My Journey from Pain and Fear to Love and Hope

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.

My Journey from Pain and Fear to Love and Hope

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.

Posted in Child Advocacy, General, Guest Blogger, Story, Youth | 2 Comments

I Am the Reason You Should Never Give Up on a Child

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. 

I Am the Reason You Should Never Give Up on a Child

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.

Posted in Child Advocacy, Foster Care, General, Guest Blogger, Opinion, Youth | 7 Comments

Youth Speak: Financial Well-Being and Vulnerability

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.
Youth Speak: Financial Well Being and Vulnerability“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 learningYouth Speak: Financial Well Being and Vulnerability 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
Posted in Child Advocacy, Foster Care, Guest Blogger, Youth | Leave a comment

Building on Normalcy in Florida

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, Alan Abramowitz, the executive director of the Florida Guardian ad Litem Program*, describes two pieces of legislation that are improving the lives of young people in care.

Building on Normalcy in FloridaIt all started with a vision to treat foster children the same as any other child. The guardian ad litem (GAL) program recognized the importance of foster children being able to participate in activities just as any other child might. Participation in these types of activities is important to the child’s well-being, not only emotionally, but in developing valuable life-coping skills.

On July 1, 2013, Florida legislation fondly known as the “Let Kids be Kids” law became effective. The final version of this law gave foster parents and identified caregivers in group homes the legal authority to allow children and youth in their care to participate in normal, age-appropriate activities using the “reasonable and prudent parent” standard of decision-making, without fear of civil liability. When we asked children in foster care, foster parents and people who worked at the Department of Children and Families they said the law:

  • Substantially improved the lives of the children and youth as a result of their increased involvement in a wider variety of age-appropriate experiences; and
  • Provided foster parents with the decision-making authority to create a normal home life for children in their care.

Now, the 2014 “Keys to Independence” bill has passed. It establishes a pilot program to promote safe driving, driver education and insurance reimbursement for foster youth. The Keys to Independence law is another step in building normalcy for Florida’s foster youth. A survey from the Department of Children and Families found that only 9 percent of the eligible foster children had a learner’s permit and 3 percent had a driver’s license. Having a driver’s license is critical to ensuring foster children can live independently and gain employment when they age out of the foster care system.

Being a part of the GAL program and representing dependent children means not only providing a voice in court, it is providing a voice for them in the legislature, in their foster homes and helping to ensure their lives can be as fulfilling and childlike as any other of Florida’s children. In Florida, thanks to the hard work and forward thinking of child welfare advocates and the Florida legislature, we are building a normalcy bridge to adulthood for Florida’s dependent youth.

Read Alan’s 2013 blog post about the “Normalcy Bill.”

*In Florida and a few other states, CASA programs are referred to as volunteer guardian ad litem programs. 

Posted in Child Advocacy, Guest Blogger, Youth | Leave a comment

Changing a Child’s Life…and My Own

Thank you to Changing a Child’s Life…and My OwnElaine Leist, volunteer with CASA Kane County, Geneva, IL, for writing this guest post.

People like to say that things happen for a reason. Sometimes I think they are consoling themselves, putting a positive spin on an unexpected, or even tragic, turn of events.

For most of my life, I had no need for such explanations. I was blessed to have spent my life in the small town where I was born, surrounded by a loving family and cherished friends. There were few occurrences in my life that I could not explain or embrace.

Then about four years ago my husband was offered a new job that he could not refuse, one that required our relocating to Chicago, over 300 miles from everything that was familiar—including my grandchildren and a 20-year teaching career.

Once settled near the Windy City, I began looking for venues that would allow me to be with people and again be of some use to someone. When I heard about the CASA program, I suspected it would fill a void in my life. Little did I know what life lessons I would learn.

My CASA training gave me an in-depth look into the social service system, the foster care system and the judicial system. To be honest, I had no real interest in learning about this before. It seemed like a world removed from mine, and one that I could not effect. CASA showed me otherwise. I learned that as an advocate, I could make a difference in the lives of children caught in a place of confusion and fear—where time can literally stand still for them.

I completed CASA volunteer training and was given my first case immediately. This began my 2-½ year relationship with Billy, a very special little boy with many special needs. Billy had been removed from his young parents’ unsafe home at 14 months of age, and it appeared he would not be going back. My experience in early childhood education helped me recognize what supports Billy needed and gave me confidence in advocating for them.

After three years, Billy found his forever home with his paternal grandparents. While he still struggles with behavior issues in school and will continue to require therapies to address his special needs, he is thriving in their care.

Shortly after I said good-bye to Billy, I received a call from my volunteer supervisor, asking me if I would be willing to take on another child—his half-brother! Again, I worked with caseworkers, judges and others to find a home for another dear child.

I became a CASA volunteer to fill the void that I recognized in my own life. But I did not realize that something else, something unrecognized yet very important, had been missing: an understanding of a world that exists in our midst but we might never see.

Maybe things do happen for a reason.

Read more CASA volunteer stories at CASAforChildren.org.

Posted in Child Abuse Prevention, Child Advocacy, Foster Care, General, Volunteer, Youth | 5 Comments