By National CASA CEO Michael Piraino
For several years, CASA volunteers and staff around the country have been concerned about an ominous trend. Despite a general decline in the number of children in foster care, the family courts were requesting more volunteer advocates for more and more foster youth. Additionally, the children who had CASA and guardian ad litem advocates were coming from more challenging home situations. It is a sadly familiar pattern we have seen after previous recessions.
Last year we also noted that the decline in children in foster care was leveling off. The new numbers now confirm what our volunteers feared might happen. The number of children in foster care nationwide increased in 2013 for the first time in seven years. At the same time, we have received a report that child welfare spending actually declined nationwide between 2010 and 2012. That’s the first time spending has gone down in twenty years.
This drop in spending is not accounted for by the declining numbers from 2012, according to Child Trends’ research. Plus, now that we know the number of children in care is rising again, it looks like a perfect storm: less money for services, but more children, from more difficult circumstances, coming into care.
There is even more to this story. In 2013, a higher number of children came into foster care than left care. The number of adoptions out of foster care declined. And most disappointing is the fact that older youth continue to “emancipate” from foster care in extraordinary numbers—over 23,000 of them last year. Emancipation is a fancy word for a terrible outcome; leaving foster care without having found a permanent home with a caring family. The percentage of foster youth leaving the system without a permanent home increased last year and the rate is substantially higher than it was ten years ago.
While many foster parents and CASA volunteers maintain some contact with these young adults after they leave care, these foster care alumni face daunting challenges. Much more needs to be done to assure that these young people, who have often spent years in the care of the state, have a better start in adulthood.
There is another issue with the national numbers. Large scale foster care trends can hide state and local differences that suggest foster care outcomes sometimes depend entirely on where a child happens to live. Even prior years’ decreases were not evenly spread across the country. Half of the reduction in numbers in 2012 happened in just ten counties—just three tenths of one percent of all counties in the US.
CASA volunteers from across the country have been saying for years that they are seeing more children in need of help from highly troubled homes, but that many places can’t give these kids the support they need to succeed.
Sadly, now first-hand anecdotes are being backed up with these sobering reports: telling us that these systems are losing funding, that more kids desperately need help. A system in this much distress cannot adequately care for children in distress.
We want to see all children in foster care achieve positive outcomes regardless of geography, economic circumstances, or such factors as race or ethnicity.
Youth in the foster care system need access to qualified mental health services, individually targeted educational plans, access to affordable housing, more effective transition services for youth who will age out of care, and connections to appropriate adults who will stand by the young person and help watch out for and strongly advocate for their best interests.
There are many ways that you can help these children, beginning today. Financially supporting a CASA program or training as a CASA volunteer are two important ways to start. CASA volunteers help connect foster youth to services and support the social workers and attorneys who want to give these kids more of their time and attention but simply cannot for a multitude of reasons. Another way to help – write to your legislators and ask them to support innovation and new services in the child welfare systems with the funds to pay for it. Or look into becoming a foster parent, a port in a storm for a young person who needs you.
There is much to be done to help our nation’s foster youth. Won’t you join us?
By National CASA CEO Michael Piraino
When a 12-year-old girl like Maya Ranot drops to 58 pounds, shows up at school with cuts and bruises, tells her friends she’s being beaten at home, and winds up bloodied in the emergency room, we’re horrified. How could a system that’s supposed to protect children like Maya have failed her so miserably?
The New York Times questioned why a New York City social worker spent a year monitoring the case “but did not act.” In a 2010 Facebook post the newspaper uncovered, the social worker reportedly said she wanted to quit her job. “I can’t take it. [It’s] way too much.”
It is tragic that our nation’s child welfare system is so overburdened that caring and compassionate caseworkers get so overwhelmed. The system struggles to handle the volume and complexity of the 1,900 abuse and neglect cases that are reported every day. That’s eight to 10 reported new cases by the time you finish reading this article.
We can’t help children like Maya by pointing hasty fingers of blame at “the system” or “that burnt-out caseworker.” But each and every one of us can take meaningful steps toward preventing and ending child abuse.
More than 75,000 volunteer Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA volunteers, are doing just that – every day – by making sure that the rights and needs of children like Maya are at the forefront of decisions being made by judges, lawyers, social workers and family members. One child at a time, CASA volunteers are filling the huge gap between the needs of foster kids and the child welfare system’s capacity to meet those needs.
By serving as a CASA volunteer, you can have on a profound impact on a child. It can break the cycle of violence and neglect — not just for one child, but for generations to come.
We must also address systemic challenges and make critical investments – on a local, statewide and national level – to patch up the safety net that’s supposed to protect our children.
The interagency Children’s Cabinet that New York Mayor Bill de Blasio formed this year after the death of 4-year-old Myls Dobson was an important step toward fostering better collaboration among agencies involved in child abuse cases.
But more action is needed. There’s a role for each and every one of us to play in a shared national commitment to keeping our most vulnerable kids safe.
What will yours be?
Thank you to Charlene, a former CASA child from Texas, for telling her story in this guest post, and to Miss Belle, for all she did to help Charlene and her sister find their stable and loving “forever” home.
When I was little, I had a secret—one I kept to myself for years. Every time I thought about it, I got so scared I didn’t know what to do.
I used to feel ashamed of who I was. My CASA volunteer taught me to love who I am.
The first time I cried out for help, my mom said I was making it all up. There’s no way that any of her boyfriends would lay their hands on me. But they did. It happened to my little sister, too.
I was 6 and my sister was 4 when we were taken away from our mom. It was an awful time. We were terrified. But there was one person who stood by us through all the upheaval. She was there for us every time we needed her, making sure we were OK.
Her name was Miss Belle. She was our CASA volunteer.
No matter where we lived, Miss Belle visited us once or twice a week. She took us to the library, the park, did arts and crafts with us—things we’d never done before. She made us feel safe and happy.
We could tell she really cared about us. We knew we could depend on her no matter what. When one foster home didn’t work out, she helped us find another. She met with our case manager to prepare her for important court dates.
It took some time, but eventually Miss Belle helped us find my father, who had split up with Mom when I was a baby. Miss Belle drove eight hours to meet with my dad’s parents, who said they could take us in. She wanted to make sure our grandparents could give us the stable “forever” home we so desperately needed.
Granny and Paw Paw later adopted me and my sister and have given us a loving home where we have healed and learned the meaning of hope.
I used to feel so ashamed of who I was that I’d wear baseball caps in pictures and cover my face. Not anymore. Miss Belle taught me to love who I am—to feel beautiful inside and out. I will forever feel grateful that my sister and I had such an amazingly supportive CASA volunteer standing up for us when we needed her.
Imagine if every foster child were so fortunate.
Thank you to Jackie Davis, former foster youth and current college student at the University of North Texas, for sharing his story with us at the 2014 National CASA Conference and in this guest blog post.
My CASA volunteer was a warrior who decided to fight alongside me, all for the sake of providing me a hopeful future.
I’d like to share with you a little of how CASA’s powerful commitment to children has influenced my life.
At the tender age of two my parents’ rights were terminated due to neglect and drug abuse. I, along with four of my siblings, were removed from our home, separated, and placed in foster homes. My siblings were adopted, and I rotated through six homes before being adopted at five years old. After about a year, the adoption broke down due to abuse and the family’s refusal to continue caring and providing for me. I was placed back into foster care, and there I suffered at the hands of neglectful and abusive foster parents. In care, I resided with families that beat me violently, made me sleep in bathtubs, locked me in closets for punishment, and abused me in other malicious ways.
I was placed on high doses of medication for anxiety and severe depression. I was heavily medicated to modify my disruptive behavior and to suppress the true emotions that came with my trauma.
During my childhood, the trending theme was that I was a “bad” child and one who was “undeserving.” As those around wrote me off, my attitude became apathetic. I was enrolled in special education classes and was considered by some to have a mental disability. I became a belligerent and aggressive child—violent toward others, uncooperative, and at times, suicidal. But all along, my heart was in distress—feeling love and those meant to protect me had forsaken me. I gave up on myself and fell into an abyss of despair.
It became evident, to some, that Jackie Joe Lee would not amount to anything. In fact, a psychologist once told me I’d be on drugs, in prison or dead by the time I was 21 years old.
Well guess what? I’m still here! I matter! I am the reason you should never give up on a child.
The courts intervened, and I was given a court-appointed special advocate, a woman I call Molly. I didn’t think much of Molly when we first met, because I was accustomed to people freely walking in and out of my life.
But over time, Molly proved herself to be consistent and present through the most difficult years of my life. When I became careless, she became fearless. When I had no fight left, she stood as a presence of hope, coaching me along the way. When people dismissed my greatest attributes, Molly was the moon at night that highlighted the beauties of my soul. She made my existence known to the court by making suggestions and recommendations on my behalf. Ultimately, she was a warrior who voluntarily decided to fight alongside me, all for the sake of providing me a hopeful future.
Over the years, I have learned to lift my shoulders. I have learned to stand up within myself. I have learned that I am able to be of service to others. I have not allowed the trauma from my past to withhold my kind spirit. I have allowed my story to produce hope and encouragement for others. I am passing along Molly’s legacy to me. I now work with children in foster care to restore a hope that is often trampled by chaos.
Today I am leader and president of a student organization at the University of North Texas called PUSH, an acronym for Persevere UNTil Success Happens, that supports and encourages foster care alumni and youth still in the system to seek out education. I encourage others to advocate for children in the proper way. I am now a voice that echoes across the hearts of many to bring about awareness. And perhaps I am here today because my CASA volunteer, Molly, taught me not only that fierce advocacy is effective, but that through commitment and dedication the prospects of success can be owned by every child in foster care.
I encourage you to continue demonstrating courage in its purest form, by standing up and advocating for children. And I thank everyone who is dedicated to the cause of saving children like me.
May is National Foster Care Month. We invited members of the CASA community to author articles on issues that affect the well-being of children and youth in foster care.
In this guest blog post, FosterClub—the national network of young people in foster care— shares 5 tips for helping young people in care gain financial security and avoid common pitfalls.
“Youth in foster care face many challenges when aging out of the system. Staying on financial track is difficult, and a mystery for many foster youth who never received the education and guidance necessary to achieve successful financial independence.
“Some of the hardest challenges that foster youth face are developing the resource network and financial knowledge that is essential for living independently and funding their post-secondary education.”— David
“While I do think that there are resources available to foster youth to help with financial education, I don’t think that the language is conducive to the youth themselves learning about financial habits. If there were more hands-on workshops, foster youth would be better prepared for their financial futures and would have more knowledge, both available to them and attained.” — Ollie
You Can Help! Foster Youth Offer 5 Tips for Supporting Financial Success for Young People in Care
- Help Us Set Goals.Often times, young people from foster care are in foster care because of conditions related to poverty. A young person from care’s first experiences with money may be through the lens of constant struggle and anxiety. Though you should never assume that a foster youth is always a “poor foster youth,” you should be aware of the signs. Are your youth buying games before they have a game console? Buying high-end clothing before considering alternatives? Does the young person immediately spend any amount of money that they earn or receive even in the absence of a sustainable income? Youth may not be aware that setting money goals is a smart thing to do and may lack a strategy for making smart money decisions. Talk with them about different strategies you use in your own life or different goals you set and how you get to them. Resources: Foster Youth Money Guides and “Youth and Credit” – found on the website of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
- Gain an understanding of the youth’s relationship with his biological family. If you know a youth fairly well, ask about the relatives they are connected to. Ask how their relationships are working. When you talk to young people about going to college, ask how family members might feel about higher education. Make youth aware that sometimes their success will be met with varying acceptance from other relatives, and discuss why this might be (fears, jealousy, under-appreciation of education, etc.).
- Lend a (non-judgmental) open ear. Listen to the youth’s thoughts and attitudes about money and where those attitudes came from. Let a young person know that you are available to help them problem-solve. Be careful not to pass judgments about the words or behaviors of a relative; instead, help the young person come to their own conclusions about the actions of a relative.
- Empower young people to make smart choices about money. Young people from foster care are often have several experiences that lead them to a lack of healthy money attitudes, for example, they may not have been given access to money in a restrictive placement. It should come as no surprise to anyone that when a young person is not given opportunities to develop a healthy relationship with money, they become financially vulnerable.
- Connect struggling scholars with counselors and college scholarship programs.When biological family members are unavailable to support youth pursuing advance degrees, child welfare workers, CASA volunteers or designated campus support staff on campus and in financial aid offices are a great resource. Several national organizations administer college scholarship programs targeting foster youth. Find resource lists at the websites of Foster Care to Success and the National Foster Parent Association.