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.”

Child Abuse Prevention Month – We all have a role to play in ending child abuse

 

I-can-t-STOP-IT-stop-child-abuse-31299494-500-440In the time it takes to read this, more than 30 cases of child abuse will have been 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 become overwhelmed.  However, we all ask the question, “What can I possibly do to make a difference?”

The answer is this: everybody can play a role in preventing child abuse and neglect by becoming advocates for children.  You can donate money, offer pro-bono support or become a mentor or advocate with organizations that help children and families, such as 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, young professionals – anyone who is 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, have improved educational achievement and are less likely to end up homeless, be involved in crime or become drug addicted.  CASA volunteers are making a profound difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of abused and neglected children not only across the country, but serve nearly 500 children right here in Atlantic and Cape May Counties.  But because of the increased number of children in care coupled with the challenge of recruiting advocates, many children are left without a voice 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 close at hand, 1-800 NJ Abuse.  If you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, you can report your suspicions confidentially.  Volunteer for a social service agency that helps children who have been abused or neglected.  Educate yourself – and others – about the devastating toll that abuse and neglect take on children and on our society as a whole.

We must all take proactive steps to eradicate this problem.  Children need to be protected from abuse and neglect, and we all have the ability to make a difference now.  Please, spread the word and let us all work together to protect our most vulnerable children…it literally saves lives.

We all have a role to play. What will yours be?

David Hieb, Board President CASA of Atlantic and Cape May Counties

 

Foster Youth Sandy Tells Her Story

My name is Sandy. I am eighteen years old and I have an almost four year son named Angel. I have been in and out of foster homes for about fifteen years of my life. Some of my foster homes were great while others were not.

I was a very angry person, had a bad temper and was always moved from foster home to foster home. I was about three years old when I went into my first foster home with my brother who was about five. We were together for a couple of years and then we were separated. I never knew the actual reason why I only got to see my mother and my brother about every two weeks instead of everyday until I was about almost nine years old years old. That was when I started understanding that I was a foster child because my real mother told me. My mother was not a very stable person once my brother and I got taken away from her. At about six or seven years old I moved with my grandmother who is my father’s mother. I lived with her for about three years until I got fed up of her letting my father physically abuse me. My grandmother barely let me see my mother and I used to always complain. My grandmother got tired of hearing me, so she finally let me have weekend visits with my mother. That did not last very long because my mother got tired of hearing me complain about my father beating me every Saturday night, which was when I arrived from visiting with my mothers.  My mother and my father disliked each other and they still do till this day. My mother decided one Saturday that she was not letting me go back to my grandmother’s house. We ran off to Florida, came back about six months later I believe and then we were caught. I was at least eleven at this point.

I don’t remember the foster homes that I was in before seven years old, which is when I moved with my grandmother. After eleven I was again in foster homes. At eleven I lived in a foster home with Mrs. Renee. At twelve I lived in a building where there were many kids, I think it was some kind of shelter and then with Ms. Lynne. At thirteen I lived with Mr. George and his wife and then I finally moved back with my mother. I was super excited to be living with her. I lived with her for about three or four months and then I became pregnant at fourteen. I had decided at fourteen that I would keep the baby, which is something that my mother should have tried to convince me not to do. I went nine, almost ten months without anyone finding out that I was pregnant by a man who was 15 years older than me. Throughout my pregnancy I had gestational diabetes and I had to give myself insulin three times a day because my sugar was too high. We kept it from my caseworker, from family and from friends. I only went to doctor appointments and home. That was the worst thing that I have ever done.

I had my son, Angel. He was 7lbs 4oz and 21inches long. I was very excited when I had him. Angel’s father was there and we were trying to make him look as if he was one of our family members. The nurses bought that for like a couple days, but they got suspicious when my mother put his name on the papers that were to be used to make the birth certificate. I was questioned by police officers and some hospital therapists. I told them that he was the father of my child, they took him in and he was put in prison. He is still there till this day. I didn’t understand at fourteen why he was in jail because I knew I was not raped, but what I did not know was that there was a thing as statutory rape. Everyone explained it to me, but I still felt as though I was not raped.

Angel and I got moved into a foster home after two weeks of staying at the hospital. I had my fifteenth birthday there and I was there with Angel until Angel was about five months. Then we moved to another foster home. We were there for about 4 or five months. I felt as though I could not live there, so I decided to tell my caseworker that I did not want to live there anymore because I did not feel equal there. After that foster home we moved with Ms. Anitra, where I live now with my son and this is where we have been living for about three years now. Throughout the whole process of moving around I was able to live with my son, many kids aren’t lucky to stay in the same foster home. My brother and I were not. I was and am very appreciative of my caseworker for managing to find us homes where we are able to stay together. I don’t know what I would have done if we were to have been separated.

I am eighteen years old, still living with Ms. Anitra, a senior is High School, I am graduating from high school and going to Gloucester County College. I am going to college for early childhood development with special needs kids. I want to work with special needs children and children period.

Helping Children Find their Forever Family

twokids

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.

Giving Thanks

As we gather together for Thanksgiving to give thanks for our families, friends, health and wealth, let us not forget those less fortunate, especially those children and youth who will spend this holiday season not with their family but in foster homes, group homes or institutions.

In New Jersey, over 13,000 children live in foster care. In Atlantic and Cape May Counties, over 1,000 children live within a child welfare system that was designed as a temporary fix to a family crisis but has become, for many children, a way of life. Many youth spend years in foster care, moving from one placement to another without ever having a sense of permanency, roots or stability.

Let us remember that children enter foster care, not because of something that they have done, but for the faults of the adults who are supposed to care for them. Parental drug abuse, domestic violence, neglect and mental illness all play a part in why children are removed from their homes. Access to resources and services often help parents correct issues and thankfully families are reunited. But in those instances where reunification is not an option, others must step in to care for the children. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends, distant relatives and adoptive families all play a part in providing a permanent home for some of our children living in foster care.

So, it is fitting that the Thanksgiving season is also a time to celebrate National Adoption Month and give thanks to the people who provide love and stability for the children who need it most by welcoming them into their family through adoption.

National Adoption Month is a collective effort of state, federal and private agencies to draw attention to the more than 100,000 foster children and youth across the country who await permanent families, as well as recognize the families that have chosen to expand their families in this special way.

National Adoption Month is also a call to action. Become a foster family, open your home to adoption, become a CASA volunteer, a youth mentor, or support an organization that helps children living in foster care. By getting involved in some way, not only will you change a child’s life, but you will change your own.

My name is Alison and I am a foster parent. I am you.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We have had many broken and battered children come into our home over the years – each with their own troubling story. We always do everything that we can to provide a loving, home for these children and that always includes asking for a CASA volunteer to be assigned to our children’s cases because we know how hard each CASA fights for our children, fights for their rights and fights with their best interest at heart.

Two years ago, a small, frightened, 11-month old boy, who we will call Drew, came to our home in the middle of the night after an emergency removal. His mother was selling drugs and the police raided the home and found Drew alone and crying in his crib. That night when the Division of Youth and Family Services, or DYFS, case worker handed this sweet, terrified, child with dark, thick hair to me in all that he had – his yellow pajamas and blanket, I immediately felt a strong bond and knew that I wanted to be more than a temporary family – I wanted our family to be Drew’s forever family.

The first few months he required constant care and assurance – often screaming, crying and throwing himself on the floor. Bedtime was worse because Drew suffered from night terrors, waking up in the middle of the night screaming at the top of his little lungs. Sleepless nights were not new to me, but something about this little boy and the terror he felt really shook me to the bone.

As a foster mom I have always relied on CASA volunteers, and Drew’s case was no different. Imagine caring for a small child who has already suffered so much in their short life, having a CASA volunteer always gives me an additional sense of protection for the children we care for – they provide an additional set of eyes, help support the children and ensure that they get the services they need. Drew’s CASA volunteer was instrumental in recommending and having court-ordered doctor’s visits for everything from speech therapy to an orthopedic evaluation for his bowed legs.

Drew was with us for 6 months and was finally adjusting to his new home when an uncle was located in New Mexico who said he was willing to raise Drew with his wife and small daughter, so DYFS began the process to move Drew out of state.

The first time that Drew was taken to visit his uncle he screamed with his arms outstretched to me and cried “Mommy” all the way out to the case worker’s car – my heart broke for him and our family and I knew these visits would set Drew’s positive development back. Despite our hard fight and against CASA’s recommendations – Drew was taken 3 months later on a 2-day train ride to live with his extended family in New Mexico.

CASA volunteer Sue stayed in touch with the family in New Mexico and realized, almost immediately, that the family was having a difficult time adjusting to Drew, especially his often troubling, constant emotional breakdowns.

Three weeks later we received the most emotional call of our lives – Drew’s severe emotional problems, especially his tantrums and night terrors, proved to be too overwhelming for his family in New Mexico. Drew’s uncle had decided that his family could no longer care for him and he was coming back to New Jersey. The DYFS case worker did not even have to ask us – Drew was coming home to us – his true forever family – for good. The happiest day of my life was the DYFS case worker returning Drew to us and he called out “Mommy” from his car seat – I couldn’t get him out of the car fast enough!

While the move to New Mexico was traumatic and a small set back for Drew, I am happy to report that he is a happy, well-adjusted 4 year old who just started pre-school and loves kicking the soccer ball in the backyard with me. His CASA volunteer still visits him regularly and although she won’t ever say for certain – I know that she was instrumental in getting Drew back to our family.

I often find myself watching Drew peacefully sleep and can’t imagine what would have happened to him – what his life would have been like – if he did not have the chance to grow up in our family. Thankfully we will never know the answer to that question because with the help of CASA, Drew finally has the forever family that every child deserves – we officially adopted him this past summer.

Drew’s story is just one among the 1,000 children who are in the foster care system in Atlantic and Cape May Counties. There are still many more children, who have stories like Drew’s, that need a helping hand. Will you help lift up their voice? To donate or volunteer please call (609) 601-7800 or visit www.atlanticcapecasa.org.

My name is Kelley and I am a CASA volunteer. I am you.

People say I have always been a “natural volunteer.” Ever since I was a little girl, volunteering has given me pride and a sense of accomplishment. As I have grown older, I have spent countless hours helping out in soup kitchens or folding clothes for the local homeless shelter. It wasn’t until I stumbled upon CASA many years ago, that I found my calling as a community volunteer.

CatOnce my CASA training was completed, I saw the fractured lives of struggling parents and their children. In my first few cases it was sometimes impossible to witness the shattered lives of the innocent children and help them find a breath of hope amongst the chaos. But it was always the end result – ensuring a teenage boy didn’t have to face the pain of separation from his siblings or finding a forever family for a little brown-eyed girl named Christina – that made the countless hours spent on their cases well worth my time. The biggest reward is hearing a child’s heartfelt thank you and experiencing the humble gratitude of birth, foster and adoptive parents.

But, it is the case of 12-year-old Cat that continues to remind me why I volunteer with CASA. Cat was born into violence and chaos. Brutally abused by her mother and her multiple boyfriends, Cat entered the foster care system at the age of 18 months. Cat lived in the foster care system for over 3 years before she was adopted at the age of 5 by a well-meaning and loving woman named Margaret. What should have been a happy start to Cat’s new forever family quickly made a turn for the worse when Cat’s adoptive mother began to suffer from severe mental illness by the time Cat was 6 years old.

Margaret became paranoid and delusional, believing the FBI was out to get her family. Her paranoia became so severe that she barricaded their home from outsiders and taught Cat to be fearful of the world. While her adoptive mother struggled to fight her own inner demons, Cat’s life spun out of control. At the age of 10, Cat dealt with her mother’s mental illness and her own feelings of confusion and hopelessness by cutting raw welts into her delicate arms. She wrote in her journal about her fears, blaming herself for her past abuse and feeling as though she was friendless and powerless. When Cat was 12, she was removed from her adoptive home due to allegations that her mother was neglecting her and not providing her with adequate care.

This is when I met Cat – a confused, frightened and damaged 12-year-old girl. I didn’t know what to expect of a child who had been through so much. But once I met her I realized she was just like any little girl – she loved to play hop scotch, listen to music and have “girl-tal
k.” I love to see the light burst into her eyes when she talks of whales and sharks or challenges me to go jump on the trampoline – in heels.

In those first few visits, I saw how much Cat missed her mother. She was seeing Margaret once every two weeks for two hours. Cat expressed to me the love she had for her mother and how she wished she could see her more often. I asked the Judge to increase Cat’s visitation time and soon after the Judge ordered the recommendation, Cat’s attitude and behavior improved in school and in her foster home.

As the case continued, I still advocated for more visitation and therapy for both Cat and Margaret. Unfortunately, like any real life story, roadblock after roadblock popped up, dashing hopes that this family would ever be brought together again. Margaret repeatedly refused to be evaluated, not wanting anyone to intrude in her life. Cat’s journey through foster care proved perilous and I watched helplessly, despite my recommendations, as she was moved to three consecutive placements – this instability tore Cat apart, and, eventually, she began cutting deep gashes in her arms again.

The life of a 12-year-old should be carefree.  But for Cat, foster care took from her a childhood and replaced it with uncertainty and disappointment. I knew I need to find a safe place for this troubled young girl. So I continued to advocate on Cat’s behalf and soon the hard work started to pay off. I advocated for Cat to be placed in a treatment facility where professionals could help her cope with her depression and suicidal thoughts. Once moved, I saw a happier 12-year-old who was rewarded for expressing herself. Just after a few months in her new home, Cat transformed, becoming more outspoken and expressing her needs. Even Cat’s mother was impressed with her improvement and agreed to be evaluated as well.

I wish I could say this story has a happy ending with Cat and Margaret becoming a family again. But, alas, this is not a case. Their story still remains open – Cat living at the treatment facility and Margaret beginning to recognize what it will take to be reunified with her daughter. Regardless, I do feel that my actions on Cat’s behalf have helped stabilize her life. I’ve been there for her through three placements, four DYFS case workers and countless therapists – remaining the only constant voice in her life.

Recently, when visiting Cat in her treatment home, she quietly pulled me aside. In a polite voice, she asked if I would take a handwritten letter to the Judge. Of course I obliged. This letter, written entirely by Cat, was full of her little quirks and heartfelt feelings pleading with the Judge to let her go home again. The fact that this little girl – who as once confused and frightened by a difficult system – was now able to express herself and trust me enough to deliver her message brought a glimmer of hope to me. This is what it means to be a CASA volunteer. This is what it means to make a difference in someone’s life story.

Cat’s story is just one among the 1,0
00 children who are in the foster care system in Atlantic and Cape May Counties. Many more children, who have stories like Cat’s, need a helping hand. Will you lift up their voice? To donate to CASA or to volunteer please call (609) 601-7800 or visit
www.atlanticcapecasa.org