May Is Foster Care Awareness Month – Learn How You Can Assist a Youth in Need

May is National Foster Care Month, when we shine a spotlight on the more than 1,000 children and youth living in foster care in Atlantic and Cape May Counties and the 400,000 who face the same fate nationwide. Foster care is supposed to be a temporary solution, but unfortunately, for so many children, it has turned into a national epidemic. An epidemic that we can only solve through the collaboration and hard work of individuals, families, communities, organizations and legislators.

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While foster families are critical partners in providing homes and making connections for foster youth, you do not have to become a foster parent to help a youth succeed. The rest of us can also ensure that our youth living in foster care reach their fullest potential.

If you can volunteer on a regular basis, consider becoming a youth mentor or a court appointed special advocate (CASA) volunteer.

If you have less free time on your hands, attend or host a fundraising event that supports foster youth, donate services or goods to youth living in care, or lend a helping-hand to a foster parent or caregiver.

At the very least, you can talk to your friends and family about the need that exists right in our own community, or follow and contribute to the conversation on social media. Most importantly, do not look the other way when it comes to foster care, or think that it does not affect your family or community. Remember that anything we do now to support and lift up a child pays our community, and us, back ten times more in a secure, successful future for that youth.

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.

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CASA Reward: Seeing a Child Reach Their Fullest Potential

Jacky is one of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for Children’s most tenured advocates – fighting for children’s rights for over eight years. She loves being a CASA. She loves that being a CASA allows her to use her knowledge as a school guidance counselor, but it also teaches her new skills. She loves when she sees the positive outcomes in her cases, and most of all she loves being a CASA because she loves the children.

Optimized-Fotolia_92496429_Subscription_Monthly_MA school guidance counselor when she started at CASA, Jacky’s experience was already grounded in guiding and assessing the needs of children. Now retired, she is very happy that she can still put her knowledge and practices to good use. Her knowledge of the education system has been invaluable when advocating for the educational needs of her children. On several occasions, Jacky’s knowledge of the education system and the Individual Education Plan (IEP) has helped foster parents. Jacky not only knows enough to ask for an IEP but also has the knowledge to contribute to the plan itself – which is crucial to a child who has not had a consistent caretaker.

Naturally welcoming, Jacky is friendly and communicates easily. Even so, she knows it can be awkward for children of any age to converse with an adult they do not know very well. Like a modern-day Mary Poppins (she has the British accent, too!), she uses conversational apps and games to get the children active and interested. Art books with open narratives are very useful. Tapping into her experience, Jacky says, “Having the children draw pictures and then express a narrative to go along with the picture is a really good way to gauge what and who is important to a child as well as the emotions attached to what is important.”

What she has learned by being a CASA is almost as interesting to her as the children she serves.  She credits CASA staff and the child welfare caseworkers for helping her work her way through the system and the paperwork. The family court system’s complexity decision making truly intrigues her. The computer work is the most challenging to her but she says the CASA staff makes themselves readily available to help.

What surprises Jacky the most is how fluid people’s lives are, how one variable sends a person’s life in a completely different direction. She is amazed at how good and bad decisions, and the reasons behind those decisions, can instantly change the direction of a child’s life. One case in particular that weighs heavy on her mind is a pair of siblings she advocated for – a toddler and an infant. They each lived with separate foster parents. The two foster homes were in the same town, just a few streets from each other. She visited both homes, but visitation between the two siblings was not granted, even though she advocated for it. So, she wonders, “Will these two siblings grow up blocks away from each other, possibly going to the same school, and not even know they are related?”

After her many years advocating, Jacky is taking a hiatus. Her most recent case closed and she is not going to take on another one right now, instead focusing on her daughter who just qualified for the Special Olympics’ Swim team. Even though she has temporarily stepped back from her CASA role, she will never lose the love she has for seeing a child reach their fullest potential.

 

casa_v_atca_redblue_rgb2Jacky 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. Take a stand against child abuse and join the CASA Movement today!

AtlanticCapeCASA.org   Facebook.com/casa4children   twitter.com/casa4children   (609) 601-7800

 

Early Childhood Trauma

In a 60 Minutes segment, which aired Sunday, March 11, Oprah Winfrey explored the long-term adverse effects of early childhood trauma with a leading authority in field of early childhood development.  Dr. Bruce Perry, psychiatrist and neuroscientist, discussed the complex issues and the technique of Trauma Informed Care to treat the maltreated and traumatized child.

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Dr. Perry stated, “If you have development trauma, the truth is you’re going to be at risk for almost any kind of physical health, mental health and social health problem that you can think of.”   Most interesting, and sad, is that research in neuroscience shows that “The very same sensitivity that makes you able to learn language ‘just like that!’ as a little infant, makes you highly vulnerable to chaos, threat, inconsistency, unpredictability and violence.  So, children are much more sensitive to developmental trauma than adults.”

A child raised in a healthy, nurturing and stable environment is more likely to have a well-wired brain.  Unfortunately, the reverse is also true.  A child raised in a chaotic home with uncertainty and violence, will have a brain that is wired differently.  Typically, these children are more vulnerable for a lifetime.  In fact, the CDC reports that these individuals are five times as likely to be depressed and have live spans shortened by 20 years.

Dr. Bruce Perry shaped “trauma informed care.” Trauma informed care focuses on “what happened.”  When mental health professionals focus on “What happened to you?” vs. “What’s wrong with you?”  before trying to fix it, it makes the client feel safe.  Under this type of care, clients report, “I felt understood.  I felt seen and heard.”

Dr. Perry points out that we cannot break the cycle without trauma informed care.  Perry says that the difference between a “bad childhood” and a “traumatic childhood” is that somebody helped – that is what makes the difference.

Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for Children 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. Take a stand against child abuse and join the CASA Movement today!

AtlanticCapeCASA.org
Facebook.com/casa4children   twitter.com/casa4children   (609) 601-7800

It’s All About the Kids

A diverse group of individuals, over 200 in fact, uses their unique skills and experiences to advocate for children living in foster care. Many are nurses, teachers or CEOs of companies large and small. Some are retired from distinguished careers, some still work full time. No matter what background and circumstances our CASAs bring with them, they always share one virtue in common – the spirit of giving back to their community and a deep commitment to changing children’s lives.

CASA Marsha’s path to child advocacy actually started at a very young age. Growing up in Reading, PA, Marsha’s childhood home was just blocks away from the Children’s Home of Reading, a home for abused and neglected children. As Marsha explored her neighborhood, she passed the Home, often seeing the children living there playing beyond the fenced-in yard.

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Marsha knew the children from school and church. She also understood that these boys and girls did not live at home with their moms and dads as she did. At a very young age, Marsha realized that the lives of some children were very different from her own.

In 1974, as a young woman graduating college with a teaching degree in special education, she entered an over-saturated education workforce where teaching jobs were limited.  Instead of waiting for a school opening, Marsha applied for and landed a job as a childcare worker at the Tabor Home for Needy and Destitute Children in Doylestown, PA. She was now working at a children’s home not unlike the one she remembered from her childhood neighborhood.

The children and youth living at the Tabor Home were troubled, suffering from social and emotional traumas. Because of their ages and complex issues, the 65 boys and girls living at the Tabor Home were hard to place in individual foster homes.  “We did everything for the kids at Tabor that a parent would do for their own children,” Marsha said. “We took them shopping, helped with their homework, ate with them at mealtime and would even take them to baseball practice.”

Marsha’s time at the Tabor Home and then at an Alternative School for youth facing similar challenges gave her the awareness that would eventually lead her to becoming first a foster parent, then a CASA advocate. When asked if she felt like she had made a difference in the lives of these kids, she said, “At the Alternative School, I felt like I was making a huge difference.”

Marsha continued her career at the school, and when her oldest daughter finished her first year in college, the family decided to become a foster home. Their first child was an eight-week old infant and he quickly won over the Burke family’s heart. Even her daughter committed her summer days to nurturing the newest addition to their family. When it became evident reunification was not an option, the Burke’s did not hesitate to consider adopting the baby boy.

Today, that boy has grown into a fine young man.

“I knew about the CASA program because my friends were involved in northern New Jersey and I knew that I wanted to be a CASA advocate when I retired,” Marsha said. “I saw child advocacy with CASA as a way for me to continue to support foster children.”

Marsha has been a CASA advocate for nearly two years. She is committed, as she always was, to making a difference in the lives of children, just like the children from the Children’s Home of Reading where she grew up. “Supporting foster children seems to have become my mission in life,” Marsha admits, “If I can contribute to a foster child, even if my contribution seems small at the time, I like to think I’m making a difference in these kids’ lives.” While, it is not always easy being a CASA, Marsha feels the reward of her hard work when she attends court hearings — where life decisions are made for foster kids.

“During family court hearings, when the judge turns to me and asks if the CASA has anything to add, I know my work as a CASA advocate is making a difference. I always appreciate the judge’s respect for my court reports and the work I am doing for these children. At the end of the day, I know it’s all about the kids.”

Learn more at http://atlanticcapecasa.org/

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

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 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.