When a child’s life has been shadowed by abuse or neglect, the foster care system can be his or her only refuge. But that can mean moving from home to home, letting other things get lost in the shuffle: doctors’ visits, tutoring, getting a chance to attend camp during the summer.
And something else may be missing: having a steady presence in their life, someone who’s looking out just for them.
The non-profit, independent Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program headquartered in Jersey City recruits volunteers to meet with a child in foster care and follow up on the child’s needs, as well as make recommendations to the court about the child’s future.
In Hudson County, 42 volunteers keep tabs on 36 children, according to Beverly Savage, the executive director of the Hudson County program, which began in 2003 with eight volunteers.
Savage said her goal is to have enough volunteers to work with 100 children by the end of next year.
There are plenty of children to help. According to recent statistics from the state Division of Youth and Family Services, 621 children live in out-of-home care in Hudson County.
Of these, only 224 live with relatives, while 260 live with foster parents, and 137 in some type of group home, shelter, or treatment program.
Out of the 621, more than half – 53 percent – will be placed in more than one home during their childhood.How overworked are caseworkers?
The state, in the midst of a court-ordered reform effort of its child welfare services, ultimately is responsible for monitoring the well-being of these children.
But caseworkers have been notoriously overworked. The busiest workers in New Jersey were, until recently, responsible for keeping track of more than 100 children each, according to a review panel monitoring DYFS staffing.
The state said recently that the number of caseworkers with a caseload of more than 100 children has decreased from 65 in May 2004 to 1 as of two months ago.
State officials have said that caseloads have been reduced by 30 percent since reform efforts began, with the average caseworker handling a caseload of 16 families (sometimes there may be more than one child per case).
“I think in Hudson County, overall, I think DYFS does a very good job,” said Peter Herbst, executive director of the Hudson County Child Abuse Prevention Center. He added, “I have confidence in the four local office managers,” referring to the four Hudson County DYFS districts that cover the areas of Jersey City, Bayonne, Union City and North Bergen.
Herbst helped found the CASA program in Hudson County in 2003.
“Kids in the system tend to get shuffled along, and I think they need an advocate and someone in their corner…someone that will provide stability for them,” Herbst said, adding that finding foster parents was also a challenge in Hudson County.
Joseph Mollica, Family Court manager, also helped found Hudson County CASA.
“I think the courts, generally, if there’s a lot of issues, if there’s a complex case, a lot of different relatives, the judge kind of feels the need for an objective look at what’s going on,” Mollica said. “They will assign a CASA volunteer.” Sexually assaulted a cousin
Sometimes the outlook for the child seems bleak.
Colleen Cavanagh, a former CASA volunteer now on staff as a case manager, said she felt “very sad” after reading the case file of a 10-year-old boy who had sexually assaulted a 6-year-old cousin.
The incident marked his last stop living with relatives after being passed around to different family members since being abandoned by his mother, said Cavanagh, “I didn’t think it was a hopeless situation,” said Cavanagh. She met with the child nearly every week, hoping to get to know him. Even when the child was transferred to a different group home, she drove 45 minutes each way to visit him.
It took time, Cavanagh said — sometimes the child would put his head on a desk and ignore her, or throw fits — but eventually the child warmed to her.
“He knows I’m one person who’s going to stay around,” Cavanagh said, adding that in the last six months, she has visited him about 12 to 15 times compared to the two or three visits from his caseworker.
She said the family of the child he assaulted has accepted his apology, and while the child still has problems — he reads at a second grade level — “he has hope.” “He becomes potentially adoptable,” Savage noted. Volunteer training
Volunteers don’t need any special qualifications, but they undergo background checks and a lengthy interview to determine if they can handle working with kids. If approved, volunteers train for more than 30 hours, according to CASA officials, learning about basic psychology, child development, and cultural sensitivity as well as the role volunteers play in the court system.
The CASA volunteer works with a child as long as they have an active case in court, with a one-year commitment expected. (The average length of time spent in foster care in Hudson County is 13.7 months, according to state statistics.) At a recent session
“It’s not a Big Brother/Big Sister type of thing,” Savage told a group of 17 would-be volunteers Sept. 15, explaining that volunteers are expected to learn all about the child. That might involve meeting with foster parents, case-workers, doctors, teachers and therapists.
Afterwards, volunteers meet with their child for maybe one or two visits a month. Volunteers must also read and write reports presented in court. On average, they can expect to work about two hours a week, according to Savage.
Lois Polius, supervisor for the DYFS Bayonne office, said she was “very happy” with the one CASA volunteer she had encountered. The volunteer is working with two sisters, Polius said.
She said the CASA volunteer was very up to date on what was going on with the children. For example, when the state had purchased computers for each of the two sisters, who were living separately, only one sister received her computer. The CASA worker quickly called Polius’ office to make sure the other sister would receive a computer. “I think she advocates for them in a good way,” Polius said. Volunteers convince judges
Sometimes the CASA volunteer makes sure the case worker is doing his or her job. During the information session, Cavanagh described how a CASA volunteer reported to a judge that a case worker wasn’t doing his job. The judge threatened to fine the case worker.
Savage told a story of a volunteer who convinced a judge to go to an on-site visit.
“You do find that if a professional has an agenda that may not be in the best interest of the child, it can be a challenge to be really strong,” Cavanagh said. “There’s a lot of push and pull…you have to learn to be diplomatic.”
The group is planning another orientation session on Jan. 26. To learn more about CASA, call (201)795-9855 or 9856.