It’s All About the Kids

A diverse group of individuals, over 200 in fact, uses their unique skills and experiences to advocate for children living in foster care. Many are nurses, teachers or CEOs of companies large and small. Some are retired from distinguished careers, some still work full time. No matter what background and circumstances our CASAs bring with them, they always share one virtue in common – the spirit of giving back to their community and a deep commitment to changing children’s lives.

CASA Marsha’s path to child advocacy actually started at a very young age. Growing up in Reading, PA, Marsha’s childhood home was just blocks away from the Children’s Home of Reading, a home for abused and neglected children. As Marsha explored her neighborhood, she passed the Home, often seeing the children living there playing beyond the fenced-in yard.

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Marsha knew the children from school and church. She also understood that these boys and girls did not live at home with their moms and dads as she did. At a very young age, Marsha realized that the lives of some children were very different from her own.

In 1974, as a young woman graduating college with a teaching degree in special education, she entered an over-saturated education workforce where teaching jobs were limited.  Instead of waiting for a school opening, Marsha applied for and landed a job as a childcare worker at the Tabor Home for Needy and Destitute Children in Doylestown, PA. She was now working at a children’s home not unlike the one she remembered from her childhood neighborhood.

The children and youth living at the Tabor Home were troubled, suffering from social and emotional traumas. Because of their ages and complex issues, the 65 boys and girls living at the Tabor Home were hard to place in individual foster homes.  “We did everything for the kids at Tabor that a parent would do for their own children,” Marsha said. “We took them shopping, helped with their homework, ate with them at mealtime and would even take them to baseball practice.”

Marsha’s time at the Tabor Home and then at an Alternative School for youth facing similar challenges gave her the awareness that would eventually lead her to becoming first a foster parent, then a CASA advocate. When asked if she felt like she had made a difference in the lives of these kids, she said, “At the Alternative School, I felt like I was making a huge difference.”

Marsha continued her career at the school, and when her oldest daughter finished her first year in college, the family decided to become a foster home. Their first child was an eight-week old infant and he quickly won over the Burke family’s heart. Even her daughter committed her summer days to nurturing the newest addition to their family. When it became evident reunification was not an option, the Burke’s did not hesitate to consider adopting the baby boy.

Today, that boy has grown into a fine young man.

“I knew about the CASA program because my friends were involved in northern New Jersey and I knew that I wanted to be a CASA advocate when I retired,” Marsha said. “I saw child advocacy with CASA as a way for me to continue to support foster children.”

Marsha has been a CASA advocate for nearly two years. She is committed, as she always was, to making a difference in the lives of children, just like the children from the Children’s Home of Reading where she grew up. “Supporting foster children seems to have become my mission in life,” Marsha admits, “If I can contribute to a foster child, even if my contribution seems small at the time, I like to think I’m making a difference in these kids’ lives.” While, it is not always easy being a CASA, Marsha feels the reward of her hard work when she attends court hearings — where life decisions are made for foster kids.

“During family court hearings, when the judge turns to me and asks if the CASA has anything to add, I know my work as a CASA advocate is making a difference. I always appreciate the judge’s respect for my court reports and the work I am doing for these children. At the end of the day, I know it’s all about the kids.”

Learn more at http://atlanticcapecasa.org/

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The Best Decision I Ever Made

Like most of us, Judy leads a busy life. Business appointments, errands and family responsibilities can stretch Judy to the limit. Some may balk at the busy pace, but it does not bother Judy. She is used to the mileage and the challenges of a busy life. She is a mother, a grandmother, a business owner, a board member and a Court Appointed Special Advocate.

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Judy first heard of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) and their work with children living in foster care at a local Chamber of Commerce meeting. She was interested enough to schedule a one-on-one interview. It was at that meeting with a current CASA that she seriously considered adding another cog to her already very busy wheel. Already active in her community and running a thriving business, Judy wondered if she could balance those things with her family life and CASA responsibilities. Her only concern, “Could she commit to the time?” Thankfully, her answer was a resounding “Yes!”

Like many business owners in southern New Jersey, Judy’s business is seasonal. She attends to a lot of maintenance, prep-work and business travel in the off-season and full-force management and customer service during the in-season. Ultimately, it was Judy’s family-oriented business and the interactions that she had with children as a result, that convinced her to become a CASA. She knew that her rapport with the children that she encountered in her business, and the way that they responded to her would be beneficial to her role as a CASA. Despite her initial hesitation, she made the commitment to CASA.

“As an advocate, you are truly the eyes and ears of the family court judge and a voice for a child who might be floating aimlessly in the system or is being pulled in different directions,” said Judy.  In this work, “It is so easy to be directed by emotions and opinions,” which makes it doubly important to “keep emotions, frustrations and opinions in perspective.” Judy’s natural practicality helps her understand this important part of the CASA mantra – abandon all of your pre-conceived biases. That is the best way to help the children. “Courts have laws to work within,” Judy says, “and there are rules and systems that must be adhered to. It is what it is.” It is this system, this set of laws that the CASA volunteer must work within to provide the best quality advocacy that they can deliver.

When asked if she felt good about her role as an Advocate, the pragmatist in her was quick to point out that her efforts as a CASA are not about making her feel good. It is about the children. Rephrasing the question instead to ask if she thinks she has made a positive impact, “Yes, yes she does.” She explains that over time she began to have concerns about her youngest CASA child, a concern she discussed with the child’s state caseworker. As a result, the infant-soon-to-be-toddler was placed in a new foster home. That child is now thriving – happy, vocal and affectionate. The positive changes to the young child make Judy happy, “very happy for the child,” she stresses.

On Judy’s last visit, she was touched when the new foster mom gave her a picture of the child all dressed up, smiling, confident. The little girl was finally happy.

It was that little girls’ smiling face, her newfound happiness, which turned this mother, grandmother, business owner, board member and CASA’s heart to joy. With tears in her eyes, she got back on the road knowing that becoming a CASA was one of the best decisions she had ever made.

 

 

The 12 Days of a #CASA Christmas

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On the first day of Christmas my Program Coordinator sent to me:
directions for my court hearing

On the second day of Christmas my Program Coordinator sent to me:
two court orders
and directions for my court hearing

On the third day of Christmas my Program Coordinator sent to me:
three dates for training
two court orders
and directions for my court hearing

On the fourth day of Christmas my Program Coordinator sent to me:
four case assignments
three dates for training
two court orders
and directions for my court hearing

On the fifth day of Christmas my Program Coordinator sent to me:
a five sibling case
four case assignments
three dates for training
two court orders
and directions for my court hearing

On the sixth day of Christmas my Program Coordinator sent to me:
six court report edits
a five sibling case
four case assignments
three dates for training
two court orders
and directions for my court hearing

On the seventh day of Christmas my Program Coordinator sent to me:
a seven-page abuse allegation
six court report edits
a five sibling case
four case assignments
three dates for training
two court orders
and directions for my court hearing

On the eighth day of Christmas my Program Coordinator sent to me:
eight more dockets
a seven-page complaint
six court report edits
a five sibling case
four case assignments
three dates for training
two court orders
and directions for my court hearing

On the ninth day of Christmas my Program Coordinator sent to me:
nine families waiting
eight more dockets
a seven-page complaint
six court report edits
a five sibling case
four case assignments
three dates for training
two court orders
and directions for my court hearing

On the tenth day of Christmas my Program Coordinator sent to me:
ten lawyers making arguments
nine families waiting
eight more dockets
a seven-page complaint
six court report edits
a five sibling case
four case assignments
three dates for training
two court orders
and directions for my court hearing

On the eleventh day of Christmas my Program Coordinator sent to me:
eleven caseworkers typing
ten lawyers making arguments
nine families waiting
eight more dockets
a seven-page complaint
six court report edits
a five sibling case
four case assignments
three dates for training
two court orders
and directions for my court hearing

On the twelfth day of Christmas my Program Coordinator sent to me:
twelve judges judging
eleven caseworkers typing
ten lawyers making arguments
nine families waiting
eight more dockets
a seven-page complaint
six court report edits
a five sibling case
four case assignments
three dates for training
two court orders
and directions for my court hearing

The Role of the CASA Advocate is One of Patience

Hank greets everyone with a big, welcoming smile and friendly 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.

http://atlanticcapecasa.org/
Facebook.com/CASA4Children
Twitter.com @CASA4Children

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

Let’s call it what it is – Peer Abuse.

Let’s call it what it is – Peer Abuse.

Let’s call it what it is – Peer Abuse.  With bullying, the dominant figure unsuspectingly presents as your peer, your equal and traditionally during childhood a crucial time for brain development, social skill development and confidence development.

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Studies consistently show that victims of peer abuse are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, isolation, and fear. Often times, the abused do not confide in their parents or teachers. These feelings fester, and if left untreated, can have profound, long-term effects on a child’s social development that carries into adulthood and presents in a myriad of emotional, physical and psychological symptoms ranging from sleep and eating disorders to mental illness.

It is well understood that abusers target the vulnerable, those unlikely to retaliate. So bullies target the one in their midst who tends to be different, the one who does not have the support, the confidence or the coping skills to properly stand-up for oneself.

The child-victim is most vulnerable.

Bullies find the children who are different, the children who “do not fit in.” The taunting only emphasizes to that child that they may be different, and stresses their vulnerability with their peers.

Imagine that you are a displaced child – like many children living in the foster care system. If children in a familiar environment with strong family and other relationships do not vocalize the abuse to trusted adults, what are the chances a child feeling alone and unsupported will reach out for help?

Many believe some type of intimidation is a normal, childhood rite-of-passage. To many, the thought of a “bully” brings to mind the caricature of the biggest kid on the playground not picking you for his dodgeball team. But today, with the many additional electronic, and often anonymous, ways that children can be bullied, the big kid on the playground represents only a small fraction of the modern bullying reality.

But whether the bully is the big kid on the playground or the anonymous text stalker, one thing remains constant – when you consider the victims – who and why they are victims – and the long-term effects of their being victims – you clearly see that bullying is and always will be abuse.

 

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.