We thank guest blogger Alan Abramowitz for sharing this news about the “normalcy bill” currently being debated in his state of Florida. Abramowitz is the executive director of the Florida Statewide Guardian ad Litem Program. In Florida and a few other states, CASA programs are referred to as guardian ad litem programs.
Florida Senate Bill 164 is the “Quality Parenting for Children in Foster Care Act,” also known as the “normalcy bill” or “permission to parent bill.” It is an important law that needs to be passed so children in foster care can be like every other kid. Children in a group called Youth Shine and the volunteer guardian ad litems around the state have led the way in pursuing this new law. Many of the children have turned 18 in foster care and want to make sure that those children still in foster care don’t have to experience what they went through. Many of the volunteer guardian ad litems are fed up with their kids being treated differently from other kids.
As the executive director of the Statewide Guardian ad Litem Program, I talk to many children and teenagers who live in foster and group homes. It is not unusual for these conversations to center around their complaints about a lack of a normal life. Moving from school to school, not being allowed to play school sports, not being able to use the phone or participate in school trips are just of the few comments I regularly hear. For years, Florida child advocates have fought to correct these problems by promoting the concept of “normalcy.” It is something we have all been striving to provide for children who, through no fault of their own, end up in foster care.
The legal standard in Florida is for decision makers to balance “safety” and “normalcy.” The problem with this requirement is that many providers equate “safety” with “liability.” Talk about the issue with any lawyer who represents an organization providing residential care, and the word liability will be the central theme. It’s not difficult to see why something as “normal” as a teenager going to the beach would become a bureaucratic nightmare.
Recently, many of these youth met with the sponsors of the bill. Representative Ben Albritton and Senator Nancy Detert listened as each youth told their story of how they experienced not having a normal childhood because their foster parent or their group home had rules contrary to normalcy. One young adult described not being allowed to join the high school band travel team because they couldn’t background check everyone they might encounter on a trip. Another talked about being pulled out of a picture with the legislature last year because she was under 18 and “couldn’t be associated with foster care” on Facebook. Another story was from a youth who was not allowed to go out on a boat with the foster family because of the fear of drowning.
One important lesson from these youth was that each of them remembered a situation in which foster parents and group homes broke the rules and exposed themselves to losing their license so these kids could be like all the other kids. These were courageous foster parents and group homes, and hearing of their bravery was inspiring.
There is no reason foster parents and group homes should have to break the rules in order to give youth a normal life in foster care. This is really a call to action for all of us to state unequivocally that caregivers of children in foster care must have “permission to parent” so that children can participate in age-appropriate extracurricular, enrichment and social activities.
I don’t know if the bill will be passed, but I anticipate that many children in foster care — as well as children previously in foster care, guardians ad litem, parents and caregivers — will understand why this legislative proposal is critical.
By National CASA CEO Michael Piraino
Fifty years ago this April, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. penned his now famous letter from a Birmingham jail. It included the memorable line that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” [read the full text of the letter at http://abacus.bates.edu/admin/offices/dos/mlk/letter.html.] Perhaps equally important, but less known, is that he was writing to justify his involvement in the momentous events in Birmingham, known as “the children’s crusade.” The Children’s Crusade was the name bestowed upon a march by hundreds of school students in Birmingham, Alabama, in early May 1963. The purpose of the march was to walk downtown to talk to the mayor about segregation in their city. http://www.crmvet.org/tim/timhis63.htm#1963bham. Several clergy members had questioned the involvement of “outsiders” like Dr. King, but he explained “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.”
It’s an inspiring theme. No one is an outsider when it comes to righting wrongs, pursuing justice, and serving those in need. Fifty years after Dr. King’s letter, a hidden human rights crisis continues in the lives of American children.
FACT: 58 percent of all African American fourth-graders are functionally illiterate. [http://www.caresmentoring.org/].
FACT: Among the average 25,000 young people who “age out” of foster care each year, only half will have a high school diploma, and one in five will be homeless at some point.[http://nc.casaforchildren.org/apps/annualreport/fostering-futures.html]
FACT: American Indian/Alaska Natives have the highest rate of poverty of any other racial group in the nation. [U.S. Department of Commerce, 2009].
This crisis comes with staggering costs in taxpayer dollars and human potential. Yet so-called “ordinary citizens” still work to right such wrongs. You can join them. As we remember and celebrate Dr. King’s life of service, find a way to leave home and serve America’s children. You can find opportunities at www.iamforthechild.org, www.caresmentoring.org, www.bbbs.org, www.voluntermatch.org.
Much will be said today about service. People of goodwill in this country provide this type of service day after day after day to children. I am proud to reflect on the 77,000 CASA and guardian ad litem volunteers who leave their homes, often going well beyond their comfort zones, without pay and too often without praise. They are consistently present for abused and neglected children. We are a better country because of these volunteers – and the children who inspire these acts of service.
Today, I give special thanks to all the African American adults who have stepped forward as mentors, as court appointed special advocates, and in other capacities to reclaim the futures of children in their communities. We can take inspiration from Susan Taylor, former editor of Essence magazine, who continues working to recruit one million African American mentors for children and youth. After years of successful leadership at Essence, she travels across the country to rally people to what she calls “a state of emergency.” She has taken on a mission of huge importance. We stand with her.
When any of us leave home to serve, we also serve a larger mission – Dr. King’s mission – and we serve our country in lifting of hundreds of thousands of American children. Because injustice to any child is injustice to all, and none of us should be outsiders to the cause of lifting up those lives.
After the shootings in Newtown, many leaders have called for solidarity in keeping children safe. President Obama said it. Republicans and Democrats have said it. And most importantly, the American people are saying it.
The question remains: What will be done?
In 2011, roughly 681,000 children across America were victims of abuse or neglect, and 1,570 children’s deaths were attributed to maltreatment. In 2008 alone, 2,298 children were homicide victims. They didn’t die in a classroom. Many died at home. In 2007, 665 committed suicide.
Despite the events in Newtown, despite facts that reveal how vulnerable our children are, federal funding for some child safety services has been curtailed sharply. The Safe Schools/Healthy Students Initiative had its funding cut by 70% this year. Safe Routes to Schools funding—down 25%. Safe Schools and citizenship education—down 55%. Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program—down 94%. Juvenile justice funding for at-risk youth—down 58%.
The Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities State Grant Program was entirely eliminated in 2010.
In 2012, the Administration proposed to eliminate funding altogether for four crucial programs. These programs strengthen the prosecution of child abuse, increase advocacy for victims of child abuse and neglect, improve the courts’ handling of child abuse and neglect cases, and ensure the use of innovative techniques for investigating and prosecuting child abuse cases. All proposed for elimination. While congress did not go along, there were large reductions for these programs.
Cutting funding for programs like these raises immediate risks to children while building in much higher costs when the horrifying results come home to roost. The cost of losing a high-risk 18-year-old to adult criminality has been estimated at somewhere between $2.6M and $5.3M.
Federal funding to keep kids safe is not causing the budget deficit. Less than 8% of the federal budget is devoted to children, and that funding has declined for the last two consecutive years. Failing to “walk the talk” of child safety will send government expenses soaring in the future. What needs to be soaring are the hopes and aspirations of America’s children.
When it comes time to decide how to use money wisely, the president and Congress need to maintain federal funding that helps keep our children safe—at home, in school and in their communities.
- “Our volunteer did not see two case files, but instead saw two amazing children of promise.”
Thank you to Florida attorney Elizabeth Masters for sharing her adoption story in this guest blog.
As a very busy practicing attorney, member of the Florida Bar for 27 years, and a foster parent for less than two years, I recently had the unique experience of seeing dependency court as a foster mom.
The GAL program was the one constant for my two foster sons. When the well-meaning, but jaded, court system thought 21 or even more months to terminate parental rights was acceptable, and when lengthy continuances and sloppy service of process merited only a yawn, the GAL program was always there to intervene. By that time, my two foster sons had endured not only profound neglect but six out-of-home placements in 15 months and as many school disruptions. Twenty-one months after removal from birth parents who flouted every substantive court order requirement, our foster sons were belatedly freed for adoption.
Our GAL team – attorney Cathy Altman, and zealous volunteer Anna Shea – were there every step of the way to advocate for these two very confused little boys who had no voice. As a foster mom dealing daily with the effects of profound neglect and abuse, living with children experiencing violent night terrors and profound behavioral issues, and on speed-dial with school personnel, I was lost for words in court. Though an experienced trial attorney, I was all mom and all heart. In court I could hardly breathe, much less speak, and the GAL volunteer was my voice.
Every request I made on behalf of the boys received serious GAL attention, and they were the sole passionate advocate for our foster sons in court. At the end of the roller-coaster journey in June, my husband and I, and our biological children, stood proudly in court with the GAL team beaming, and with a few tears shed, adopted two amazing children of promise, Steven (9) and Kaleb (8).
Our sons are now excelling in third grade. One is in the gifted/blended program; the other is getting ready for a limousine ride he earned for his summer reading accomplishments. They are both kind and loving, curious and inquisitive, and I am so proud to be their mom. No one who knew them before can believe they are the same troubled children, and I owe it all to our committed team. They did not see two case files, but instead saw two amazing children of incredible promise.
Please note: In some states, including Florida, CASA programs are known as guardian ad litem programs. Our thanks to the Florida Statewide Guardian ad Litem Program for sharing Elizabeth’s story with us.
By National CASA CEO Michael Piraino
Last week, I had the pleasure and honor of joining the staff, board, volunteers and supporters of CASA of Northwest Arkansas at their two Light of Hope breakfasts. Donnie Smith, the CEO of Tyson Foods, spoke at one event and Mike Duke, CEO of Walmart, spoke at the other. By all accounts, the events succeeded beyond expectations.
Business leaders like these are doing more than raising funds for our cause. They are inspiring others to say “I am for the child.” And when they do, to feel the satisfaction of lifting up the life of an abused or neglected child.
These were obviously not scripted emotions. Both men were clear about the value of our work. Both spoke with passion about the urgent need to provide a volunteer for every child who needs one. I have never heard a better telling of the starfish story than Donnie’s, or a more motivating personal story than Mike’s description of his and his wife’s service as foster parents, and her exemplary service as a CASA volunteer.
Leadership like this is inspiring and infectious. Staff members from these companies and many others in attendance spoke to me excitedly about their commitment to “the children’s cause.” They were extraordinarily happy to be an active part of the movement, sharing their business skills as well as their charitable dollars so that the children can have the volunteer advocates they need.
Our children should know that thousands of people they may never meet are there for them and care about their future, including the leaders of some of our nation’s largest and most successful corporations.
But you don’t have to be a corporate CEO to provide this inspiration to our kids. Anyone who takes the time to support the CASA/GAL network—through time, talent or treasure—is sending the most important message that matter to our children: that we honor them and believe in them as valuable human beings.