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

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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.

boy with head down on chalk board

In addition, these students face enormous personal emotional challenges. First, is the abuse or neglect that put them in care, but there is also the embarrassment of being in foster care, being separated from siblings and parents and living in a strange home. All of these factors weigh heavily on these young people. It is imperative that teachers, administrators, foster parents and all of those in the foster youth’s life to pay special attention to how these students assimilate into the classroom and watch for any bullying or shaming that may occur. Any additional emotional trauma would devastate an already fragile situation.

Research shows that youth living in foster care are more likely to drop out of high school and are least likely to attend college. An organized effort to safeguard a smooth school transition for these youth is the key to a positive educational experience that can offset some of the damage done by the abuse, neglect and the barriers that these youth experience. Additionally, and most importantly, an improved educational experience will enhance the overall wellbeing of each student and provide a pathway to self-sufficiency and a successful adulthood.

A CASA Child Advocate Talks About ‘Giving Back’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Bumpy Road Leads to a Happy Ending

Life is complicated. Life is really complicated with parents living apart, sharing custody of six kids, one works two jobs while the other is trying hard, but still self-medicating to cope with the stress. Yeah, it is complicated.

ibuI meet Ibu on his day off.  He rides up on his bike to meet me, eager to share the story of the day his children were removed from their home by the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCP&P). That was two and a half years ago.

This is how it all started…a fight between two of the boys, landed one in the ER. A well-meaning aunt took the boy from the ER to another hospital in Philadelphia, leaving a discord between the boys’ mother and her well-meaning sister and an open door for a DCP&P investigation.

When DCP&P showed up at the home, mom was, understandably frightened. Strangers were coming into her home to investigate the welfare of her children and potentially their removal – that would frighten and anger anyone and perhaps make you not very cooperative. Which was the case for Ibu’s ex-wife. Once the investigation was complete, all of the children were removed from her care. Another aunt took in Ibu’s two girls, the two older children went to live with their biological father and a foster family takes in Ibu’s two boys.

DCP&P, CASA and the courts, work hard to keep families together, that is always the first choice whenever possible. Cooperation from all parties, especially the parents, is the key to ensuring reunification. Ibu understood this immediately and made sure he did everything necessary to bring his kids back home. Ibu’s ex-wife took a little longer to understand the process and the importance of her cooperation, but eventually she did, entering a recovery program for her drug addiction.

At first, DCP&P only granted supervised visits with their children in public places. Next, DCP&P allowed supervised visits with Ibu, then sleepovers supervised by Ibu.  Then Ibu’s six and 10-year-old sons returned to him.

Still, challenges existed that needed solutions. Childcare was a big obstacle, Ibu had to work, but who would watch the boys? Luckily, DCP&P helped secure affordable childcare. Ibu’s two girls were unhappy living at their aunt’s home so DCP&P granted permission to stay with Ibu’s girlfriend – a week before a court hearing. The two younger boys had trouble in school, so CASA Merv helped get them into an aftercare programs. The children’s mom continued to struggle with her addiction so CASA Merv helped her get the services she needed that would bring her kids back home.  Even transportation was an issue – Ibu and his ex-wife had to take two to three busses every week to visit their boys in their foster home.

The process was slow and difficult, but it was working and support came from all corners.

CASA Merv said, “The first time I met Ibu, he stood up in court, and clearly stated his intentions to reunite his family. I was so impressed with Ibu. We became friends.  Ibu did everything.”

In time, mom became more and more cooperative. She too, began to do what needed to reunite her family.  One by one, the children returned to their parents’ homes. Ibu has his two boys.  The others are with their mom.

Ibu finished our talk with on a positive note, “In the end, good came out. My kids never had Godparents. Through my visits with my kids while in their foster home, I came to know this wonderful couple. During a phone call, after the boys returned home, the foster parents asked if they could maintain their relationship with my boys. They asked if they could call the boys once a week and sleep over once a month to see the friends that they had met in the neighborhood. They also asked if they could be the boys Godparents.” Ibu responded to this heartwarming request with, “I’ll check with their mom.”  The kids now have Godparents and monthly sleepovers with their new friends.

Ibu said his relationship with CASA Merv continues with calls once a month to check in to say, “If you need anything at all, just ask.” Ibu said, “CASA Merv’s role was instrumental in getting my kids back home. He cared, was always there, and gave us the resources we needed.”

CASA Merv and DCP&P told the judge that this foster family has fostered many children but Ibu’s children, “are the best kids we’ve ever had, they were kind and respectful and well mannered.” As a parent, those are the best words that you can ever hear, especially with the challenges that this family faced.

We all know that life is complicated, but helping each other over the bumps in the road makes our journey together a little lighter.

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.

Two Brothers Adopted After Three-Year Wait

2brothers

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.