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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Substance Abuse — The Thief that Robs Parent from Child

What do we really want for our children? We want them to grow into kind, functioning adults who are joyful, find their purpose and ultimately contribute to society. Easy stuff right? Under the best of circumstances, that’s a pretty tall order.

sadchildParents will do whatever it takes to help their children reach these goals. It can be challenging. For starters, kids need safety and security and food and shelter. But also important are clothing, medical care, heat in cold climates, lessons in hygiene, boundary setting, emotional support, socializing. The list goes on and on. But love and consistency are at the center of developing a young child, born full of potential, into a healthy adult.

But what if, as a parent, you don’t have the all the tools you need? What if you realize the big job ahead of you? What if you get scared? Or you don’t have the best coping skills? What if drugs or alcohol gave you relief? Or, you thought it did.

Enter substance abuse into a family, and even a child’s most basic needs are at risk.

Though each child’s experience will vary, most children of parents who suffer from substance abuse face a myriad of issues that affect the child’s entire life:

A parent might not come home at night, leaving the children to fend for themselves;

Mom cannot keep promises and may not even remember a promise was made;

Dad may have trouble keeping a job and struggle with paying bills, providing food or medical care;

Mom cannot help with homework, prepare meals or provide lessons in personal hygiene.

Consider this child, a child of a parent who suffers from substance abuse and you can imagine him going to school hungry, perhaps unwashed, in unclean and poor fitting clothes with incomplete homework. He or she, most likely on top of all that they endure at home, will experience teasing and bullying at school. He or she, most likely, has no coping skills to deal with the day they’ve been given.

Add family fights, neglect and emotional or physical abuse, and that’s a recipe that can lead to a child or children being removed from their home and placed into foster care.

Foster care can isolate a child, preventing them from forming healthy relationships with their peers. We can hope their teacher offers kindness instead of a reprimand for incomplete homework. Hopefully, the cafeteria server sees a hungry child and gives an extra helping and offers a smile. But in spite of the kindness offered, the feeling of hopelessness is a natural response to being removed from their home, and even though it is through no fault of their own, the child feels responsible for tearing the family apart.

With all that suffering placed on their small shoulders, the child begins to lose focus at school, they act out, they cannot see a future for themselves. All too often, they feel lost, confused and voiceless.

Fortunately, for a child living in foster care, their hope, their voice comes in the form of a CASA volunteer. A CASA volunteer may be the only compassionate, consistent adult in that child’s precarious life. One single bond from a caring adult can give hope to a child who deserves joy and the opportunity to reach their potential. One single bond can save a child’s life.

CASA volunteers are trained in the complicated issues of families dealing with substance abuse. A CASA volunteer can help guide families to the resources and the support they need to help break the cycle of substance abuse, get their family back together and ensure another child, another family, is given the opportunity to thrive.

Learn more at AtlanticCapeCASA.org

 

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.

Two Brothers Adopted After Three-Year Wait

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After waiting three years for this day to arrive, brothers Toby and Jake, 13 and 11, will be adopted this month by their loving grandmother. The boys grew up living with their mother, grandmother, and uncles. However, their mother had a long history of drug abuse, and something very traumatic happened while the boys and their family members were asleep one night. Their mother was murdered in their home. This is when Toby and Jake were taken into the custody of the Division of Child Protection and Permanency, but they were fortunate to continue living with their grandmother and uncles.

“I think having their family close by helped a lot in grieving process,” said the boys’ CASA volunteer, Jim, who was assigned to their case shortly after their mother’s death. “They are very laid back. At least they had a little support group around them. They never indicated to me that they were ever scared.”

Soon after, their grandmother moved the family to a new home in a safer neighborhood. Here, the boys made new friends and spent their summer days swimming.

“I think they look at her like their mother,” Jim said of the boys’ grandmother. “She does everything for them and provides a positive living environment. She always seems invested in their schoolwork and how they’re doing.”

Jim observed how well the boys were doing in their grandmother’s care, and he advocated that she adopt them.

He said the boys are excited to finally get adopted. “They are looking forward to having the case come to an end,” he said, mentioning that some of their case workers have changed over the years. Additionally, the boys’ father and mother’s ex boyfriend also prolonged the adoption process.

“[Court] was trying to give the boys’ father and the mother’s ex boyfriend many opportunities to become guardians, but they were not following through; they were either disinterested or in jail,” Jim said.

This upset the boys’ grandmother because she was the one constant in their lives, and she took care of them every day. She has spent the past year waiting for the adoption to be finalized.

“For them, adoption is long overdue,” Jim said. “I’m happy for them. Compared to a lot of things I hear about foster children who moved around a lot, I think the kids are very lucky. It’s very unfortunate they lost their mother, but living with their grandmother helped them relax. They weren’t scared that they were going to get removed from the grandmother’s home and placed somewhere else.”

During Jim’s most recent visit, the grandmother could see the light at the end of the tunnel.

She was holding an envelope in her hand and said to Jim, “I believe this is the last thing I have to fill out and hand in. After this, everything comes to a close.”

Toby and Jake are two out of 33 children from Atlantic and Cape May Counties who were adopted this month.

Jim is one of over 200 CASA Volunteers in Atlantic and Cape May Counties fighting for the rights of children living in foster care. CASA is central to fulfilling society’s most fundamental obligation by making sure a qualified, compassionate adult will fight for and protect a child’s right to be safe, to be treated with dignity and respect and to learn and grow in the safe embrace of a loving family. Join the Movement by calling CASA today at (609) 601-7800.

CASA Volunteer Advocates for Foster Child Born to Mother with Severe Mental Illnesses

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Borderline personality disorder. Asperger syndrome. Mood disorder not otherwise specified. Schizophrenia.

Rachel was diagnosed with these mental illnesses and disorders. Then she gave birth to her first son, Henry.

During Henry’s first year of life, Rachel was frightened by him. She heard him speak to her at length, even though his mouth was not moving, and she feared that he wanted to kill her. For almost an entire year, Rachel kept a barrier over her son’s crib so that she would not have to see him. She told her case worker that she hated Henry and wanted to hurt him, even though she knew she could not act on these feelings. To treat her mental illnesses, she took several different anti-psychotropic medications. But she also had a history of abusing heroin, marijuana, and alcohol, combinations that can be increasingly dangerous when paired with such powerful prescription medications.

After nearly a year of being neglected by his mother, the Division of Child Protection and Permanency removed Henry from his home and placed him into a caring foster home. Henry was a very intelligent boy, but it is not surprising that he had some behavioral problems, as he had spent a year in a neglectful home. Sometimes he banged his head against a wall if he did not get his way, and occasionally he would hit others when angry.

By age two, he entered daycare and did well socializing with other toddlers and following teachers’ instructions. Henry’s CASA volunteer, Kathy, was assigned to his case at this time. She visited him in his foster home and also spoke with teachers to make sure he was adjusting well and receiving the care he needed.

Because of Henry’s traumatic childhood, Kathy knew how important a permanent home would be for the boy. When she realized that Henry was starting to form bonds with his foster family, who had no intentions of adopting him, Kathy quickly advocated for him to be placed in a pre-adoptive foster home.

Thankfully, the family court judge agreed with Kathy’s recommendation and soon after, Henry was placed in a new pre-adoptive foster home with a young couple. The new foster family made a book for young Henry to teach him what it means to be adopted. “This is your new brother,” one of the pages read, with a photo of their young son.

At first, Henry was doing well in his new home and was getting along with his new brother. But a few months later, his pre-adoptive family indicated to Kathy that Henry’s behavioral changes were upsetting. The couple was concerned for the safety of their biological son, who Henry sometimes treated aggressively.

Unfortunately, the family felt they could no longer go through with the adoption process.

To many involved with Henry’s case, he was showing early signs of Asperger syndrome, an illness that affected his mother. However, all testing came back negative. Kathy does not believe Henry has any type of mental illness.

“I know that it is very easy to look at the record and say, ‘Oh, yeah, he’s probably got a mental illness,'” Kathy said. “I don’t think that’s fair. He was never given a chance to be who he is… he has been traumatized twice, first from his family and then from the system. He hasn’t been given any consistency or permanency for any aspect of his life. He has switched families, brothers; how can you evaluate a child’s mental health when there’s been no normalcy in his life?”

She believes his behavioral issues were related to the trauma he experienced since he was born. Kathy advocated for Henry to receive specific trauma therapy, which the judge ordered. Kathy said this therapy is helping him tremendously.

Now four years old, Henry is preparing to move out of state to live with a family friend. Kathy has spoken to his new adoptive mother, and she is fully aware of what Henry has been through and what he needs–specifically, the continuation of his therapy.

Most importantly, Kathy said, his behavioral modifications, put in place by his therapists, must be used by everyone in his life. “It has to be consistent. Parents need to use it; not just the school. Everyone has to know how to respond to him when he’s acting out,” Kathy said.

Kathy is hopeful for Henry’s new placement. “His [adoptive mother] seems very willing to cooperate… she is expecting a rocky transition; it’s not like she is going to be surprised if [he acts out], which I think is very good.”

Henry’s spirit hasn’t been broken thus far, Kathy added. “It really speaks volumes of what a survivor he is.”

Kathy is one of over 200 CASA Volunteers in Atlantic and Cape May Counties fighting for the rights of children living in foster care. CASA is central to fulfilling society’s most fundamental obligation by making sure a qualified, compassionate adult will fight for and protect a child’s right to be safe, to be treated with dignity and respect and to learn and grow in the safe embrace of a loving family. Join the Movement by calling CASA today at (609) 601-7800.

Being the Voice for an Infant Living in Foster Care

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When CASA Volunteer Teresa first read David’s case file more than two years ago, she was horrified. David was sexually abused by his mother as an infant, and the Division removed him from her care when he was just six months old. Though shocked, Teresa did not hesitate to take on the case in her new role as a CASA.

“Right away, I thought, someone has to save this kid so he didn’t end up back there. If [sexual abuse] is already starting at that young of an age, I could only imagine how much worse it could get,” Teresa said. “I couldn’t even imagine someone doing that to their own child, especially at that age.”

In addition to the abuse by David’s mother, the mother’s boyfriend was previously charged with receiving child pornography, for which he was incarcerated, and he had received probation for having alcohol in the presence of an underage girl. He was perpetuating the mother’s sexual abuse toward David.

In the United States, the children most likely to be abused or neglected are younger than 18-months-old, and 80% of children who die from abuse are younger than four-years-old.

Teresa understands how important it is to advocate for foster children in this age group.

“They can’t speak for themselves; most of them are just learning to speak, and they don’t know what’s right or what’s wrong,” she explained. “They just want someone to love them and pay attention to them. If their parents aren’t the right ones for them, they may not know that. They need someone to be their voice.”

When David was removed from his mother’s home, he was placed in foster care with a very nice woman, and he stayed with her for more than two years. During that time, Teresa made sure that David was receiving the appropriate care at his foster home and that he had access to services that would ensure his continued safety and growth.

Teresa was always very happy with the foster mother; she took good care of David and shared Teresa’s understanding of advocacy, and the need to keep David healthy. Once David was in his foster mother’s care for a year, Teresa advocated to the court that he continue living there until permanency was established.

“From the beginning, if she saw anything, she would always fight for what he needed, medical-wise,” Teresa explained of the foster mother. “[David] had ear infections often, so his speech was delayed because it was affecting his hearing. So she pushed to get him to a specialist. She continued to push for his best interest in helping him reach his full potential.” Teresa also supported David by recommending these services through her reports to the court.

David was flourishing in his foster home. He was reaching his developmental milestones on time, he appeared happy during CASA visits, and he did well in daycare while his foster mother was at work.

“Every time I would go visit, David was always very affectionate [with his foster mother] and would go over and hug her and kiss her. You could tell from very early on that there was a bond,” Teresa said.

David’s foster mother had been very interested in adopting him for a long time, and Teresa felt that she would be a great fit for David. David’s mother has been in jail during his entire stay in foster care, and she signed paperwork to relinquish her parental rights. When potential placements with David’s grandparents and father were ruled out by the Division, David was finally able to be adopted by his foster mother.

Teresa was assigned to this case in early 2011, and David’s adoption took place just last month. We are so glad David had a dedicated CASA like Teresa and that he now has a forever family!

Teresa is one of over 200 CASA Volunteers in Atlantic and Cape May Counties fighting for the rights of children living in foster care. CASA is central to fulfilling society’s most fundamental obligation by making sure a qualified, compassionate adult will fight for and protect a child’s right to be safe, to be treated with dignity and respect and to learn and grow in the safe embrace of a loving family. Join the Movement by calling CASA today at (609) 601-7800.