunteer who must coordinate between the child, parents, resource parents, the court and case workers among others to find the best possible plan for the child,” said Sarah.

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Sarah notes that building relationships is key to fostering trust. Trust ensures that all parties involved feel comfortable that the recommendations CASA’s make are the best possible for the child. She often asks herself the question, “Did I help to break the cycle so this child has an opportunity for a better life?”

Sarah admits she has learned about the hurdles these children face. “I lived and taught in an affluent area and until you sit with people in more difficult circumstances, you can’t really understand their struggles,” she said.

Sarah’s brightest moments are when she sees the children end up in a good situation – attending an adoption ceremony or seeing children reunited with parents who have overcome their obstacles.

Now as a Peer Coach, Sarah expands her sphere of influence by mentoring other new advocates as they begin their first cases. She loves that being a CASA is a hands-on activity, actually working with the children of Cape May and Atlantic Counties. “If you are a people person and like building relationships and meeting people, then CASA may be a volunteer opportunity that appeals to you,” Sarah said.

She sometimes thinks she gets more out of being a CASA than the children she serves. Nine children, who are now in more stable situations – adopted or with birth parents – who may just think otherwise.

 


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.

Making an Impact in the Lives of Children

After successful careers, Steven and Kathleen moved to Ocean City and looked forward to having their children and grandchildren visit them during their retirement. While they enjoyed having visits with family members during the beautiful summer months, they began looking for volunteer opportunities. It was Kathleen who first suggested that they look into volunteering for CASA.

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“My wife thought it might be something we could do together,” said Steven. “We attended the orientation, and Kathleen felt it wasn’t the right fit for her at that time. I thought it was a good fit for me and hoped I could make an impact as a CASA.” Steven also said his own experience of having someone close to him who suffered from addiction that impacted children persuaded him that his personal insights and skills as a program manager would be helpful in the role as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). His hunch proved true. Steven worked first with an older child who aged out of the system but with whom he still stays in touch.

As a CASA, Steven uses his ability to address complex issues, manage timelines and build relationships with people to seek the best possible solutions for these children. Yet he acknowledges sometimes it is difficult work, “Over the course of a single case, we can work with several different case managers, judges or attorneys, and we are often the only stability a child has during this period of uncertainty.” In his view, giving a child stability makes the work worthwhile.

Steven’s current work with a five-year-old boy, Adam, has given him satisfaction on many levels. When he walks into the room and sees the child smile at his arrival, he knows he has made a meaningful connection. Steven recalled one time that Adam was sad to see him leave during a regular visit. Steven explained that he had to go home to cook his wife dinner. “At the next visit, Adam suggested that if I taught my wife to cook her own dinner, I could visit longer,” he said.

Steven enjoys the personal connections that build trust with a child. Ultimately, he hopes his ability to leverage relationships can positively influence finding the best possible situation for each child for whom he advocates. His influence has expanded recently by becoming a Peer Coach for three new CASAs. As a peer coach, he helps the novice CASA’s find the resources they need as they approach their new roles. “With our CASA Volunteer Coordinator, me, as the peer coach, and the CASAs, we have a whole team of people working for the best interests of the children.” And that is a recipe for making an impact in the lives of children.

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.

Change a Foster Youth’s World

My siblings and I were all exposed to prenatal drug and alcohol use at birth. For the first 12 years of my life, I was never allowed to be a child. My mother beat me every day – sometimes so severely I thought my last breath was imminent. At 12, I was desperate to find help and confessed the abuse to a coach. Shortly after, we entered foster care.

During our time in foster care, we relied on our CASA volunteer. She comforted and guided us through the process. She was a constant in our lives and our voice in court.

The support of my CASA volunteer enabled me to see my past as a source of strength. It allowed me to leave the suffering behind and graduate valedictorian of my high school class.

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My focus and worldview – believing that we must rise every time we fall – is due to the attention that my siblings and I received from our CASA volunteer.

She transformed our lives.

 

Court Appointed Special Advocates (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.