The Power of CASA Advocates: Transforming the Lives of Children in Foster Care
by emily gaudreau
Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) are community volunteers who speak up for the best interests of children in foster care. Each CASA is appointed to a child or a group of siblings as a stable and consistent relationship through their time in the foster care system. These committed and caring adults change a child’s life trajectory through strengths-based advocacy, trauma-informed care, and positive connections. Studies show that foster children with CASAs have improved outcomes in health, education, safety, resiliency, access to services, and more. The most important thing a CASA can offer a child is a consistent presence in their life while in foster care.
“It happened so quickly,” Jess said, remembering the day her siblings and she entered foster care. “One minute, we were home with my mom and stepdad, and hours later, we were in foster care.” It all culminated when her stepfather - high on drugs, with a gun - and mom got into an altercation in their backyard.
Fifteen-year-old Jess remembers hiding in the garage with her brothers and sisters as police came to arrest her stepdad and mom. After turning 18, Jess learned a lot by reading the case files. Her parents had been under investigation for drug distribution, illegal weapons, partner family member assault, and child abuse for months prior. As a child, Jess remembers moving around sometimes every few months, making it hard for law enforcement and Child Protective Services to track them. Jess and her siblings lived in a wide range of houses- their car, low-income homes, and nice homes in affluent neighborhoods. As the oldest, Jess remembers being left alone as the sole caretaker of her two brothers and two sisters for days or weeks. They were all fairly self-reliant upon entering foster care.
Unfortunately, because of the large sibling group, the kids could not be placed together immediately upon entering foster care. Jess and her teen siblings, Cane and Helen, stayed with a family friend. Her twin brother and sister, Josh and Rylee, were placed with an available foster family while Child and Family Services determined the next steps. Due to its complicated nature, the case was immediately placed on the CASA priority list to receive a volunteer Court Appointed Special Advocate. Fortunately, that same day, Anna, a CASA Advocate, was in the office picking a new case after the closure of her previous one. The family’s situation spoke to her, and Anna stepped up to take the case with five kids.
Several days later, Anna was officially appointed to the case by a judge and visited Jess at school with her case worker. Jess said, “I was at an age where I understood what would happen if I told the truth, and I did exactly that. My CASA made it very clear that she was there for me and my siblings, and that’s all that mattered.” Jess had never talked to anyone about what was happening at home, and trust did not come easy. “Lies and manipulation were my best friends because that’s how we were taught to survive. I don’t know why, but I quickly saw an out to [our] life. I understood that everything that had happened to us was not normal, okay, or fair.”
Jess, Cane, and Helen eventually moved in with their aunt. Anna continued visiting regularly and got to know all the kids. She played an important role in helping keep the five siblings connected while placed in separate homes and advocated for each child's individual needs in the courtroom and community. Jess became a powerful voice for her and her siblings, advocating and stressing the importance of being placed together. Finally, after many months of hard work, the twins, Josh and Rylee, were placed with their aunt and older siblings. Jess said it was challenging at times to help care for all four siblings, but having them together as a family was one of the most important things.
Anna was on the case for a little over a year with the kids. She was a consistent presence for them as they went through the ups and downs of foster care. Jess said this about her CASA: “Having that security and reassurance that she was on my side and understood what I was going through helped beyond any words I could describe. She was a big support to my aunt as she transitioned to taking care of five kids at once who were coming from a background of trauma.”
Jess’s resiliency and determination to overcome the circumstances of her early years was clear. She spoke about how important school was and how it became a haven throughout her childhood's chaos and constant change. Jess (now 20 years old) and her siblings are doing well. She works full-time in public service, helping others find services and safety when needed. Helen and Cane are also adults out on their own. Jess sees Josh, Rylee, and her aunt often. In the near future, Jess would like to be a CASA Advocate herself and serve children in foster care.
Jess said, “If there was anything I would say to youth, it would be not to give up. Life can be really rough no matter what age you are, but you can make a change and get out of that life. You can make a difference and take control of your future!”
Emily Gaudreau oversees the fundraising and volunteer recruitment for CASA of Yellowstone County as the Development Director. She became involved in CASA to build a strong community and serve vulnerable populations. In her spare time, Emily serves as a volunteer Court Appointed Special Advocate for a group of siblings currently in foster care.
The Evolution of Growing a Family: Gestational Surrogacy
As time has marched on and progress been made, the ways families grow have evolved. As a society, we are probably most attuned to adoption and IVF (in vitro fertilization) as alternative methods of growing one’s family, but what about gestational surrogacy?