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 | 1 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 | 6 Comments

Interview with the Creator of Foster Care Film ReMoved

In this guest blog post, filmmaker Nathanael Matanick talks about his short film, ReMoved. In 13 fast-moving minutes, the film conveys the complexity of the emotions of a child in the foster care system.

ReMoved has been recognized with awards at several independent film festivals. Since its release online in March, it has gone viral, especially among groups dealing with child welfare and foster care.

What drew you to this topic for a film?

Interview with the Creator of Foster Care Film ReMoved

My wife and I were training to become foster parents. We see fostering as something that is critical, not just because of the huge need for it, but also because it’s so important to God.

We were taking a series of foster parenting classes through an organization called Arrow. Our teacher did an incredible job of helping us understand what these kids feel and go through. During one class we watched a PowerPoint presentation of things foster kids might say if they were able to process what’s happening. Hearing their thoughts broke our hearts. After the class we both turned to each other and said, “we have to make this into a short film.”

We wanted to make something that could help more people have the experience we had in our class—the experience of seeing how these kids feel.

ReMoved has been recently featured on the Huffington Post, and it’s won several film festival awards. Have you been surprised by the reception so far?

We’ve been very surprised by the response the film has had. Seeing it get picked up as a training tool by so many agencies, having it be featured at film festivals and watching hundreds of thousands of people pass it around online has been so fulfilling. When it hit 10,000 views a few days after I made it public online I was jumping up and down.

The film’s success makes us feel like all the effort all of us (including the cast and crew that worked for free) put into it was worthwhile.

The best thing by far, though, is all the response we’ve been getting from former foster youth and hearing how the film has been healing for them to watch. That alone blows our minds. If this can be a tool to help foster kids process their experiences, as a few social workers have recommended to us, then that is amazing beyond what we ever hoped for the film.

To what do you attribute the film’s success, why do you think this film resonated with viewers?

We wanted to create the film because the topic struck a nerve with us. There’s no way we could have pulled the film off on our own with no budget. But many people with the same heart gathered with us to make it happen. And likewise, we had no network to distribute it, but I think it also struck a nerve for viewers, so people shared it.

One takeaway for us is if you want people to watch something, make it something people care about. I see so many flaws in the film, which a few people have pointed out online, but because the film is about something that is so rarely talked about in a major way (broken families / suffering kids), people ignore the flaws and see the bigger picture.

Abby White plays the main character. We understand that this was her first time acting, and she’s phenomenal. How did you cast the film?

Interview with the Creator of Foster Care Film ReMoved

The Whites were our neighbors during the making of the film. Our kids would often play together. And Abby is a natural performer. After my wife and I had decided we wanted to make this film we asked Abby’s parents what they thought of letting us try out Abby for the role. They graciously allowed us to ask Abby. So they brought her over one evening and we explained the idea to her and what she would be required to do. She handled it very adult-like, but you could tell she was ecstatic inside.

We took out a camera just to get a feel for working with her, and to see how she could do on camera. And she rocked. Before shooting we talked through the scenes with Abby, we practiced crying and screaming together, and we had her learn a little bit about what these kids from broken homes go through. We even gave her the script so that she could make edits. She altered a lot of it to make it something she felt she could say naturally—as a kid (even though a kid would obviously not come up with those lines in the first place). She took it very seriously and dedicated herself to being a good representation of these kids.

Abby worked long hard days on set (four days of shooting) and doing school work with an on-set teacher in between takes.

After the shooting was finished we recorded the voice over at her house. Her dad set up a makeshift recording studio in their bathroom, and my wife (who wrote the script) along with Abby’s parents guided Abby through the reading of it. We asked Abby to think about something sad while she read it, and she focused on that sad thing, and I think it worked out great.

Many members of the CASA/GAL network have embraced ReMoved, as well as many other child welfare organizations sharing it with their supporters. What are you most hoping everyone will take away from seeing the film?

Our original goal for this film was that it would be used as a tool for recruiting and training foster parents. If people watch this and then consider looking into foster parenting, then we feel the film has been a success.

Watch the film

ReMoved from HESCHLE on Vimeo.

Posted in Foster Care, General, Guest Blogger, Video | 29 Comments

Valuing Volunteers

Valuing Volunteers

By National CASA CEO Michael Piraino

This being National Volunteer Week, let’s ask, “what’s the value of volunteering?”

Nearly 65 million US residents volunteer each year.  This is an extraordinary resource helping in myriad ways to improve life in the United States.

According to Independent Sector, the value of a volunteer hour in the United States is $22.14.  Using that estimate, the value of volunteering exceeds $175 billion a year.

This is an average based on average earnings of non-management, non-farm workers. It’s probably far too low as an estimate of the value of volunteers who offer their specialized skills in their volunteer work. For example, lawyers who do pro bono work representing low income clients, orthodontists who provide free treatment for children, social workers supporting veterans and their families, or experienced business professionals who put their skills to use through programs like RSVP.

The estimate is also of limited use when it comes to specialized and intensive forms of volunteering, such as advocating for children who have been abused or neglected.

You can also put a dollar value on the way volunteers avoid bad outcomes for the people they help. For example, the dollar value of saving a 14-year-old from a life of crime is reliably estimate at between $2.6 and $5.3 million.

But the truth is this: the value of volunteering is not a dollar figure. It is impact. As a colleague recently said “volunteers can do anything!” I recently spoke with a CASA volunteer who has stuck with her assigned sibling group for six years. Through the years she has consistently stood by them, helped them through all kinds of life challenges. The value of a consistent, trusted and appropriate adult relationship for children who have never experienced that before is priceless.

And the impact goes two ways. Whenever we talk with volunteers, one experience always shines through: “I think the kids did more for me than I did for them.”

The reward for volunteering is not measured in dollars. It is measured in lives lifted up. The lives of both those who are helped and those who volunteer.

So for me, the best measurement of a volunteer’s value is this: the light of hope that shines in an abused child’s eyes who learns that the most consistent adult presence in her life is not being paid.

As 16-year old Selina reflected in a thank you letter to her CASA volunteer:

“I just wanted to let you know that I greatly appreciate everything you’ve done for my family and me. You have been there since the very beginning, and I know you were one of the few who really cared.”

The value of volunteering is you. To volunteer to help an abused or neglected child, go to CASAforChildren.org. Or join our friends at the National Cares Mentoring Movement who have a vision of supporting a positive future for African American Youth. Or find many other ways to put your skills to use as a volunteer at the Points of Light Foundation website.

Posted in Child Advocacy, Foster Care, General, Volunteer, Youth | Leave a comment

The Most Tragic Consequence of Child Maltreatment

The Most Tragic Consequence of Child MaltreatmentThe abuse and neglect of children can have awful consequences that last a lifetime. And sometimes that lifetime is all too short. Child maltreatment kills.

This may be hard to believe, but we don’t actually know how many children in this country die every year from maltreatment by a parent or caretaker. The federal government’s key publication of statistics on the maltreatment of children acknowledges that “The effects of child abuse and neglect are serious, and a child fatality is the most tragic consequence.” Yet each year, we only get an estimate of the number of fatalities.

The most recent estimate is for 2012, and suggests that there were about 1,640 child maltreatment fatalities. While the estimates show both the number and the rate increasing since 2010, comparisons from year to year are difficult. It was only in 2011 that federal law (the Child and Family Services Improvement and Innovation Act
P.L. 112-34) stated that states should report fatality numbers from a wider range of available data sources, including vital statistics, child fatality review teams, law enforcement, and medical examiners or coroners.

Of great concern is the number of fatalities among children who are known to our nation’s child protection systems. If you look up the numbers of children who “exited” foster care in 2012, you will find that 327 left care because they died. But this includes children who died for any reason, not just due to maltreatment. And it doesn’t include children who were known to child protection authorities but not brought into the child welfare system.

OK, you may think, but the federal government is probably holding states accountable on this issue. However, if you read the Children’s Bureau’s report to Congress assessing state performance in child protection, under the heading “Summary of Findings Regarding Keeping Children Safe,” you will learn that maltreatment has consequences for physical and mental health, for educational achievement, and for trauma symptoms in children. Yet there is no mention in that summary that children may die. This most tragic consequence of child maltreatment is not a separately reported outcome measure, but is instead lumped together with other forms of maltreatment.

Let’s think about the issue this way. Just one child death due to maltreatment is one too many. Yet we are losing children at the rate of one every 5.3 hours. And nearly three quarters of them are under three years old.

Doesn’t this sound like a profound tragedy? What if child abuse and neglect were a disease affecting the health and well-being of 686,000 children a year, and killing one every five hours? I bet concerned citizens would be falling over themselves demanding action.

Well, some are. And as we prepare for National Child Abuse Prevention Month, observed each year in April, now would be a great time to join them. Here are four ways you can help:

Get involved today, because children’s lives are at stake.

Posted in Child Abuse Prevention, Child Advocacy, General, Opinion, Youth | 7 Comments