Community Members Can Make Life Better for Vulnerable Children

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and our attention rightly turns to ways we can support children who have experienced abuse or neglect. According to the US Children’s Bureau, 687,000 children lived in foster care in the United States due to abuse or neglect in 2018. According to Kids Count New Jersey, nearly 500 children and youth lived in foster care in Atlantic and Cape May Counties during the same year.

For children to thrive despite abuse or neglect, resilience is the key. The most common factor in developing resilience, according to the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, is having a stable relationship with a supportive adult.

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That is where Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for Children of Atlantic and Cape May County steps in. We recruit, train and support volunteers who get to know the children and their families, and advocate for those children’s needs in court. Our volunteers are part of an expansive network of 93,300 volunteers across the country who care deeply about children and are working to make life better for those children living in foster care

The children that CASA serves have often been disappointed or hurt by the adults in their lives. Parental drug abuse, and the child maltreatment that is often associated with drug abuse, accounted for more than one third of child removals nationwide in 2018. For children living in these situations, they become accustomed to being over looked and it is difficult for them to trust or open up to others – even those who may be able to help them.

By developing relationships with these children and advocating for their needs, CASA volunteers can make a major impact in mitigating the long-term damage from abuse or neglect.

Although babies are at the highest risk for maltreatment, older youth are most in need of advocates. Nearly 20 percent of children in foster care nationally are age 15 or older. In Atlantic and Cape May Counties, that number is 12 percent. Experiencing abuse or neglect has long-term consequences for these youth.

The US Children’s Bureau has found that at age 17, more than one quarter of youth in foster are referred for substance abuse treatment or counseling at some point. By age 21, 20 percent of youth who were in foster care at age 17 had been incarcerated within the prior two years. Additionally, by age 21, 22 percent of former foster youth had given birth to or fathered a child and 42 percent experienced homelessness at some point.

A stable relationship with a supportive adult – like a CASA volunteer – can help children do well even when they have faced significant hardships. At age 17, 94 percent of youth in foster care reported that they had a supportive adult in their lives who they could rely on for advice or emotional support. Because of this, we continue to have great hope for these youth despite the long odds against them.

Nationwide, CASA programs serve approximately one-third of older youth in foster care. In Atlantic and Cape May Counties, 94 percent of foster youth have a CASA volunteer. Our volunteers undergo training to understand the impact of trauma on children. They advocate for services that promote healing and help children build resilience. The work CASA volunteers do is life changing, and sometimes lifesaving.

Especially now, as we are experiencing a global health crisis, foster youth need advocates. Many of our children are from vulnerable populations who will be dramatically affected by this pandemic – losing the meals they depend upon at school, missing school lessons for lack of internet, or simply increasing the anxiety in children already traumatized by their experience.

Additionally, we have to consider the children not yet assigned a CASA volunteer, or those who will enter the system while this crisis is still unfolding. We need to ensure that those children will also have the benefit of a CASA volunteer to advocate for their best interest – especially during this complex time and long after this crisis ends.

Visit https://atlanticcapecasa.org/getinvolved/ to start the process now.

 


Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for Children’s mission to speak on behalf of abused and neglected children is central to fulfilling society’s most fundamental obligation to protect a child’s right to be safe, treated with respect and to help them reach their fullest potential. For more information about CASA, visit AtlanticCapeCASA.org.

Foster Parenting as a Career

Although controversial, the idea of treating fostering as a full-time paid position, is gaining in popularity. A handful of governments are experimenting with this idea. In 2016 Illinois implemented a pilot program with professional foster parents. Parts of Texas started using professional foster parents in 2017.

Increasingly, children come into foster care with serious behavioral and mental issues. These issues require intensive training and understanding.

Jill Duerr Berrick, professor at the School of Social Welfare at UC – Berkley, states that the idea emerged from a realization that some foster children have extreme needs. Also, over the past 70 years, the number of foster homes have declined significantly. Two parent homes, with a stay at home wife, is no longer the norm as it was in the 1950’s.

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Berrick states “professionalizing foster care isn’t just about the money. It means you’ve been thoughtfully trained and supported to do a good job.”

Retention rates are low for foster parenting. In fact, a study of over 5,000 foster parents showed a 30-50% of foster parents quit within the first 18 months. Half of those cited lack of support and training.

Controversial? Yes. Many believe fostering should remain altruistic. “Kids know the difference between a job and not a job,” Tracey Field is the director/manager of the Child Welfare Strategy Group for the Annie E. Casey Foundation. She feels this model, “really reimagines foster care – but not in a good way.”

Professional foster parents usually foster the children with serious mental, emotional or behavioral issues. In Milwaukee’s Professional Foster Care Program, these children have many appointments throughout the week. This requires a full-time commitment from the foster parent; they cannot hold another job and still support the child’s needs.

Some children feel they are just cash cows when any money is involved. Others feel differently. Heavenly Morrow, lived with professional foster parents in Milwaukee from age 16 – 17; she stated she never felt like her foster parents were in it for the money.

 


Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for Children’s mission to speak on behalf of abused and neglected children is central to fulfilling society’s most fundamental obligation to protect a child’s right to be safe, treated with respect and to help them reach their fullest potential. For more information about CASA, visit AtlanticCapeCASA.org.

 

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.”

Community Awareness Event Hits Home The Need for CASA Volunteers

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There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. That was the general feeling on October 16 when guest speaker Tanisha Cunningham told her foster care story to community members who attended CASA’s annual Community Awareness event.

Tanisha grew up in New York City. Her earliest memory is of her mom telling her to wait on the steps of her project home and she would be right back. She was three years old. Tanisha’s mother never came back but the child welfare division did, beginning her long relationship with what Tanisha described as her “mother,” the city, and her “father,” the state. What happen to Tanisha over the next 16 years is, unfortunately, the rule instead of the exception.

In and out of foster care, Tanisha was returned to her mother too many times to count and endured abuse so violent that she wondered each day if it would be her last.

Each day she became more angry, until one day, when she was 13, she contemplated hitting her mother with a porcelain elephant and actually had the figurine in her hand when her mother turned around. Tanisha believes that someone was watching out for her, and her mother, that day. After her mother left that fateful day, so did Tanisha, putting what she could grab in a trash bag and running in the opposite direction away from her mother.

She thought her life would be better, away from the hands that did so much physical damage. But being a teenager landed her in a group home with other abused and abandoned youth instead of with a foster family who could have provided the guidance she needed. In the group home, the teens taught each other how to cope and manage the system. Tanisha recalled that nobody questioned the residents if they didn’t attend school, or rarely gave any guidance to prepare the youth for their future. Most vividly, she remembers being known only as her case number instead of her name. Something that made such an impression on her that she still recalls the number some 30 years later.

Fortunately, Tanisha made choices that positively affected her ability to survive after leaving the foster care system. Many of her peers were not as fortunate and became homeless, addicted to drugs or criminals. Tanisha recounts a day that she was taking a lunch break about a year after she started working. She hears someone call her name on the street and turns around, but doesn’t see anyone she recognizes. She continues walking, and hears her name again, this time when she turns a man is walking towards her. “Don’t you remember me?,” he asks. She still doesn’t recognize this man until he smiles and then she knows it is “Big Mike.” They spent time at the same group home and he was always a kind, quiet soul. But today he looked different, skinny, dirty, scratching and twitching, eyes darting back and forth. This was not the boy who Tanisha remembered.

“Look at you,” he said, “all professional. You’re one of the lucky ones.”

“I don’t consider myself lucky, Big Mike. I just took a different path than you.” Tanisha knew that she could have just as easily ended up in Big Mike’s shoes.

Had Tanisha and her peers had a CASA volunteer, Cunningham said, they would have been better prepared for living independently. Unfortunately, the CASA program was not available when Cunningham was in foster care. Thankfully, CASA programs operate all across the nation and in every county in New Jersey. With CASA volunteers paired with foster youth, we can give them an advocate, a voice and a chance to thrive.

National Foster Care Month and How You Can Help

National Foster Care Month takes place every May, and it is a way to spread the word about the realities faced by children and youth in foster care.

Here are some statistics:

-In the United States, more than 400,000 children and youth live in foster care (1).

-In 2011, about half of these youth lived in a foster home without relatives (2).

-About 30,000 older foster youth leave the foster care system each year without finding a forever family (1).

-Of the children in foster care in 2009, more than 114,000 were waiting to be adopted, but only 57,466 children were adopted that year (3).

-About half wanted to be reunited with parents or primary caretakers.

-In 2010, more than 240,000 children were served by Court Appointed Special Advocates and Guardian Ad Litem volunteers. These  volunteers are assigned to the most difficult cases where abuse and neglect were involved (3).

-Approximately 245,260 children left foster care in 2011. Thirteen months is the median amount of time these youth spent in care (4).

  • Of these youth:
  • 52 percent were reunited with parents or primary caretakers
  • 20 percent were adopted
  • 11 percent were emancipated
  • 8 percent moved in with a family member
  • 6 percent moved in with a guardian
  • 3 percent had different outcomes

 

You can make a difference. Here’s how:

-Become a Court Appointed Special Advocate. CASAs advocate in court for children in foster care who have been neglected and abused, and they help ensure that they are placed in a safe, permanent home as quickly as possible.

-Help CASA raise community  awareness and recruit volunteers.

-Spread the word!

  • Share this blog post or any of these statistics on your social media accounts or via e-mail.
  • Talk about it at work or with family and friends.
  • Participate in events in your area that support the cause.
  • Make a financial contribution.
  • Keep the conversation going throughout the year.

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Sources:

[1][2][3][4]

With the help of CASA volunteer Sindy Finkelson, an Older Foster Youth Overcomes Obstacles and Excels in College

Growing up, Katie never knew her father. Her mother struggled with substance abuse, and her step father—who adopted Katie at age three—passed away when she was in elementary school. Many days, Katie would miss high school because her mother was not there to drive her, and sometimes her mother would disappear without leaving any food or money. Katie began to feel unsafe at home because of her mother’s drug and alcohol use.

Katie was 15 when she was taken into custody by the Division, where she then went through two foster home placements and a youth shelter.

Katie’s CASA volunteer, Sindy Finkelson, said being placed in the shelter was a turning point in Katie’s life.

“We were able to get her out of the shelter and place her in a really healthy foster home,” Sindy said, referring to her CASA case supervisor and a Division case worker. “Had CASA not been involved at that point, I don’t know what would have happened. She was in a bad place.”

After this, Sindy said Katie did a major turnaround. Katie was placed with a wonderful new foster family. Sindy said the foster mother, who is a teacher, has been amazing and has given Katie direction.

Now Katie is 18 and finishing up her freshman year of college. She is there on a full scholarship and is studying psychology. Katie feels a bit homesick, especially since many of the students go home on weekends. However, she is excelling academically and made the Dean’s list last semester. She and Sindy still keep in touch during the semester, and sometimes Sindy will proof read Katie’s college essays if need be. Sindy attributes much of Katie’s success to her foster mother, who Katie depends on a lot.

Many times, youth who are about to age out of foster care struggle to get their lives together at such a young age. In fact, only six percent finish a two or four-year degree after aging out, even though 70% of these youth would like to attend college.

“I think she is an exception to the rule,” Sindy said about Katie. “She has chosen a path of success. She does not want to be like her mom and in the system. She saw the life raft, and she grabbed on and she is going to be successful.”

Sindy said that she and Katie bonded right away and that this was very important. She commends CASA’s thorough volunteer training on maintaining professional relationships and objectivity.

“We are trained in CASA to be someone that they can trust… [Katie] knew that when she called me, I would be there for her. I always took her call, dropped what I was doing, and she knew that it was a priority for me. She didn’t abuse it,” Sindy said. “CASA teaches their advocates to really let children know that they can trust someone. That relationship is important in getting her through this.”

They have such a great CASA relationship that Sindy was invited to attend Katie’s high school graduation last year. Over the holidays, Sindy was touched when she received a beautiful thank you card from Katie, who wrote, “Many people have come into and out of my life, but I always knew that I could trust you.”

“[Katie] is an incredibly thoughtful, resilient, and very ambitious young woman. She has really fought to overcome many obstacles… and she knows what she wants to do. She’s really determined to break the cycle,” Sindy said, adding that Katie is also interested in helping other teenagers who are going through similar obstacles in life.

“She’s going to make it.”