The Importance of Cultural Competence

Cultural Competence is the ability to understand, communicate with and effectively interact with people across cultures. Cultural competence encompasses being aware of one’s own worldview, while gaining knowledge of different cultural practices and worldviews.

As a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteer, we meet families who may be very different from our own friends, families and colleagues. Their cultures, values, and parenting styles may be completely unfamiliar to us. Even though our brains naturally categorize information with negative judgments, as a CASA, we want to suspend those judgments so we may develop higher levels of cultural competence.  This will allow us to be more effective with the various and diverse parties involved in our cases.

Image via Taney County Partnership

Image via Taney County Partnership

Our cultural competence affects how we respond to those of a different race, gender, and socio-economic status, just to name a few. It is not always easy to release years of carefully, or carelessly, formed opinions and values when we encounter new people. When we considers the myriad of verbal and nonverbal communications we use, poor cultural competence skills open the door to misunderstandings and unintended insults. Our own biases can led to ineffective interactions, to hurt feelings or worse. As CASA’s, we must not only understand our biases, but learn to recognize and put aside these feelings in order to best serve the children on our cases.

Consider a woman executive as a new CASA entering the family home of a patriarchal culture meeting the family for the first time. Deeply ingrained stereotypes and judgments are likely on both sides. To be an effective CASA, she needs to be the one to create a bridge to cross this expansive cultural gap.

Stereotypes are even more complicated and can derail the best of intentions. Recent studies in neuroscience show our brains function in ways that predispose us to negative stereotypes. In fact, scientists believe that our brain’s predisposition to categorize information with a negative slant is a primitive survival mechanism.

Something as simple as the use of silence in different cultures can lead to dramatic misunderstandings. The Greeks use silence as a way to refuse things but Egyptians use silence to communicate consent. Alternatively, Americans can see silence as a void to fill, or an indication the person is indifferent, angry or disagreeing with them. It takes hard work and a willingness to be flexible to unlearn deeply ingrained stereotypes. The ability to set aside our stereotypes can be a powerful tool in developing cultural competence and reaching our desired outcomes.

Four components to cultural competence exist:

Awareness — The first step in building cultural competence is developing an awareness of our own, sometimes deeply ingrained, prejudices and stereotypes, which can create barriers to our learning and development. It is also important to be thoroughly acquainted with our culture – and the identity we have taken from that culture. Taking the time to openly, and without judgement, discover our blind spots when it comes to our beliefs, will take us to a deeper understanding of the families and all those involved individuals we meet as CASAs.

Attitude – How open are we to differing views and opinions? If we feel strongly about our beliefs and values, we are more likely to react emotionally when we encounter a cultural difference. If we react emotionally, we are more likely to convey our disapproval to those we encounter. With awareness and intention, we can develop new habits – we can decide to suspend our views and opinions before we walk through the door.

Knowledge – As a CASA, we regularly cross cultures that are not limited to the families we visit. We likely hold opinions and beliefs regarding social workers, lawyers, as well as educational and medical professionals. To stay connected in cross-cultural situations, we need be open to learning as much as we can about those we encounter. We want to really question what it like is to walk in someone else’s shoes. How much we learn and assimilate into our own worldview affects or ability to work effectively and respectfully with people from all different backgrounds, experiences and cultural norms.

Skills – To build skills, we can interact with diverse groups.  Attend cultural events or religious services; this can put you in situations where you are the only one of your cultural group.  Ask others questions about their beliefs, culture and values.  We can also read books about different cultures and expose ourselves to the discrimination they can experience – memoirs are a great opportunity to discover insights into another culture.  Being careful not to stereotype, we can then apply our new understandings as we interact others.

Sources:
The Guardian, [Neuroscience] Human Brain is Predisposed to Negative Stereotypes.
Diversity Officer Magazine, What is Cultural Competence and How is it Measured?  American Psychological Association, How do I become culturally competent?

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Change a Foster Youth’s World

My siblings and I were all exposed to prenatal drug and alcohol use at birth. For the first 12 years of my life, I was never allowed to be a child. My mother beat me every day – sometimes so severely I thought my last breath was imminent. At 12, I was desperate to find help and confessed the abuse to a coach. Shortly after, we entered foster care.

During our time in foster care, we relied on our CASA volunteer. She comforted and guided us through the process. She was a constant in our lives and our voice in court.

The support of my CASA volunteer enabled me to see my past as a source of strength. It allowed me to leave the suffering behind and graduate valedictorian of my high school class.

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My focus and worldview – believing that we must rise every time we fall – is due to the attention that my siblings and I received from our CASA volunteer.

She transformed our lives.

 

Court Appointed Special Advocates (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.

 

A CASA Volunteers’ Two Year Journey with Two Brothers

Two young boys – 2 ½ and 7 years old – sit huddled on the couch in their living room watching the police burst through the door and arrest their mom and dad for selling drugs.  The boys are taken by the caseworker to a foster home, the first of five they will move through over the next 18 months.

The little boy cries and moans most of the time and seems unable to speak more than a barely comprehensible word or two. Despite efforts by subsequent foster parents he has no interest in using a toilet and so must wear diapers all the time. When he turns 3 he is evaluated by the child study team and found to be functioning at the developmental age of a two year old. He continues to be withdrawn and the crying often turns into screaming.

His older brother believes it is somehow his fault that they were removed from their home and so tries to “be good” so he can go back home. His school records indicate that he has repeated kindergarten twice and has not been recommended to advance to first grade. An evaluation by the child study team indicates he has specific learning disabilities. He says he doesn’t like school but his teacher is nice.

Flash forward two years –

The little boy is laughing (Laughing!) as he animatedly talks about the game he is playing. He speaks clearly and in sentences.  He smiles and looks directly in my eyes as he talks. He talks about preschool, a party and the latest funny thing his brother did.

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His brother shows me his report card. He attends second grade and receives some special education services. He says school is okay now. His teachers say he is a “nice, kind young man” who “seems to enjoy learning.” He tells me he is looking forward to this weekend when he and his brother will be sleeping over at his mom’s house – one of the first steps in returning to live with her permanently. He says: “I’m going home!”

Yes – thanks to the concerted efforts of all the foster parents, therapists, child study team members, teachers and caseworkers – after two years, five foster homes, and four school district transfers – they are going home.  As for me, I can’t even find the words to express the joy and gratitude I feel for the small role I played in all of this.  It has been just an incredibly enriching and rewarding experience.

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.

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.

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/