By National CASA CEO Michael Piraino
“This is my team. The team that saved my life.”
Those were the words of a young woman I met 12 years ago who had spent several years in foster care. She was talking about a remarkable group of people: her lawyer, her CASA volunteer and her social worker.
At CASA for Children, we know that every day, social workers help keep abused and neglected children safe. We share a commitment to ensuring that these children are treated with dignity and respect, and that they and their families receive the help they need so the children can have a safe, permanent home. It’s an important job and a difficult one. A child’s safety and well-being are always at stake.
March is National Social Work Month. It’s a good time to honor this profession that takes on such an important and difficult task. One way to support this critical work is to recognize that social workers in the nation’s child welfare systems often have caseloads that make it challenging to serve these children and families effectively.
It is pretty clear that difficult economic times make the social worker’s job more challenging. Child abuse reports tend to increase when unemployment increases. Court-appointed special advocates around the country have for some months now noticed increasing cases of more serious abuse or neglect of children.
Unfortunately, this is also a period in which the nation’s child welfare systems are themselves less able to handle the job of protecting vulnerable children. At a time when it would make the most sense to increase funds for prevention, states are most likely to be reducing that funding.
When child maltreatment increases and caseloads are high, children are less likely to receive the individual attention they need and deserve. And often unfairly, it is overburdened caseworkers who shoulder the blame when something goes wrong. It is important to recognize the time constraints these professionals face as they try to keep children safe. According to a study in New York State, child welfare workers were able to spend about a fourth of their time in contact or communication with children and families. A third of their time is spent on required documentation.
There is fortunately an effort underway to recruit and retain more professional social workers. It seems clear that professionally trained social workers are especially well equipped to handle the stresses of protecting children. Compared to child welfare workers generally, they are more likely to have the training they need, the manageable caseloads, the time and the support to perform this essential function.
Because we at CASA are for the children, we are also for the social workers, who believe that every child deserves a safe, permanent home.
In this guest blog post, Matthew Perkins describes the events in his life that led him to become a CASA volunteer.
"Some might think I've had a rough life. But that is not the case. I have been tremendously blessed."
I like to tell people that I became a CASA volunteer because the Richland County CASA Program’s executive director—who also happens to be my neighbor—wouldn’t take no for an answer. It felt like every day she was asking me when I was going to train to be a CASA volunteer. I say that I became a volunteer to get her off my back. But that’s not the real reason.
I became a CASA volunteer eight years ago because I know firsthand the difference a strong adult can make in a young person’s life. My mother raised three boys by herself. She was a disciplinarian. When I was growing up one of the worst things I could do was to upset my mom. Let’s just say that the things my mom did parents can’t do anymore.
I ended up being the man of the house at an early age. The expectation was for me to help provide. As a child I was always working—picking tobacco, picking cotton. If a truck came by wanting field workers, my mom put me on it. At the time, it made me angry. I felt like I shouldn’t have to go work in the fields, I should be playing with the other kids. But it also made me appreciate the things I did have—and the people who have looked out for me in life.
One of those people was Aaron Davis. I met Aaron the same year I bought my first car: 1978. The car I bought was the worst one on the lot. Suddenly I had a monthly car payment—and a monthly repair bill.
Aaron was about 25 years older than me. He was a great mechanic and one of the kindest people I’ve ever known. Aaron knew that I didn’t have any money. So rather than taking what little I could offer him, Aaron showed me how to fix my own car. It was one of many things I learned from Aaron, and the beginning of a lifelong friendship.
When I got married, Aaron and his wife stood in for my parents. And when Aaron recently celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary, a few of us who Aaron helped over the years hosted a party they’ll never forget. It was the least I could do. We could never repay him for looking out for us. There are some things that money just can’t buy.
I became a CASA volunteer because I know that there are a lot of children growing up like I did, who need guidance, support, someone to take an interest in them. Children need to see somebody be successful—somebody who looks like them and sounds like them. African American boys especially. Our boys don’t see that a lot of times, and the situation they are in becomes the norm.
In the last eight years I’ve worked with close to 100 foster kids—along with some amazing social workers, foster parents and family members. I’ve watched boys grow up to impressive young men, heading off to college, to the military, to lead the rich lives they deserve. I feel lucky to have been part of the “village” of people who supported their success.
Some might think I’ve had a rough life. But that is not the case. I have been tremendously blessed.
Matthew Perkins is a volunteer with the Richland County CASA Program in Columbia, SC. He is one of the founding members of the “CASA Quarterbacks,” a group of men who actively recruit African American men to advocate for abused and neglected children as CASA volunteers. Matthew was recently recognized for his service by being inducted into the Richland County CASA Quarterback’s new “Hall of Fame.”
Learn more about becoming a CASA volunteer at CASAforChildren.org/Volunteer.
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.
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.
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.
"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
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.
On 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.”