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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The child-victim is most vulnerable.

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

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

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

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

 

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.