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  Anyone can be a hero to children trapped in the child welfare system. Below is a story submitted by a recent CASA volunteer.

March 10, 2010

Dear friend of CASA,

I am writing this letter to you not only as a new CASA volunteer, but also as a former foster parent of medically fragile children and most importantly, as an adoptive parent of two special needs children. I want to tell you of my personal experience with the foster care system, the courts, and CASA.

I was first introduced to the foster care system as a preschool teacher about six years ago when I had several children in my class that had been adopted out of foster care. I was so touched by these amazing kids and their family that my husband and I soon decided that we would like to open our home to foster children. We went through the standard background checks, home visits and weeks of classes. In August of 2006 we officially became a licensed foster home. We were excited and anxious to meet our first foster child.

On October 31, 2006 I received a phone call from an intake worker in Toms River, NJ describing a little three year old girl. I was told she was sweet, adorable, and had been through a traumatic several days and desperately needed a temporary home. We said yes, and "J” came to our home late that night. She was upset, overwhelmed, dirty, sickly, and had lice. She had been removed from her home which was a motel room in Seaside, NJ after a domestic abuse incident that police were called to. She and her two younger siblings were all in the same room with about six other people including her mother, "C” who was only about 18 or 19 years old. The children had been exposed to all types of terrible things including a Megan's Law sex offender, drugs, alcohol, and they had not been receiving adequate medical attention. "J”’s younger brother, "D” was only several months old and was so ill he was taken to the hospital and her other sister "DE” had gotten so little age appropriate attention and stimulation that her behavior was almost unmanageable for the foster home she went to. Unfortunately this was not an uncommon situation for so many kids placed into foster care in NJ.

After a day or two "J” seemed to settle in and became affectionate and attached to us quite quickly, as we did to her. But on the third day she vomited and continued to get sick almost every day thereafter. Over the next two weeks we took her to several doctors desperately trying to find out what was going on and on November 19, 2006 she was sent to the emergency room at Childrens’ Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). "J” was admitted to intensive care and received emergency neurosurgery to relieve water pressure on her brain due to a birth defect known as Dandy Walker Cyst Malformation. The pressure on her brain had gotten so great that she was having seizures and could barely walk or do simple tasks. The CHOP neurosurgeon had stated that her situation was very serious and she would have died shortly had she not received the surgery then. He also stated that this was not acute and the symptoms must have been building for a long time. If she had received regular checkups and medical attention it would have been caught early, thus not causing as much damage. Now not only did this poor little girl have to deal with all the emotional turmoil that all of our foster children face, but she had years of physical, occupational, and speech therapies ahead of her.

This now greatly complicated the situation with "J”’s parents and long-term planning for her and her two siblings within DYFS. Her mom, "C” and dad "P” seemed confused and could not grasp the medical issues now at hand. They both disappeared for several months and missed many visits. The division thought the case would move toward termination at that point and we couldn’t imagine her leaving our home. But just when things seemed to move forward "C” showed back up and was very interested in reunification. There were now three children, one on the way, one birth mom, two birth fathers, biological grandparents, six foster parents, several case workers, lawyers, doctors, nurses, and a judge all involved. At this point the judge appointed a CASA worker to help and that’s exactly what she did.

Most people might think that with so many individuals involved that there wouldn’t be a need for yet another opinion or person to get involved, but it’s quite the opposite. While over the next two plus years "J” and her siblings spent in the court system we had four different caseworkers, three different supervisors, two different DAGs, at least three or four lawyers on the birth parent’s side, two DYFS nurses, two different judges and countless changes in visitation supervisors. Every time there is a single change with any of these it sets a case back and drags things out longer for the children in care, which is never a good thing. And even though there are so many professionals on a case, very few know it inside and out. A caseworker could have 30 kids on their load, the judge may have hundreds as well as the DAG. And "J”’s lawyer, the law guardian, who speaks solely for that child in court also has countless cases. I truly liked "J”’s lawyer, but she only met "J” once and that was after my insistence and after she had already been in my home 1 ½ years. A law guardian may send an assistant out to the house to meet with the child occasionally or check in via a phone call, but the reality is that’s just not enough when advocating for a child, their future, and their well being. So often a foster child is just a file on a desk that gets looked at briefly just prior to a court hearing that may only be once every three months or so. I was fortunate to have a flexible enough schedule to go to all the court hearings involving "J” and was shocked at how often information passed from myself to the law guardian or from the caseworker to the DAG got misrepresented to the judge. Unlike most foster parents I was able to stand up and give the judge the most current and correct version for him to base his decisions on.

This is why CASA is so important. With even the best intentioned and well prepared lawyers and caseworkers the system is overloaded and so much gets lost in translation. A CASA volunteer works with one family gets all the information and keeps it straight. "J”’s CASA and CASA supervisors were always on top of things, called and saw "J” and me often. The CASA advocated solely for her and her siblings and spoke about their best interest always at court. Our CASA regularly advocated for the siblings to see each other at visits, she advocated for bonding evaluations, and rightfully questioned requests for unsupervised visits when the final goal was termination. She also regularly brought to light the percentage of life these kids had lived in foster care, a point which seemed to be so important, but forgotten.

In the end, "J”’s case went to mediation and her birth mother selflessly and thoughtfully surrendered her parental rights of "J” to my husband and me. We were so excited on May, 29 2009 when we adopted her, but she was even more excited to have a forever family. I know that CASA was an integral part of the successful outcome for "J” and her siblings. Her sister "DE”also was adopted after parental surrender and her brother "D” reunited with mom. I know that CASA also helped mom through that process of reunification with him.

In December of 2006 we were so blessed to receive another beautiful little girl, "L” into our home. We picked her up from the hospital at a week old and going through drug withdrawal. One year later she was adopted. Now that we had two special needs children and a biological daughter age 14, we felt it was time to close our home officially. But I could never close my heart to foster children in need of real advocacy. I spent time considering how best to serve these kids and after so many conversations with other foster moms and dads telling sad stories of child after child getting lost in this over burdened system I knew that CASA was right for me.

There are thousands of children in the foster care system in NJ, each with a complicated and difficult case. There are never easy answers or routes for DYFS and the court system to take, however if CASA can help light and guide a way toward success for even just a few of the children the rewards will be countless.

I often think of "J”’s mom who also was in foster care at one point and lived in an abusive home, was arrested, had four children by the age of 20, was homeless, and never graduated from high school. What would have happened if she had an advocate? Or of "DE”’s birth father who also was in foster care, was bumped from home to home to home, saw his mother slowly die, has been in and out of jail and on and off of drugs. What if he had a CASA? But my heart really saddens for "L”’s birth mother who I recently got meet when I visited her in jail.

She was born to an alcoholic, lived in foster care, became a drug addict, a prostitute, homeless, and has had ten kids all born addicted. I spoke with her at length, she was kind and sweet, but so sadly a lost soul who never got the opportunities or love all children deserve. What if she had a real advocate, a voice, a CASA? Who would she have become? Where would she be in her life? Probably not where she is now. Every child deserves someone to speak for them and their best interest, especially foster children who so often get forgotten and lost in our society.

Please help kids like "J” by continuing to support CASA.
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