May is National Foster Care month, a 31-day period set aside to recognize the many individuals, families, agencies and communities that support the 427,000 children in foster care nationally.
In Northern Virginia, approximately 5,000 children and adolescents are involved in the child welfare system at any given moment. These youth range in age from birth to age 18, represent every racial and ethnic demographic and have varied economic backgrounds.
The individuals who provide a continuum of care for foster youth by becoming a resource parent, volunteering, or making donations, can be just as diverse:
Resource Parents Of the 5,000 foster youth in Northern Virginia, 63% are placed in a non-relative foster home. These placements represent community members who have undergone background checks and extensive trainings in order to open their home to a child in need. In providing consistent physical safety and emotional support to youth with a history of trauma, resource parents are champions for youth in care. Being a resource parent is not reserved for one type of family. Resource parents are married couples and single parents, home owners and apartment renters, and have varied incomes. The common thread is their desire and ability to provide foster youth with a safe, stable, loving environment so they can pursue the promising future every child deserves.
Volunteers are another way individuals make a difference in the lives of foster youth. Many volunteers elect to serve in local chapters of the nationally recognized Court Appointed Special Advocate program (SCAN runs the CASA Program in Alexandria and Arlington), but long-term advocacy is just one of countless ways to support children in foster care. Volunteering at a local child welfare organization can provide necessary help for case workers, children and families. Do you paint in your spare time? Imagine creating a mural in a childcare room. Are you a certified yoga teacher? This skill could easily translate to teaching emotional regulation. Everyone can play a role in supporting agencies, foster youth and families.
Many agencies across the country–including agencies in Northern Virginia–accept in-kind donations. Gently used clothing and supplies can help foster youth feel confident when starting at a new school, walking into job interviews, or sharing in the prom experience Individuals can even grant a foster youth’s specific wish through online platforms or send care packages to youth in college.
There is a way for everyone to advance the lives of local foster youth–how will you help?
Emma Pazos is a bilingual CASA volunteer in SCAN’s Alexandria/Arlington CASA Program. Originally from Peru, Emma is an internal auditor at a firm in D.C. She is currently on her first assigned case as a volunteer, and thus far has proven to be a dedicated, intelligent and caring CASA. We decided to sit down with her and ask why she thinks it’s vital for the CASA program to have bilingual volunteers.
CASA: Thank you, Emma, for taking the time to give us your insight as a bilingual CASA.
Emma: I’m very happy to do it, I think it’s very important for the families we work with.
CASA: What do you believe is the most important factor in being a bilingual CASA?
Emma: Being a Hispanic person really helps break down the barrier in cultural connections, and in building rapport and trust. The family may think, ‘Here is a person that shares a similar sense of culture and may understand me better;’ even if the connection is as basic as speaking the same language. It makes a huge difference to a family who might have an entirely different exposure to and understanding of parenting and the law. This issue of abuse often occurs in families who may not have the same resources or education regarding disciplinary alternatives as you and I may have.
CASA: Are there any barriers you find unique to Spanish-speaking families?
Emma: Yes. I think foreign families have a strong fear of the legal system, law enforcement, and social services, which seems to defer a sense of trust in the system. Thus, they simply comply with what they are asked to do. They may hesitate to ask questions or shy away from learning the rights or opportunities afforded to them out of fear. Compounded by a possible legal status circumstance, families may view questions as stirring the pot and are scared it may jeopardize their opportunity at the American dream.
CASA: What have you learned as a bilingual CASA thus far?
Emma: That a family just wants to be understood. They come to this country wanting a better life for their family, but they also bring with them generational models of parenting that may have been acceptable in their internal family dynamic, but deemed unfit in this culture. It’s important that these families have a person or persons with whom they feel are not placing judgment or even perhaps a stereotyped viewpoint.
Emma’s advocacy for the children in her case has been a significant contributing factor to the family’s proactive involvement with social services. The family has risen to the occasion and immersed themselves in the services offered. The children’s parents often comment to Emma that her dedication and unwavering promotion of their well-being has inspired them to gain trust in the juvenile court and team members active on their case. The family has been able to form a safety net with other parents in parenting classes, as well as mental health therapists. The parents have demonstrated a consistent ability to remain cognizant of their actions, and often comment how the family is now united and supportive of one another.
Emma’s skills as a bilingual CASA is a potent remainder that persons of a different culture or ethnicity that immigrate into a new country–with differing systems, language and laws that govern that society–have the right to be provided efficient guidance, support and compassion as they navigate and learn about the social system and cultural norms.
Learn more about SCAN’s Alexandria/Arlington CASA Program here.
SCAN’s Alexandria/Arlington CASA Program is a key component of our child advocacy work, and people often ask us about the program’s unique format and impact. Today our CASA Program Director LaTeeka Turner is sharing some of the most common questions we get from child welfare professionals and child advocates about this important, effective program:
Q: Who are CASA volunteers (also known as “CASAs”)?
A: CASAs are trained volunteers appointed by a local Judge to help the Judge determine what is in the child’s best interest. SCAN oversees the CASA Program for the City of Alexandria and Arlington County, working closely with the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court.
Q: What does a CASA volunteer do?
A: CASAs are responsible for taking the time to find out as much information as possible about the appointed child and the child’s circumstances through reviewing relevant records and interviewing all relevant people involved in the case, most importantly, the child. CASAs then submit a written report to the Court to recommend to the Judge what they believe is best for the child’s future. In all cases, CASA volunteers advocate for safe and permanent homes for children.
Q: What kind of training do CASAs go through?
A: Each individual is subject to a thorough screening process, including background checks, interviews, and thirty-two hours of initial training to learn about the human service system, juvenile court, and issues such as substance abuse and mental health as well as the special needs of children who are involved in custody and in abuse and neglect cases. After being sworn in by the Judge as official CASAs, volunteers must complete at least twelve hours of additional in-service training each year.
Q: Do CASA volunteers understand the importance of confidentiality?
A: Yes! CASAs must take an oath before the Court that requires them to fulfill the roles assigned to them and to do so while respecting the confidentiality of all information and/or reports revealed to them. CASAs are trained to only share information with direct parties to the case and only the direct parties to the case will have access to review the CASA reports submitted to the Judge.
Q: Can CASA volunteers provide direct services?
A: No, CASAs do not provide direct services to the child, such as supervising visitation or transporting the child.
Q: How is a CASA different from the Guardian Ad Litem (GAL)?
A: CASAs are unpaid volunteers and the GAL is an attorney representing the legal interests of your child.CASAs are not a party to the case and cannot bring a child’s case back before the Judge. The CASA’s role is one of a “Friend of the Court” and an impartial observer, conducting an investigation as the Judge would if time permitted.
Q: How do CASAs determine the child’s best interest?
A: CASAs talk with the child, parents, foster parents, other family members, social worker, teachers, attorneys, and anyone else who is important to the child. They make home visits to observe the child at least 1-2 times a month, and may also meet with the child in school or at another designated location. CASAs also review relevant records regarding the child such as attendance records or health records.
Q: What do CASAs do with the information that they learn about the child?
A: CASAs submit a written report to the Court detailing what he/she has learned from interviews, observations, and record reviews. The report also contains recommendations for what the CASA believes is in the child’s best interest. In all cases, CASAs advocate for safe and permanent homes for children.
Q: Who gets to read the CASA report?
A: The Judge, the attorneys, the assigned social workers, and the child’s Guardian Ad Litem (GAL). The reports cannot be shared or redistributed to others outside of the case per the Code of Virginia which sites the following:
Time for filing of reports; copies furnished to attorneys; Amended reports; fees.
…… “All attorneys receiving such report or amended report shall return such to the clerk upon the conclusion of the hearing and shall not make copies of such report or amended report or any portion thereof.
Q: Can CASA provide a copy of their report to someone else?
A: Unfortunately, we are not permitted to share CASA reports outside of their submission to the Court. This is a regulation from the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services(DCJS) which governs CASA and the Code of Virginia. The CASA report is the property of the Juvenile court therefore we cannot distribute the reports and that is why they are filed at the Clerk’s office and distributed from there and the clerk’s office is charged with retrieving them from parties after the hearing.
The Alexandria/Arlington CASA Program is one of nearly 1,000 local CASA programs across the country affiliated the National CASA Program. Learn more about SCAN’s CASA Program here.
We’re reading some great books this summer at SCAN! Here are some of our current picks:
Our CASA volunteers just finished reading Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc as part of their quarterly book club for in-service hours. LeBlanc chronicles the lives of two teenage girls in this New York Times bestseller, giving a glimpse of the tragedy they endure through homelessness, betrayal, the heartbreaking separation of prison, and, throughout it all, the damage of poverty.
Parenting with Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids by Susan Stiffelman, MFT, was recommended by SCAN’s Parent Education Program Manager. An easy, non-academic read, the book covers concepts through the author’s own experience working with families. Stiffelman expresses the challenges many families face, and provides insight on why certain behaviors are happening, ways to help parents build awareness about these behaviors and small changes families can make that can make a big difference.
Know a tween/teen reader? Check out Auggie & Me: Three Wonder Stories, R.J. Palacio’s sequel to the wildly popular Wonder. These stories are an extra peek at main character Auggie before he started at Beecher Prep and during his first year there. Readers get to see other perspecties of Auggie and his life through Julian, the bully; Christopher, Auggie’s oldest friend; and Charlotte, Auggie’s new friend. Wonder is a book in SCAN’s Young Adult Stories that Build Resiliencyseries; discussion questions and other resources can be found here.
What are YOU reading this summer? We’d love to hear!
SCAN’s volunteers have varied backgrounds in both experience and culture but are brought together because of a shared commitment to our mission. One such volunteer is Emma Pazos. She is a part of our newest CASA volunteer group going through training right now. And although she has not yet been assigned a CASA case (this new class will be sworn-in next month), she has already made an impact that I am not sure she even realizes. Which is why we wanted to take time to learn more about her story…
Emma was driven to find a volunteer opportunity that helped children who were abused, which is how she found SCAN. She wanted to do something meaningful – “to help children in the healing process, and help them to change their lives – a better future without pain, and a chance to have a normal childhood.”
Once she was accepted into the training program for CASA volunteers, Emma wanted more! She asked about bringing a Darkness to LightStewards of Children training to a small group at her place of work. Emma “wanted to create consciousness in other people. It is a team effort. Children can’t do it alone. People need to be aware of this societal problem.” So she decided to begin with the adults closest to her, her co-workers. I asked Emma how her co-workers felt about the training.
“They liked it a lot and they felt great to learn about this,” she said. “In fact, a co-worker told me that she has shared some tips with her brother in Germany who has a seven-year-old kid, and other co-workers are using the techniques learned in the training to talk with their children.”
I also asked Emma how CASA training is going:
“It is going great. It is really enriching to hear the different speakers and topics associated with this problem. It opens your mind and makes you understand the mission we all have to protect children and all the parties that participate in this process…
I am so thankful for CASA because they are giving me this wonderful opportunity to help children. I strongly believe that it is going to change my life, as well.”
Emma knows she will have an impact on children as a CASA volunteer. She says “I will contribute to change a child’s present life for a better future, for a permanent home. It is a great responsibility because our reports will make a great impact in the judge’s decision, as well. Hopefully, step-by-step, we can make a difference for them forever. I can’t wait to pass the final interview, and be ready for the fieldwork!”
– Tracy Leonard, Public Education Manager
The CASA – or Court Appointed Special Advocate – Program just celebrated a big anniversary in Virginia: 30 years of giving children a voice in the court systems of our commonwealth.
Based on a national model through the National CASA Program, CASA began in Virginia in 1985, when three programs launched in Roanoke, Norfolk and Newport-News. SCAN added its Alexandria CASA Program to the list in 1989, and by 1990 there would be 10 total programs. Today, 27 programs operate across the commonwealth including others in our region like Fairfax CASA and CASA-CIS which serves children in Prince William, Fauquier, Loudoun and Rappahannock. Many have expanded since their beginnings, like SCAN’s program which – thanks to incredible support from funders and those in the local juvenile court system — grew to include Arlington in 2005.
Since CASA programs began in Virginia, more than 25,700 trained citizen volunteers have advocated for abused and neglected children in Virginia. Those volunteers have given more than 2.2 MILLION HOURS in advocacy services over the years. And we are so proud to be a part of that work.
Happy anniversary, Virgnia CASA! The best way we can think to celebrate is to recruit more volunteers and advocate for more children in the coming year.
Twelve people recently stood up in a local courtroom to be sworn-in as new volunteers in the Alexandria/Arlington CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) Program. They speak different languages, come from different ethnic communities, and work in very different professions. They are medical professionals, attorneys, human services professionals and government workers. They are highly qualified, motivated, multicultural and multilingual members of our community and – after six weeks of intensive training – they are ready to advocate for abused and neglected children desperately in need of a voice.
They are richly diverse – just like the children they will now speak for in the courtroom.
This diversity is key to appointing the best possible volunteer for each child. Speaking a native language or relating to the immigrant experience or understanding an ethnic community can be invaluable in a CASA volunteer’s work with children and families.
Through recruitment and training, we work to ensure every CASA volunteer is passionate, capable and willing to give of their time and skills. But that is hopefully where the similarities end – the best volunteer base is a diverse volunteer base.
Who do you know who could give a unique voice to a child?
Volunteers in our CASA Program are one of the most powerful examples of a positive adult connection in a child’s life we can think of. Our Kids Need Connections campaign celebrates the nurturing, transformative power of positive adult relationships in the lives of children. For abused and neglected children who already find themselves in the system, a CASA volunteer might be one of the last few positive adult connections a child still has. Foster parents fall into this same category. May is Foster Care Awareness Month, an opportunity to think about these critical connections for at-risk children. National CASA CEO Michael Piraino recently offered an excellent perspective on how foster care and positive connections can affect real change on a larger scale:
A glaring hole in the foster care data on well-being is information on the number, quality, and consistency of adult relationships for children. For years, it has been understood that a consistent and appropriate adult presence is a key factor in a child’s well-being. More recently, research has added to the understanding of what such a relationship should look like, how it can affect healthy development, and why children should be surrounded by multiple relationships that contribute to his or her healthy development. The Search Institute, well-known for its excellent work in identifying the key developmental assets in a child’s life, is now looking into the importance of what it calls “developmental relationships” for children. These are relationships that are caring, supportive, inspire growth, share power and expand possibilities for children and young people. For foster youth, these characteristics can typically be found among CASA and volunteer guardian ad litem programs, and in well-designed mentoring programs.
Research elsewhere has begun to confirm that children’s well-being may be dramatically improved if the adults who have these developmental relationships with children also help them develop a “mindset” that is oriented toward growth and success. The key point is this: mindsets can be changed. Developing a growth mindset can allow you to move beyond adverse experiences and help you follow strategies that are in your best interest according to Carol Dweck in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.
We also know that when young people, particularly adolescents, develop a balanced understanding of the positive and negative futures they might face, they are much more likely to be able to work around the negative and back to the positive. These “balanced possible selves” can lead to improvements in academic success, behavior, and rates of depression.
What is particularly exciting about this research is the potential it has for positively affecting the educational success and mental health of foster youth, even in the absence of large scale system reforms. By strengthening relationships that protect foster youth from the effects of adverse childhood experiences, we can help them build on their own strengths so that the trauma they have experienced does not become a permanent barrier in their lives.
Every abused or neglected child in the nation’s foster care systems should have a well-trained, caring adult to speak up for them and help assure their healthy development and well-being.
Later this month, SCAN will kick off a new CASA volunteer training: many days (and nights) of classes, courtroom visits, panel interviews and more. As staff members work hard to prepare for the training, they often consider how other volunteers who have gone through the training have impacted families and given a voice to children.
Want a glimpse at the power they’ve seen in a well-trained CASA? Meet Linda Franz. Almost seven years ago, SHE was the new volunteer going through intense training. Since 2008, she has worked on cases with 12 different families. In one of her current cases, one sibling has severe disabilities and Linda has gone above and beyond in making sure her medical needs are being met while she attends school. Linda has spoken to multiple people involved in the case, ensuring that a seizure plan was put into place and medication was available at the school in the instance of a seizure.
Linda also recently wrote an excellent, insightful report detailing her multiple visits with the family, the many services and treatments the family has received, her many conversations with multiple teachers and other professionals, and provided the Judge a complete, compassionate picture of her CASA children and their family. This case needed someone who would be dedicated, who would provide immediate attention, and who could dedicate numerous hours and extra energy. Staff members say Linda was most certainly the perfect person for this family! In addition to regular visits with her CASA children — and communicating with all of the professionals involved in the case via phone calls, e-mail contact and face-to-face meetings — Linda has graciously been helping out in the SCAN office and even took on a second case when her first case slowed down.
And that’s all happening in recent months with just one family! There are 11 other families whose children have been blessed with Linda’s energy and attention, and countless more who will be served by this new class of volunteers.
Now it’s time to educate and empower them to advocate for children, too. We’re ready for more stories like Linda’s, and we’ll be sure to share those, too!
Learn more about SCAN’s Alexandria/Arlington CASA Program here.
Our Alexandria/Arlington CASA volunteers are intimately aware of the local foster care system, its challenges, and its impact. As they work closely with families here in our community, we also keep an eye on foster care and adoption trends around the country, which is why this recent post from National CASA CEO Michael Piraino caught our eye. We’ll certainly remain focused in our work on Mr. Piraino’s challenge — to “ensure all children in foster care achieve positive outcomes regardless of geography, economic circumstances, or such factors as race or ethnicity” — and we hope you will too.
For several years, CASA volunteers and staff around the country have been concerned about an ominous trend. Despite a general decline in the number of children in foster care, the family courts were requesting more volunteer advocates for more and more foster youth. Additionally, the children who had CASA and guardian ad litem advocates were coming from more challenging home situations. It is a sadly familiar pattern we have seen after previous recessions.
Last year we also noted that the decline in children in foster care was leveling off. The new numbers now confirm what our volunteers feared might happen. The number of children in foster care nationwide increased in 2013 for the first time in seven years. At the same time, we have received a report that child welfare spending actually declined nationwide between 2010 and 2012. That’s the first time spending has gone down in twenty years.
This drop in spending is not accounted for by the declining numbers from 2012, according to Child Trends’ research. Plus, now that we know the number of children in care is rising again, it looks like a perfect storm: less money for services, but more children, from more difficult circumstances, coming into care…[Read the full blog post on National CASA’s Blog here.]