Maura Gave Me Hope, and a Brighter Future

In this guest blog, Niki Treadway shares her story of the first person who gave her the confidence to believe in herself: her former CASA volunteer Maura Wilson, who now serves as executive director of Tulsa CASA, Inc.

Maura Gave Me Hope, and a Brighter Future

One day, my mom was cooking meth in the motel room where we were staying. I hadn’t seen my dad in years, but I was scared, so I called him.

“Please, Dad. Will you come get me?”

He said he couldn’t. He’d come some other day. He never did.

I was 14 with a baby girl of my own when I entered the foster care system. People told me I had no business trying to raise a child. But all I wanted was to give Amber the love and support I never had growing up.

I had no one in my corner — until Maura, my CASA volunteer, came into my life.

I didn’t expect much from Maura at first. I had grown so used to being let down. But as Amber and I moved from one foster home to another, searching for but never seeming to find a family that believed I could be a great mom, Maura was always there for us.

When one of my foster dads threatened to put a lock on the fridge after catching me feeding Amber some yogurt, Maura helped get me placed with a different family.

One time, a judge questioned whether I had what it took to care for an infant. She asked me to show her everything I had stocked in my diaper bag. Maura looked on proudly as I took out a bottle, an ample supply of formula, bibs, diapers, wipes, a burp cloth, a change of clothes — everything Amber needed.

It took some time, but Maura helped me find the closest thing I’ve ever known to a “forever family.” My foster mom and dad helped me out with Amber so I could study hard, work and do “normal” teenage things like go to prom. Maura stuck with me every step of the way – she even took me to get my nails done for prom! She and my foster parents were as proud as they could be when I graduated with honors. I was proud, too.

Today, I’m the mother of four happy, healthy children. I’m pursuing a degree in criminal justice and dream of becoming a lawyer who stands up for people others try to put down.

Every child deserves an advocate like Maura, but many abused and neglected children in the U.S. – 400,000 of them – have no one.

When I think about what my life might have been like if I’d been one of those kids, I am grateful for all the National CASA Association does to recruit and train CASA volunteers all over the country so they can be strong and effective advocates.

And I am hopeful that someday every child in the foster care system will have a CASA volunteer like Maura to give them hope for a brighter future – like mine.

Posted in Child Advocacy, Foster Care, General, Volunteer, Youth | 7 Comments

I am a Theta. I am for the child.

In 1989 the Kappa Alpha Theta fraternity elected National CASA its national philanthropy. For more than 20 years, Theta chapters have been raising funds for and awareness of their local CASA programs and the National CASA Association.

In this guest blog, Theta alumna and former CASA program staff member Liza Ortego Bush describes how her experiences with KAT and CASA programs have shaped her life.

I am a Theta. I am for the child.

"Much like my network of Theta alumnae, I have found a family in CASA."

As a collegian at Louisiana State University (LSU), I wanted to join a sorority chapter that shared my personal values. Little did I know that the chapter for me would also impact my future career! During the second round of Recruitment at Kappa Alpha Theta, I learned about Theta’s partnership with National Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) and about CASA volunteers who not only worked to lift up the voices of children in foster care, but also promoted each young person’s educational, personal and future success. This sounded a lot like the core values of Theta that I was also learning to love – friendship, scholarship, service, leadership and personal excellence. I learned that Thetas around the nation support CASAs with fundraising, awareness and volunteer recruitment, and I knew that this chapter – and CASA – were for me.

As a member of Theta, I worked alongside my sisters at CASA picnics for the youth and volunteers of our community, with the staff of Capital Area CASA on fundraising and communications, and with everyone we could recruit to help us with our annual outdoor fundraiser each spring. From painting crafts for the kids to writing press releases or lugging chairs for an event, I felt that my membership in Theta and the partnership we had with CASA made a difference. And with each opportunity I had to interact with the children and volunteers of CASA, I became even more sure that this, too, was the organization for me.

After college, I pursued a joint juris doctorate and master’s of public administration degree at LSU Law Center and graduate school to learn all I could about children’s law and nonprofit management, in hopes of one day working for a CASA program. After graduation, and more time working alongside CASA volunteers in Baton Rouge Juvenile Court, I relocated with my husband to Washington, DC, where I soon applied for and was offered a position at CASA for Children of Washington, DC, where I would spend the next three years.

Working for CASA was all I had hoped for and more. The influence of CASA volunteers in children’s court cases cannot be overstated. These incredible advocates make a real difference every day in the lives of children and teens “in care.” Their voice is respected and their commitment to individual children and families is appreciated. I was honored to work alongside them.

I recently moved from Washington, DC, to North Carolina, and the local CASA office was my very first call. As the wife of a military chaplain, I know I will see many moves to new towns, but I feel confident and proud to know that there will always be a CASA program nearby. Much like my network of Theta alumnae, I have found a family in CASA. Friendship, scholarship, service, leadership and personal excellence. Yes, Theta and CASA taught me these and so much more, and I am proud to be a part of both.

Liza Ortego Bush
Kappa Alpha Theta Alumna, Delta Kappa Chapter – 2002-2005, Louisiana State University

Senior Manager for Outreach and Communications, CASA for Children of Washington, DC, 2010-2013

Posted in Child Advocacy, Guest Blogger | Leave a comment

The Baby Veronica Case: A Juvenile Dependency Judge’s Perspective

Judge J. Dean Lewis (retired), one of the nation’s top judicial supporters of CASA volunteer advocacy, offers the following summary and analysis of the recent ruling in the case of Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl in this guest blog.

The Baby Veronica Case: A Juvenile Dependency Judge’s PerspectiveOn June 25, 2013, the United States Supreme Court rendered a decision interpreting the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA) in Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, A Minor Child Under the Age Of Fourteen Years, et al. Justice Alito delivered the majority opinion of the court. The case involved an adoption proceeding that originated in the South Carolina Family Court and was appealed to the Supreme Court of South Carolina, which affirmed the lower court decision.

For CASA/GAL programs and volunteers, it is important to note that this case did not originate in the dependency court. This case is instructive in its recital of the legislative history of ICWA, and the case is important for its analysis as to when certain ICWA provisions apply and when they do not apply.

Summarizing the Case – Progression Through the Courts

The birth parents were engaged and the birth mother became pregnant. The birth father is a member of the Cherokee Nation. The relationship deteriorated and later ended. The birth mother sent the father a text asking if he would rather pay child support or relinquish his parental rights. He responded that he relinquished his parental rights. The birth mother worked with a private adoption agency. She selected the adoptive couple who provided emotional and financial assistance to her during the pregnancy and delivery of the child. The mother’s attorney contacted the Cherokee Nation to determine whether birth father was enrolled, but the information request included an incorrect date of birth and incorrect spelling of the father’s name, so confirmation did not occur. The morning after the child’s birth, the mother signed forms relinquishing her parental rights and consenting to the adoption. The adoptive couple filed an adoption proceeding, and four months after the child’s birth the father was served with notice. He initially signed papers accepting service and indicating he did not contest the adoption. The next day he hired an attorney who requested a stay of the adoption proceedings and filed for custody in those proceedings, stating father did not consent to the adoption. He took a paternity test proving he was the biological father.

The child remained with the adoptive couple from birth until a trial that occurred in the South Carolina Family Court, when the child was two years old. The family court applied ICWA and concluded that the adoptive couple had not carried the burden under Section 1912(f) of proving that the child would suffer serious emotional or physical damage if the biological father had custody, denied the adoptive couple’s petition for custody, and awarded custody to the biological father.

At the age of 27 months, the child went to live with the birth father, whom she had not previously met. The South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed the family court’s decision and determined that ICWA applied because the case involved a child-custody proceeding relating to an Indian child. Further, the South Carolina Supreme Court held that two separate provisions of ICWA barred termination of the father’s parental rights: first, that the adoptive parents failed to show that “active efforts had been made to provide remedial services and rehabilitative programs designed to prevent the breakup of the Indian family” (Section 1912(d)) and second, that the adoptive parents failed to show that father’s custody of the child would result in serious emotional or physical harm to the child beyond a reasonable doubt (Section 1912(f)). The South Carolina Supreme Court’s decision stated further that if it had decided to terminate father’s parental rights, adoption placement preferences would have applied (Section 1915(a)). The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari, agreeing to hear the case.

Supreme Court Ruling and Its Lessons for Child Welfare Advocates

In its ruling, the Supreme Court held that neither Section 1912(f) nor 1912(d) of the Indian Child Welfare Act bars the termination of the Indian birth father’s parental rights based upon the facts presented in this case. The court also held that Section 1915(a) did not bar a non-Indian family from adopting an Indian child when no other eligible candidates have sought to adopt the child. The court reversed the South Carolina Supreme Court’s decision and remanded the case for further proceedings.

ICWA Section 1912(f) states: “No termination of parental rights may be ordered in such proceeding in the absence of a determination, supported by evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, including testimony of qualified expert witnesses, that the continued custody of the child by the parent or Indian custodian is likely to result in serious emotional or physical damage to the child.”

The South Carolina Supreme Court based its ruling in part on this section of ICWA. In its opinion, the United States Supreme Court recites the history of ICWA and notes that this section of ICWA was designed to counteract the unwarranted removal of Indian children from Indian families by nontribal public and private agencies placing those children in foster or adoptive homes. The court found that in this case the father never had physical or legal custody of the child prior to the South Carolina Family Court proceedings and therefore he could not invoke Section 1912(f).

ICWA Section 1912(d) states: “Any party seeking to effect a foster care placement of, or termination of parental rights to, an Indian child under State law shall satisfy the court that active efforts have been made to provide remedial services and rehabilitative programs designed to prevent the breakup of the Indian family and that these efforts have proved unsuccessful.” The United States Supreme Court held this section inapplicable stating “…But when an Indian parent abandons an Indian child prior to birth and that child has never been in the Indian parent’s legal or physical custody, there is no ‘relationship’ that would be ‘discontinued’—and no ‘effective entity’ that would be ‘ended’—by the termination of the Indian parent’s rights. In such a situation, the ‘breakup of the Indian family’ has long since occurred.”

ICWA Section 1915(a) states: “In any adoptive placement of an Indian child under State law, a preference shall be given, in the absence of good cause to the contrary, to a placement with (1) a member of the child’s extended family; (2) other members of the Indian child’s tribe; or (3) other Indian families.” The United States Supreme Court held that the Supreme Court of South Carolina erred in its ruling under Section 1915(a). The court held: “…Biological Father is not covered by Section 1915(a) because he did not seek to adopt Baby Girl; instead, he argued that his parental rights should not be terminated in the first place.”

In the concluding paragraph of the US Supreme Court’s opinion, the court states: “…As the State Supreme Court read Section 1912(d) and (f), a biological Indian father could abandon his child in utero and refuse any support for the birth mother—perhaps contributing to the mother’s decision to put the child up for adoption—and then could play his ICWA trump card at the eleventh hour to override the mother’s decision and the child’s best interests. If this were possible, many prospective adoptive parents would surely pause before adopting any child who might possibly qualify as an Indian under ICWA. Such an interpretation would raise equal protection concerns….”

This case is a reminder that training on when ICWA applies and likewise, when it does not apply, is critical for those advocating for the best interests of children. These holdings of the Supreme Court will be argued by child advocates and attorneys for social services in child abuse and neglect cases when appropriate facts justify their application. This case is also a reminder of the toll protracted litigation has on children. This child was placed with the prospective adoptive parents in South Carolina for the first 27 months of her life and was then placed with her birth father in Oklahoma on December 31, 2011. The case now goes back to the Supreme Court of South Carolina on remand for further proceedings.

Update: July 18, 2013

The Supreme Court of South Carolina has expeditiously entered a final Order on remand from the Supreme Court of the United States resolving all pending issues.

The Order of the Supreme Court of South Carolina states, in part, as follows:

“For these reasons, we remand this case to the Family Court for the prompt entry of an  order approving and finalizing Adoptive Couple’s adoption of Baby Girl, and thereby terminating Birth Father’s parental rights, in accordance with section 63-9-750 of the South Carolina Code. Upon the entry of the Family Court’s order, custody of Baby Girl shall be transferred to Adoptive Couple. If additional motions are pending or are filed prior to the entry of the order finalizing the adoption, the family court shall promptly dispose of all such motions and matters so as not to delay the entry of the adoption and
the return of Baby Girl to the Adoptive Couple. Further, if any petition for rehearing is to be filed regarding this Order, it shall be served and filed within five (5) days of the date of this Order.”

Posted in Adoption, Child Advocacy, Guest Blogger, Legislation, Opinion | 10 Comments

Thanks to All the Father Figures

Thanks to All the Father FiguresBy National CASA CEO Michael Piraino

Father’s Day has been around in the US for 103 years. But there seems to be no end to the efforts to define fatherhood. You know the drill: Sunday morning, the newspapers will be full of articles on the topic.

So I’ve been doing a project to collect the adjectives used to describe fathers—adjectives from conversations with 17 young people ages 18 to 22. This is an admittedly unscientific approach, especially since all of the young people are former foster youth. But I think that makes each of them something of an expert on the topic.

Here are the 12 most used adjectives, listed in the order of frequency: biological, good, absent, noncustodial, unmarried, adoptive, foster, father-in-law, stay-at-home, stepfather, incarcerated, and responsible. Several things strike me. First, being a father often had nothing to do with a biological relationship. The fathers they described included uncles, older siblings, and often, unrelated people who just stepped in to be like a father.

I was also impressed with how quickly the conversations went to what makes a good father. Whatever adjectives they used, the young people recognized that being a good father takes work. It’s a serious job, and most fathers only get on-the-job training for it.

Young people who have been in the nation’s child welfare systems due to abuse or neglect have good reason to be concerned about good parenting. Over 80% of the perpetrators of child maltreatment are parents. But encouragingly, over half of the children who leave foster care each year are able to be reunified with their parents.

There are ways that all of us can become better parents, and some especially helpful resources for fathers and those willing to be father figures. Here are a few that could be useful:

“A father is the one that always has the right thing to say to his son or daughter when he gets a call from his kid crying,” writes a former foster youth.

And I would add that, even if we don’t quite know what to say, we will answer the call.

Posted in Foster Care, General, Opinion, Youth | Leave a comment

Hispanic Youth in Foster Care: Over-Represented or Not?

Hispanic Youth in Foster Care: Over Represented or Not?Michael Piraino, CEO, National CASA Association

“A historic number…record increase…startling phenomenon.”

These were some of the words that accompanied recent news articles about increases in the number of Hispanic children in foster care in the United States. The increases are real. Data from the Annie E. Casey Kids Count Data Center show that the number of Hispanic/Latino children in foster care did in fact grow between 2000 and 2011. Hispanic youth made up 21% of the foster care population in 2011, compared with only 14% in 2000.

And yet, while the number of Hispanic foster children increased, the proportion of Hispanic children who came into care in 2011 decreased by 25%. Two factors account for the difference in these numbers:

1. The truly historic rise in the overall Hispanic population of the United States. The 6% increase in the Hispanic foster youth population was much lower than the 40% increase in the overall Hispanic child population, and

2. An equally dramatic drop in the presence of other groups of children in foster care. African American children, for example, saw the largest decrease (by nearly 100,000 over those years), followed by white children (with a decrease of nearly 30,000).

The most significant part of this story comes without the startling language. A 2007 study published by the Urban Institute found that things are different for different generations of Hispanic children. While children of immigrants were underrepresented in foster care, third generation children were over-represented.

A deeper dive is required to understand what is going on. The Urban Institute study did not examine the reasons for the over-representation, but focused instead on differences in placement settings for these youth. There is reason to be concerned about these placements, which are less likely to be with relatives and more likely to be in group settings. The authors speculated that immigration issues such as detention and deportation of parents could affect the availability of placement settings for Hispanic youth.

It appears that many immigrant children arrived in this country with some significant protective factors that have contributed to their under-representation in foster care. This tentatively upbeat conclusion rests on more recent research, reported in January of this year.

The research is based entirely on California data. Here is the key sentence: “Upon controlling for socioeconomic and health indicators, and in keeping with what was observed for Black/White disparity, risk differences reversed for Latino children of U.S.-born mothers (i.e., low socioeconomic status Latino children were less likely to be referred, substantiated, or enter foster care than low socioeconomic status white children) and became even more extreme for children of foreign-born mothers.”

In other words, something has insulated many Hispanic youth from CPS involvement. At least according to the California data, they seem to have been less likely to be in foster care than similarly situated white children, and the effect is stronger the closer the youth are to the time of immigration. The authors speculate that the protective factors could have cultural roots and include family ties, religiosity, social support, social networks and beneficial health behavior.

As the authors point out, this research does not mean that bias does not operate in child welfare systems. But this much does seem clear: to protect the best interests of foster youth, judges, lawyers, advocates, caseworkers and service providers must have a very deep understanding of how bias inter-relates with poverty and culture. And most of all, an equally deep respect for the protective factors that exist within any culture.

Recommendations:

  • Immigration reform that keeps Hispanic families together, reducing the need for placement in foster care, especially in non-family settings
  • Child welfare training that goes beyond anti-bias training and incorporates more thorough understanding of the protective factors that operate in all cultures
  • More research on the placement of Hispanic youth to see if the California conclusions apply more generally
  • Evidence-based approaches to linking protective factors to various cultural traditions
  • More flexible options for placement of Hispanic youth in family settings

This article also appears in the Huffington Post.

Posted in Foster Care, General, Opinion, Poverty, Research, Youth | Leave a comment