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.”

Helping Children Find their Forever Family

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From dedicated foster parents, to a biological grandmother single-handedly raising her grandchildren, it is a family’s love and support that makes them picture perfect. In Atlantic and Cape May counties, more than 1,000 children are living in foster care.

Thankfully, with the help of a CASA volunteer, a child lingering in the child welfare system is not an option.

Once a child is removed from their home due to abuse and neglect, three different outcomes can arise:  reunification, kinship legal guardianship, or adoption. Behind each court docket, a child is hoping for a forever family, and here are their stories, as told by their CASA volunteer.

Reunification

When CASA volunteer, Anna met the little boy on her case, he was in a body cast to properly mend his broken bones. After being injured at home, he was removed from his mother and placed in care with a cousin. “When I first got involved with the case, he was delayed in speech, mobility, and potty training,” Anna said. Reunification with his biological mother did not seem to be a viable option.

CASA Anna ensured he received special services and was enrolled in special education classes. For the first time, he was not merely surviving but thriving. While he progressed, his biological mother was determined to have her child back home. “From parenting classes to counseling, she did everything she was advised to do,” Anna said. “She worked hard to get her boy back.”

Anna continued to visit with the case workers, foster parents, and the biological mother, and despite the obstacles, reunification with mother and child became more than a hope – it became a reality. After much work and support, the boy’s mother was ready to make a home again for her son and he finally returned to his mother’s arms and his forever family. “Reunification is a good option when the parent and child have a warm, comfortable relationship, and the parent will do whatever it takes to get the child back,” Anna said. “Luckily in this case, his mother was once again able to provide a safe, loving home and I could fully support him being returned to her care.”

Kinship Legal Guardianship

As a cockroach crawled across her foot, CASA volunteer Kathy knew this was not a safe home for children. Brother and sister, ages 5 and 3, were removed from the bug-infested apartment and safe from their father’s drinking, after neighbors called child services. When CASA Kathy took the case the children were delayed mentally, and although they were safe in their grandmother’s home, they were still swatting away invisible bugs as they struggled to sleep. “The parents were not emotionally capable of caring for their children, and they would show up in preschool with diapers that were days old,” Kathy said.

The children adored their grandmother, and the transition to their new home was smooth, but parental visitations proved to be problematic. “When the children had visited with their parents, the next day at school the boy would be agitated and crazy, and the daughter was nervous,” Kathy said. Finally, the biological parents abruptly decided to move out of the state, leaving their children’s court case unfinished and their grandmother with the responsibility of raising the children on her own.

“There was no question where these children should be; It was a no brainer, and I made clear in my reports that I supported the grandmother caring for the children,” Kathy said. Their grandmother happily became the children’s Kinship Legal Guardian (KLG). “This (KLG) is a great option. Why go into foster care if you have a caring family member who is willing to take on raising the children. In this case the grandmother was more than able, and the children adored her,” Kathy said.

Adoption

Due to their biological mother’s severe history of substance abuse, two brothers were placed in a foster home. “The foster parents were trained as medical specialists and worked with special needs children,” CASA Joe said. “It was a smooth transition; they fell in love immediately.”

From the beginning, the biological mother said, “I will do anything to get them back,” but no matter how hard CASA Joe tried to help and support her, she delved further into drug use. “The drug use finally caught up with her,” said Joe. Before the case was closed, the boys’ young biological mother died of an overdose.

Before relinquishing his rights, the biological father, who had never known his sons, asked to hold his children for the last time. “When this happened, the boy looked over to his foster father and said, ‘Daddy hold me.’ At that moment, I knew this child and his brother had found their forever family.” Joe said. The boys were officially adopted the following year into a loving, happy home environment, and Joe was honored to help bring a forever family together. “Everyone has a chapter to play in the child’s life, but you can’t ever forget the reality that they endured on the road to finding a home. Even after you know they are safe, you will still think about them and are glad that you played a small role in their finding a forever family,” Joe said.

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 www.atlanticcapecasa.org.

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.

With Treatment and Support, a Young Mother Overcomes Her Struggle with Substance Abuse

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Every year across the nation, between 550,000 and 750,000 children are born after prenatal exposure to drugs or alcohol, and substance abuse by a parent is one of the top reasons for children’s removal from their home.

Danielle is one of these children.

When Danielle was born, she experienced withdrawal from the opiates her mother Erin took during pregnancy. After the symptoms persisted, the infant was hospitalized for a month to receive treatment. She was also experiencing hearing problems in one ear and a heart murmur.

While it is often difficult for parents struggling with substance abuse to overcome their addiction, 22-year-old Erin had emotional support from her mother, sister, and CASA volunteer, Lynda, and the desire to get better so that she could be a part of her daughter’s life.

Lynda was assigned to the case when Danielle was eight months old. At this time, Erin was enrolled in a Mommy and Me program with Danielle. While Lynda observed the baby to be healthy and happy, she knew that the young mother would need support to successfully get through her treatments and ultimately get her child back.

“My first time meeting Erin, she seemed very young and overwhelmed. She was learning a lot about being a mom from the other young moms in the program. But I saw a lot of good things happening,” Lynda explained. She said the mothers enrolled in the program would take their babies to the nursery in the morning before going to their treatments and counseling during the day.

“Erin understood that I was there as her daughter’s advocate and that meant supporting her recovery as well. She was very open to our relationship,” Lynda said. “She could see there was value in having someone who wasn’t from the child welfare office. Erin knew that I was there to make sure her daughter had everything she needed and that Erin was making improvements in caring for her daughter.” She also knew she could confide in Lynda and trust that she was there to help her family.

“My relationship was that of encourager,” Lynda said. “Erin seemed to be very mature in that she distanced herself from her prior relationship because she needed to work on herself. I thought that was a mature thing to do because that’s exactly what she was needing to do at that point.”Through the Mommy and Me program, Erin improved her ability to bond with Danielle and quickly became comfortable in her role as a new mother. They were doing so well that Lynda recommended to the court that Danielle continue to stay in Erin’s care as she completed rehabilitation.

After six months of Mommy and Me, Erin successfully completed the program and was relocated to a halfway house with her daughter. When Lynda visited, the director of the halfway house said of Erin, “I couldn’t be happier about her progress.”

Danielle had been doing well in her mother’s care. Lynda noted that 11-month-old Danielle was able to say, “mama” and “baba,” and that she seemed inquisitive.

“When I met her, I could see that she had that desire to be a good mom and to do what’s right for her child,” Lynda said of Erin’s successes in her rehabilitation programs. “Since that meant getting off drugs, she was willing to do that, and the change in her is clear.”

“When under the influence, you’re not functioning with your full capabilities,” Lynda said. Rehabilitation helped Erin think clearly and learn how to be a nurturing mother, something she struggled with when her daughter was first born.

Erin did so well at the halfway house that she and Danielle were released earlier than the typical six month stay. She then completed an intensive outpatient program. Along the way, she also successfully completed mandatory parenting classes.

Erin and Danielle, who is now 18 months old, are adorable together, Lynda said. “She is very conscious of Danielle’s safety; it’s a priority for her. She’s really gentle and sweet with her… She doesn’t have unrealistic expectations for a child that age. She’s really playful with her, speaks kindly to her, doesn’t seem frustrated. She seems very content with being a mom.”

Currently, Erin and Danielle reside with Erin’s mother. Erin’s goal is to go back to school and get a job. Lynda tells Erin to focus on her goals so she can continue earning credits, even if it is one or two classes at a time; if she works hard, she can accomplish anything.

“If anybody can do it, this young mom can. She’s very smart and has the support of her mom. That’s huge. You have to be careful who you’re hanging out with. Erin has been able to weed out the friends who are not a good influence. She had a lot going for her and continues to have a lot going for her.”

Erin is fortunate that she was able to get her life back on track, and having Lynda as her CASA volunteer was paramount. Lynda encouraged Erin to make life decisions that would benefit her and Danielle, and in her role as advocate, she brought to the court’s attention what was in the child’s best interest.

Lynda 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.

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.