The Role of the CASA Advocate is One of Patience

Hank greets everyone with a big, welcoming smile and sparkling blue eyes. His presence is comforting, and that is especially important because Hank is a CASA for Children advocate who speaks on behalf of children living in the foster care system.

Children living in foster care have experienced traumatizing abuse or neglect. A comforting, consistent, caring adult, like Hank with a bright smile and a big heart, is just what these children need at what could be the saddest time of their young lives.

When you listen to CASA Hank talk about the two girls, ages five and seven, and their nine-year-old brother who he advocates for, you hear how much he genuinely cares about their welfare.

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You can hear the excitement in Hank’s voice when he talks about the boy, who we will call Jack, and all the potential he sees in him. The first time Hank met Jack at his school, Hank says, “He met me with a big grin and immediately interacted with me. It was a very gratifying experience.”

Hank and Jack formed their first connection over baseball, discussing the great Hank Aaron during one of his visits. On the next visit Hank says, “This little boy was so excited to tell me all about how Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record.” On the next visit Jack is “telling me all about Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King. He is such an impressive and engaging little boy. We can only hope the system we have can do right by him,” said Hank.

Jack’s two little sisters, who we will call Molly and Kristen, have also touched Hank’s heart. They live in a different foster placement from their brother, as often happens when multiple siblings are removed from their home.

In spite of the trauma the younger Molly has experienced, “she is still a typical five-year-old, excited as she runs to show me her latest craft or coloring project,” said Hank. However, Hank’s eyes sadden a bit when he recounts a conversation with seven-year-old Kristen. “When I asked her if there was anything she wanted me to tell the judge, she answered, ‘Tell the judge that I don’t want to be a foster kid anymore, tell him I want to go home,’” Hank said.

While Hank stays focused on the children, the case still involves the adults as well, including foster, biological, and adoptive parents. The challenges facing many of the adults in the children’s lives sometimes compound the trauma that the children have already experienced – their mom disappears for two months, then returns; their dad is not initially in the picture; the foster parents were not interested in adoption, and then later wanted to adopt. It is easy to see how the children’s voices can get lost in the process. Even when Hank was certain that the children were finally going to realize their “forever adoptive home,” the case took a different path as the children’s father, now in a stable home and relationship, stepped in to bring his children home.

When Hank met them at their family court hearing, he could not help but notice a close and affectionate relationship between dad and son. You could see that “Jack was proud of his dad,” said Hank.

For Hank, because regardless of each family circumstance, “As a CASA,” Hank says, “even though I may be conflicted at times…I give the court my observations and let the judge take it from there. In this case, there is a dad who loves his kids and the kids want to go home.”

Hank’s role as a CASA has changed his view of the child welfare system. It has also been both a spiritual and analytical journey for him. After years as a member of a hospital board, “It was time for me to have more personal contact. I wanted to be a positive person (making a difference) on an individual level,” Hank said.

CASA advocates bring so many skills and personality traits to their role. As Hank spoke about his case, it was easy to see how important every one of these traits are to be CASA. For Hank, he will continue to advocate for the best interest of Jack, Molly and Kristen…watching over them, hopeful that their journey will have a happy ending – that is what being a CASA is all about: making a difference, one child at a time.

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Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and with all of the holidays following close behind, it is, for many of us, a time to enjoy family and friends, celebrate and give thanks for the good in our lives. During this time of joy, we must not forget those less fortunate, especially children and youth who will spend this Thanksgiving away from their family in foster homes, group homes or institutions.

In New Jersey, over 12,000 children live in foster care. In Atlantic and Cape May Counties, over 1,000 children live within a child welfare system that designed as a temporary fix to a family crisis but has become, for many children, a way of life.

Youth can spend years in foster care, moving from one foster home to another without ever having a sense of permanency, roots or stability. This instability often leads to a lifetime of suffering, depression and hopelessness.

Remember that children enter foster care not because of something that they have done. Parental drug abuse, domestic violence, neglect and mental illness all contribute to the removal of children from their homes. Thankfully, access to resources and services often help parents overcome the issues that lead to the removal of their children, and many families are reunited. In instances where reunification is not an option, grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends, distant relatives and adoptive families set in to provide the stability that these children need and deserve.

Even with all of the people who choose to provide love and stability through adoption or other means, more than 100,000 children and youth across the country still live in foster care waiting for permanent families.

Of course, not everyone is able to be an adoptive family, but everyone can do something to improve the lives of children living in foster care. This holiday season, consider becoming a CASA volunteer, a youth mentor, or supporting an organization that helps children living in foster care. By getting involved in some way, not only will you transform a child’s life, you will transform your own.

thanksgiving_pager_1_0“There is a special sense of satisfaction in knowing that a child will live with love, rather than hate, kindness rather than abuse and acceptance rather than rejection.” – CASA volunteer

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.

A CASA Child Advocate Talks About ‘Giving Back’

MCambridgeWhen I asked Margaret why she was a child advocate for CASA, she smiled and slid a sheet of paper, in child’s handwriting, across the table. It was a child’s poem, encased in a plastic sleeve. “I’m going to frame this”, she said.

Often, children living in the foster care system can be slow to trust or warm up to another new person entering their lives. This was Margaret’s experience when she first met one of her CASA children, a 9-year girl.  Seasoned CASA advocates told Margaret, “Just be patient”.

With consistent visits, the cornerstone of the CASA program, the little girl warmed up to Margaret. Margaret had asked for a poem. A couple visits later, her CASA child came running up to Margaret, arms wide, waving a sheet of paper.  The stranger who had entered a little girl’s life had become a trusted friend.

A CASA child advocate steps into the lives of children after they have been removed from their homes and are living with foster families.  This can be very disruptive and disturbing for these children.  Margaret, like all CASA advocates, is a trained volunteer who is committed to making a difference one day at a time, one child at a time.

Actually, Margaret’s background had its own very rocky start. As a 3-day old infant, she was surrendered by her biological mother. Margaret feels fortunate to have been taken into a loving and stable home. Having raised 2 children of her own, Margaret appreciates the open hearts it took for a couple in their 50’s and 60’s, with 3 adult children, to adopt her as an infant.

“I was fortunate and now it’s my turn to give back”, said Margaret.  “Some of my other volunteer work brings me to Family Court. It was there that I saw CASA volunteers and saw the work that they did.  I knew then that I wanted to be a CASA. I knew I wanted to be the Voice of the Child in foster care.

“One day, I told my 9 year old that I’m her voice and that she could ask the judge anything she wanted.”  She said, “Tell my mommy I said, ‘Hi!’. And tell the judge I said, ‘Hi’ too!” Margaret said she will never forget the day of the hearing, the judge asked me for my opinion and he called me up to read my court report. I told him that the little girl wanted me to say ‘Hi’ to him. He responded so positively that, “I was overwhelmed. I admire him and he inspired me. He cares. And he is for the kids.” I see how committed all the judges are to reunification wherever possible.” Margaret said.

“CASA has given me new life,” said Margaret. “They have given me a whole new non-judgmental vocabulary. But most of all, they’ve given me an understanding of these families who are struggling every day.  I view people differently since CASA.”

“My role as a child advocate keeps me busy and I like that. I also like that I can make my own schedule as a CASA volunteer,” said Margaret. “And I cannot say enough about the support I have gotten from Tina, my CASA advocate coach, and John from the CASA staff – they are always there for me.”

If there is a single word to describe Margaret, that word would have to be “Grateful.” Adopted as an infant. “I was given a Norman Rockwell life. My father was a pastor. My mom worked hard cleaning homes and would bring me along. I was given piano lessons and Buster Brown shoes. My parents were very well respected in my community and instilled in me the importance of getting involved. We were taught to ‘stand up straight’ in church. I had rules to follow and parents who cared for me.”

Margaret had no idea the struggles other families were having until she began her volunteer ‘career.’ She feels blessed for the life she has been given. She is busy and committed to giving back to those less fortunate. She feels that CASA and her other volunteer work in domestic violence gives her a softer side, “It balances me out.”

We are so grateful to Margaret and all of the other CASA’s who give their time and hearts to children in need.

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.