Right here in our community, there are abused and neglected children who live in the shadows of our lives. She may be the little girl in your son's kindergarten class, who had to move homes and change schools three or four times in the last year. He may be the lonely child at the park who doesn't join the game.
The foster care and child welfare system is full of compassionate lawyers, judges, social workers and foster families, but according to recent statistics each year more than 748,000 children are placed in foster care nationally. This intense need can strain the system to the point where they are simply unable to protect the rights of each child.
So the little girl who has already suffered in an abusive home enters the foster care system which places her in three or four different homes in just a few months. Or the two siblings who lost their mother to incarceration are split up and living on different sides of the same county.
This isn't just a problem - it is nothing short of a violation of their human rights. A child cannot defend his or her own rights, but a CASA volunteer can!
CASA is a national nonprofit organization which trains and supports volunteers - everyday, ordinary people - to speak and act as advocates for the best interests of abused and neglected children. They are trained to work within the child welfare and family court systems and are appointed by judges to individual cases. With the help of a CASA volunteer, a child is half as likely to languish in the foster care system, and that much more likely to find a safe and permanent home.
We have seen firsthand the transformative impact a CASA volunteer can have on a child. For 13 years, Becca's life had been chaotic. She moved two or three times a year between her mother in New York and her father, who lived in Ohio. Becca never had enough food in either home; in fact, there were days when the only thing she had to eat was school lunch. Drugs were constantly around her home and Becca considered that normal - she didn't know anything different.
Becca met her best friend Susan in seventh grade. When Becca went to her house, she began to understand what a stable family was supposed to look like. She would stay overnight at Susan's home when her stepdad got angry and kicked her and her mother out of the house, or when there wasn't any food. Susan's parents made her feel like a part of the family - she even celebrated holidays with them. They were the closest thing to a normal, stable family Becca ever had.
One day, when Becca went to school, her mother told her to get off the bus at her aunt's house after school rather than come home. When Becca got off the school bus that afternoon, Child Protective Services (CPS) was waiting for her on the front steps of her aunt's home. Becca's mother had been arrested for drug possession. That was the day Becca went into foster care.
Becca went to one foster home, and then a few days later moved to a second home. That was when Becca met her CASA volunteer, Elaine. At their first meeting, Becca told her that she didn't understand why she couldn't just stay with Susan's family. She told Becca, "I don't think that's how it works, but I'll look into it." And she did.
It turned out that Susan's family was already trying to help her. From day one, they had been on the phone with CPS to see what was going on and to find out how they could help her. They thought it made sense to just have Becca move in with them. There were no relatives on either side of Becca's family that could be considered as resources for her. Becca stated to the CASA volunteer that Susan's house was the one place where she "felt safe."
Elaine did everything she could to make it possible for Becca to go home with Susan's family. She visited with the family at home and suggested some improvements to make sure it would meet all requirements. Susan's family did everything they needed to do. Elaine suggested in her court report that Becca should be placed with Susan's family, and after considering all of Becca's options, everybody agreed to the plan.
Becca moved into Susan's home right before her 14th birthday. They had a party for her, and made sure Elaine was there too. Becca was able to focus more on school after moving there, and became more involved in school activities; she even became president of the Student Council.
Becca told us that Elaine had changed her life. "The difference between Elaine and everyone else in the system was that Elaine was really interested in who I was. They all did their jobs, but nobody else tried to get to know me as a person. Elaine wanted to connect with me, not as a case she was working, but as a person. Even though she was brand new as a CASA volunteer, she did everything she could to help me get into a permanent home," Becca recounted.
But today only 35 percent of the children in need have access to a CASA volunteer. More than 500,000 children don't have that advocate. CASA is dedicated to ensuring that every child in the foster care and child welfare system has a qualified CASA volunteer looking out for their best interests. To do this, we will need to more than double the 75,000 current CASA volunteers in 950 local chapters nationwide. Especially needed are volunteers of color, as African American and Latino children are overrepresented in the child welfare and foster court system. Every child has a right to thrive. To be treated with dignity, and to live in a safe, loving home. Every child deserves a fighting chance.
Once grown, these former foster kids could be our future doctors, teachers and leaders. Coming through a period of vulnerability and fear, the child can then understand his potential and his rights. She will believe in herself. That is our opportunity and our challenge.
We invite the people of Chautauqua County to stand up with us and support these children. Please contact CASA of Chautauqua County Inc. at 753-4132 or email firstname.lastname@example.org and see how you can help.