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.

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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.

Back to School Advice for All Youth

It is finally September, and that means back to school! We put together a list with back to school advice for foster and adoptive children, as well as all children, teens, and college freshmen as they start school this fall. To see a version of this post that color-codes advice by grade level, click here.

For  Foster and Adoptive Children

When children are in foster care or with an adoptive family, sometimes their peers will ask them personal questions. Therefore, it is useful for parents and guardians to come up with a plan for their children to answer these questions ahead of time. About.com provides many useful examples:

  • When someone asks, “Why didn’t your mom want you? Do you know your real mom?” A child can say a few different things: “I don’t want to talk about this right now.” “I don’t share personal information.” “I know who my parents are, and they love me very much.”
  • “Why are you in foster care?” A child can reply, “I need to live where it’s safe right now.” Walking away is always an option, too.
  • “Why are you adopted?” Child: “My parents adopted me because they love me.”
  • The article also mentions how learning to develop a sense of humor can help a child in responding to these peer questions. For example, if a student asks, “Why don’t you look like your mom or brother and sister?” The child can say, “Because I’m better looking!”
  • It is important for children to learn the importance of privacy, and this is a great way to teach them.
  • For more examples, visit: http://adoption.about.com/od/fostering/a/coverstories.htm

For all youth

Organization

  • Write all homework assignments in a planner. For new middle school students, it is also helpful to write locker combinations in a planner as well.
  • To prevent children from forgetting their homework, it is a good idea to always keep backpacks in a designated area of the house. It is also helpful to pack backpacks, lunches, and select outfits the night before school, so that mornings are relaxed and no one is late in the morning.
  • If you are out sick from school, do not forget to makeup your homework. Ask a classmate if you can also copy the notes you missed in class.
  • Be aware of and utilize resources that are available to you. Does your teacher post assignments on her website? Is there a homework hotline, tutoring service, or does your teacher have office hours?
  • Read your entire syllabus for each class, and then write all of the due dates for papers, quizzes, and exams in your planner. This way, you will not need your syllabus on hand to know when assignments are due.

Learning

  • Ask the teacher if you do not understand something or if you are confused!
  • For classes that require memorization, like history, biology, and language classes, make flash cards! Study a little each day.
  • Try your best, but do not beat yourself up for mistakes. No one is perfect.
  • Professors are required to have office hours. Write the office hours on your notebooks for each class, or write them in your planner. Form a study group with your classmates.
  • Review your notes right after class! This reinforces what you just learned, and it only takes 10 minutes or less.
  • Try to learn new things. For the classes not required by your major, take those that will open you up to new ways of thinking.
  • If you are not sure what to major in, see if your school has a career center with resources that provide students with a better idea of what career paths are out there. Ask lots of questions to professionals in fields you might be interested in.

Extracurricular Activities & Socializing

  • It is great to get involved with new activities, like soccer or cheerleading or football, or art classes and karate. But be careful not to overdo it. More than two activities can sometimes lead to stress and burn-out.
  • Befriend students who make you feel comfortable and accept you for who you are.
  • Join clubs to meet new people! Do you like hiking? Join the Ecology Club!
  • Be confident. Sometimes “Fake it ‘til you make it” really works in terms of gaining self confidence.
  • In college, make time to socialize a couple days a week, even if it is just grabbing a cup of coffee with a friend. Life will get busy, but you need to have some down time.
  • If you live in a dorm, introduce yourself to the people on your floor.
  • Keep in touch with close family, friends, and mentors. This can also help if you feel homesick!
  • Join at least one extra curricular activity to meet new people. The options are limitless in college, and they go way beyond what is offered in high school. Do you like Ultimate Frisbee? Chances are, there is a group for that at college.

Health

  • Sleep. Did you know that after studying for a test, going to sleep helps people to better retain that information? Additionally, not getting enough sleep can contribute to lack of focus, depression, and weight gain. So making sure students of all ages are getting enough sleep is a key to success and health.
    • Recommended hours of sleep for different ages:
      • Children between ages 5-10: 10-11 hours of sleep
      • Children and teens between ages 10-17: 8.5-9 hours
      • Adults: 7-9 hours.
  • Set an alarm each day! This is especially important in college when it is 100% up to you to make sure you arrive to class on time.
  • Eat breakfast! It is common for youth to skip this meal, but it is important. It helps students focus better in class, and it prevents them from feeling extremely hungry before lunchtime. (Tips for teen girls).
  • Exercising is important. If an extra curricular activity does not involve exercise, try to make time for it at least twice a week. It relieves stress and promotes health. There are examples of quick workouts here: http://collegelife.about.com/od/healthwellness/a/16-College-Workouts.htm. Or you could try the New York Times’ “Scientific 7-Minute Workout:” http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/05/09/the-scientific-7-minute-workout/.

Additional Sources:

http://childcare.about.com/od/quicktipsforraisingkids/qt/survivingyear.htm

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/teen-angst/201308/five-back-school-tips-teens

http://kidshealth.org/kid/feeling/school/back_to_school.html

http://www.laparent.com/article/ten-tips-for-teen-girls-and-back-to-school-success.html

http://www.sleepfoundation.org/article/how-sleep-works/how-much-sleep-do-we-really-need

Atlantic City Kids Fit Final Mile is One Month Away!

There is a great opportunity for you to “DO AC” next month. The Kids Fit Final Mile is officially one month away! We are grateful and excited to announce that the Atlantic County Council of Education Associations has sponsored the fun run this year.
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There will be face painting, running bib decorating, and mascots interacting with kids before the run! Right before the kids run, there is also a Mascot Fun Run that you won’t want to miss.

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All proceeds from this event will benefit the efforts of CASA and its trained volunteers, who speak on behalf of abused and neglected children in the foster care system and ensure that they are placed in safe, permanent homes.

Have you signed up your children yet? It’s only $15 if you register before Oct. 1, or $20 the day of. Registration begins at 8 a.m. the day of the run. Register today! http://atlanticcitymarathon.eventbrite.com/

Date: Saturday, October 12, 2013

Start Time: 11 a.m.

Location: Bally’s Dennis Courtyard, Park Place and the Boardwalk, Atlantic City, N.J.

For more information, contact CASA at 609.601.7800, e-mail stef@atlanticcapecasa.org, or visit our website: http://atlanticcapecasa.org/FunRun.aspx.

Magical Monday July 29 in Ocean City, N.J.

Magical Monday is just a couple weeks away! Get your unlimited ride wristband for $20 at Gillian’s Wonderland Pier the day of the event: July 29, 1-4 p.m. This event benefits CASA for Children of Atlantic and Cape May Counties.

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