National Volunteer Week: CASA Volunteers Listen First. Then They Act.

In honor of National Volunteer Week, I wanted to take a moment to thank everyone doing extraordinary things through service.

This week honors the people and organizations that use volunteerism as a way to tackle society’s toughest challenges, spark change, and build stronger, more resilient communities.

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Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for Children of Atlantic and Cape May Counties is fortunate to count over 200 community volunteers working on behalf of children in foster care.

Nobody longs for a safe and loving family more than a child in foster care. As a court-appointed special advocate (CASA) volunteer, you are empowered by the courts to help make this dream a reality. CASA Volunteers not only bring positive change to the lives of these vulnerable children, but also their children and generations to come. In addition, in doing so, you will enrich your life as well.

Volunteers get to know the child by talking with everyone in that child’s life: parents and relatives, foster parents, teachers, medical professionals, attorneys, social workers and others. They use the information they gather to inform judges and others of what the child needs and what will be the best permanent home for them.

Nearly 700,000 children experience abuse or neglect each year. Instead of playing with neighbors and making happy family memories, they are attending court hearings, adjusting to new foster homes and transitioning to new schools. That is a heavy burden for a child to carry. With a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteer dedicated to their case, America’s most vulnerable children will have someone speaking up for their best interests. With your support, more children will have the opportunity to thrive in a safe and loving home.

You do not have to be a lawyer or a social worker to be a volunteer. We welcome people from all walks of life. We are simply looking for people who care about children and have common sense. As a volunteer, you are thoroughly trained and well supported by experienced advocates and professional staff to help you through each case.

Ready to Stand Up for a Child Who Needs You?

National Volunteer Week is a great time to get involved!  Volunteer Your Time to Change a Child’s Life: find out how by visiting www.AtlanticCapeCASA.org

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A Couple Surrounded By Love, Gives Love To Others

Late in the year 2016, Ella and Malcolm received a postcard from Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for Children of Atlantic and Cape May Counties. This small piece of mail, which easily could have become junk mail, has changed their lives.

10339604_877455062271759_8479904569277564162_nWhen Ella first received that postcard, she had never even heard of CASA. She showed it to Malcolm, who immediately thought CASA sounded like a very worthwhile organization. They were in complete agreement about the importance of standing up for the abused and neglected children in their communities. They liked the idea of being the voice for those children living in foster care who can go unheard. A woman of action, Ella registered them both for an Information Session.

By January 2017, they joined another 20 individuals in a training class to become CASA advocates. This diverse group shared one common goal: To become the eyes and ears of the family court judge for children living in foster care.

Married over 46 years, it was natural for them to team up and become CASA advocates together. “We found a volunteer opportunity that had meaning to us and one that we could do together. It was our intention to work as a team for these kids,” Ella shared.

The couple have always volunteered in their communities. Malcolm as a basketball coach, a Special Olympics board member and a career-trainer for the Opportunities Industrialization Center. Ella’s first volunteer experience was as for her local hospital when she was a high school student. After years of volunteer work for the American Cancer Society, Ella became their Lead Ambassador. They likely cannot remember a time when they were not involved in community service.

With three grown children of their own, they know the value of strong role models for raising children. Malcolm feels very strongly about the importance of male role models in a child’s life, and referred to one of his favorite Proverbs: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”

Malcom and Ella knew how easy it would be for a child to fall through the cracks of the child welfare system and they were determined to do all that they could to keep this from happening. They committed themselves to the CASA training and at the end of 30 hours were sworn in as Volunteer Judiciaries by a family court judge. Like most CASA graduates, they were excited and anxious about their new roles as child advocates.

Their first case included six siblings, infant twins, a two-year-old girl, and a nine and a 12-year-old boy. “Working as a team with Ella has been great,” said Malcolm. Smiling he added, “I almost fired her once or twice.” They work well as a team and the children whom they advocate benefit from their shared viewpoints for what they believe are the best interest of the children.

The parents in their first case were eager to accept services that would help bring their family back together and gradually the family was reunified. “The kids were so excited,” Ella said. “In spite of what had happened, when you met those kids, you knew they were raised right…they were well-mannered, good kids.”

As experienced CASA advocates, they immediately accepted another case with three siblings placed with three foster families. They know that each situation is unique and that the children on this case may reunite with their parents, realize adoption or be cared for by a relative.

Whatever the outcome, Ella and Malcom will continue to share car rides to and from their child visits and keep in contact with all of the people in the children’s lives. They will discuss their findings and share opinions as they write their court reports and make recommendations that they believe will help each child succeed. They will come to know and truly care about each child, and through their generosity of time and spirit, will help make each child’s world a better place.

“When you have been blessed,” Malcolm said, “you have to bless others.”

 

casa_v_atca_redblue_rgb2Malcom and Ella are two 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. Take a stand against child abuse and join the CASA Movement today!

 

AtlanticCapeCASA.org
Facebook.com/casa4children
Twitter.com/casa4children
(609) 601-7800

 

Early Childhood Trauma

In a 60 Minutes segment, which aired Sunday, March 11, Oprah Winfrey explored the long-term adverse effects of early childhood trauma with a leading authority in field of early childhood development.  Dr. Bruce Perry, psychiatrist and neuroscientist, discussed the complex issues and the technique of Trauma Informed Care to treat the maltreated and traumatized child.

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Dr. Perry stated, “If you have development trauma, the truth is you’re going to be at risk for almost any kind of physical health, mental health and social health problem that you can think of.”   Most interesting, and sad, is that research in neuroscience shows that “The very same sensitivity that makes you able to learn language ‘just like that!’ as a little infant, makes you highly vulnerable to chaos, threat, inconsistency, unpredictability and violence.  So, children are much more sensitive to developmental trauma than adults.”

A child raised in a healthy, nurturing and stable environment is more likely to have a well-wired brain.  Unfortunately, the reverse is also true.  A child raised in a chaotic home with uncertainty and violence, will have a brain that is wired differently.  Typically, these children are more vulnerable for a lifetime.  In fact, the CDC reports that these individuals are five times as likely to be depressed and have live spans shortened by 20 years.

Dr. Bruce Perry shaped “trauma informed care.” Trauma informed care focuses on “what happened.”  When mental health professionals focus on “What happened to you?” vs. “What’s wrong with you?”  before trying to fix it, it makes the client feel safe.  Under this type of care, clients report, “I felt understood.  I felt seen and heard.”

Dr. Perry points out that we cannot break the cycle without trauma informed care.  Perry says that the difference between a “bad childhood” and a “traumatic childhood” is that somebody helped – that is what makes the difference.

Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for Children 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. Take a stand against child abuse and join the CASA Movement today!

AtlanticCapeCASA.org
Facebook.com/casa4children   twitter.com/casa4children   (609) 601-7800

An Inspired Life

Maggie knows first-hand the tumult of a childhood spent in foster care. One of seven children, Maggie entered the foster care system at the age of two. But despite an unstable beginning, she is a remarkable young lady. At the age of 23, she has all the enthusiasm you would expect of one so young. What’s unexpected however, is her wisdom and her commitment to serving people.

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Maggie quickly counts off seven of the foster homes that she remembers; but said she can’t recall too much from her earliest days in care. She also quickly lists off the 12 schools she’s attended which include schools in Alabama, Nebraska, New Jersey and Michigan.

Maggie still carries a hint of her Southern accent. She speaks with deep gratitude of her adoptive parents who would “adopt these little black girls that looked nothing like them.”  She treasures a photo album – the only photos she has from her early childhood – entitled “My Little Margaret” given to her years later by her first grade teacher who was drawn to Maggie’s spirit.

That spirit is what defines Maggie, it guided her though foster care and it is what defines her life now. Unlike so many youth, who spent years in foster care, Maggie was somehow able to break away from the negative outcomes that have overwhelmed many foster youth – dropping out of school, teen pregnancy, homelessness, drug abuse and unemployment.

Certainly, her parents helped shape this young woman’s life by providing a supportive, loving home and giving her the opportunities to thrive. But Maggie attended 12 schools in four different states and still managed to graduate on time, with good grades. Each time a foster youth change schools, they usually loose three to six months of academic progress– which means that Maggie essentially lost 36 months – 3 years – of school, but still managed to graduate with her class. Truly an unbelievable achievement and a testament to Maggie’s remarkable spirit.

Thankfully, Maggie wanted to give back and help other foster youth reach their own potential – she was sworn in as a CASA advocate during her senior year in college. Maggie said, “My experiences as a foster child fuels a lot the reason I am a CASA.”

Just before Maggie’s 22nd birthday, she was assigned a CASA case with two young boys. As their CASA, Maggie ensured that the boys received all the services they needed. Her CASA court reports offered the judge recommendations in the best interest of the boys – which included keeping them together in the same foster home. She is thrilled that her recommendation of keeping the brothers together was ordered by the courts and is even more happy that the boys are now in the process of being adopted into a forever home.

When asked of her experience as a CASA, she admitted that sometimes it’s challenging. “Sometimes people don’t understand the role of a CASA,” Maggie said, “It can be hard to have your calls returned or schedule visits with the kids.” But, Maggie understands what needs to be done, and knows that these children need a CASA volunteer, like her.

“I know that everyone is doing their best, so I am not discouraged by a system that doesn’t always work smoothly, or move as fast as you want it to,” said Maggie. Instead, she is persistent with a positive attitude and a commitment to make sure her CASA children were not just a case number in a file.

“I know in my heart, I made a difference in these brothers’ lives. They are being adopted together, just like me and my sister were, so I know first-hand how important it is to stay with a sibling.”

For Maggie, being a CASA is about breaking the cycle. “You have to try. When you put out consistent effort, there will be the desired effect.”  At a young age, Maggie was inspired by the movie Amazing Grace about the politician, philanthropist and abolitionist, William Wilberforce.  Maggie said, “His passion and concern for other people was an inspiration to me for my life’s ambition of serving others.”

Wasting no time to share her spirit again, Maggie requested another CASA child.  She lights up as she anticipates meeting the 14-year-old girl who will be her next CASA case.  “I’ve always mentored older youth in my community, so I am very excited to meet her and advocate for her!

“I chose CASA because of my personal life experiences as a foster child, and my passion for helping others directly relates to CASA’s mission,” said Maggie. “I never had a CASA while I was in foster care, but I understand the role of a CASA volunteer from growing up for seven years in foster care. It’s a CASA who makes sure the decisions for the child reflect his/her interests, needs and safety and not just the goals or interests of third parties.

“A CASA is an objective advocate that gives special focus to a child or children on an individual level rather than on an institutional level. I want to be that person. I care about the person. I care about people and I want to have an impact on society. I will not be happy at the end of my life unless I have used my life to empower others.”

 

Maggie 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. Take a stand against child abuse and join the CASA Movement today!

AtlanticCapeCASA.org
Facebook.com/casa4children   twitter.com/casa4children   (609) 601-7800

 

 

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/

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