Today in New Jersey there are tens of thousands of children who are trying to grow up without the care and attention of their birth parents, without the consistent love and concern that means so much to a child. Often because of parental neglect or abuse, they were removed from their parents’ homes and placed into resource homes or group living facilities.
In the best of cases, generous and caring foster families have opened their hearts and homes to help these children. In the best of cases, caseworkers and other professionals from state and private agencies communicate with them regularly to ensure that their needs — physical, psychological, educational, and emotional — are taken care of. In the best of cases, calls are returned promptly, funds are available for their needs, and permanency — a loving adoptive home or reunification with their own family — occurs quickly, within months of removal from their homes. But as we know, despite the best of intentions, the best case scenario rarely occurs.
In August of 2004, a blurb in the Trenton Times about an organization called CASA of Mercer County caught my attention. This was just before my impending retirement from Princeton University, while I was wondering how I would spend my new-found time. The organization — Court Appointed Special Advocates for children — was asking for volunteers to attend an information session. It described CASA volunteers as individuals who enter the complicated world in which these displaced children are living.
Advocates work and speak with one purpose — to insure that the best interests of the child are met — by the courts, by the state, by their educators, their health providers, as well as their caretakers. This appeal from CASA resonated with issues that were close to my heart. Having spent half of my life raising two wonderful sons, I was an empty-nester both physically and mentally. I had reached out to serve the needs of children, especially my own, by serving for years on the boards of nursery schools, as a Scout leader, and as a professor at Rider as well as (then) Trenton State.
But CASA, as I found out, offered an opportunity that was different — the prospect of reaching out to children who were in need of much more attention, children who were “in the system.” These young people were wards of child welfare, watched over by the courts and the state’s Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS). These are children who move from foster home to foster home, from temporary shelter to temporary shelter. And when they move — perhaps from Trenton to Piscataway, or Lawrence to Hammonton — their caregivers change, their schools change, their friends change.
With time, even their caseworkers, and occasionally even their judge, changes. But the intention of the young organization whose notice caught my eye (CASA of Mercer is just entering its seventh year) is that at least one person will be a constant presence in their lives — their CASA volunteer.
As I discovered, a CASA volunteer becomes involved when a child’s case requires particular oversight, either because of complexity, or because of lack of movement towards adoption or reunification. The CASA worker is assigned by the judge to a particular case, so he or she works for, and reports only to, the court. The advocate typically has only a single case, usually a single child or sibling group, rather than the dozens of children in the caseload of their state worker, law guardian, clinician, or teacher.
The CASA volunteers’ primary responsibility is to ensure that the best interests of their child are being met. As independent fact-finders, they investigate, monitor, and review the agencies involved with the child’s care, with court-authorized access to all records needed to accomplish this work. This position will occasionally place the CASA volunteer at odds with the parents, professionals, caregivers, or even teachers, as he or she collects information for the court and makes recommendations to the court to advance the best interests of the child. This was a role that resonated with my feeling that those who can have a responsibility to help those who can’t.
I already had an interest in social law, having applied to the Rutgers School of Law to begin a second career. (My places on the wait lists for the fall, 2005, or fall, 2006, classes didn’t turn into formal acceptances). But before I could sign up for the November, 2004, CASA information session, a research assignment at the Naval Aerospace Medical Research Labs in Pensacola, Florida, pulled me away from New Jersey.
However, on my return in August, 2005, the little piece of paper was still on my desk. I called, attended the brief informational session at CASA’s Ewingville office, and was hooked. The enthusiasm of the staff was infectious, and the promised course of instruction into the ins and outs of “The System” reassured me that my naivete in the ways of this bureaucracy would not have me mis-serving my charges.
My classes took place in March, 2006, where I was one of only two men in the group of almost two dozen people. The course of instruction was an intensive period of weekly evening sessions (and one Saturday) taking a little more than 30 hours. We were exposed to professionals from all groups involved with the care and management of these displaced children, guided by the extraordinarily devoted and competent CASA professional staff. We sat in court, observing the review of cases in which children were removed from the home and placed with alternate caregivers because of parental abuse or neglect.
Sometimes the neglect arose out of parental financial difficulties; occasionally because the parents were mentally challenged and unable to care for their children. Unfortunately, more often, it was owing to criminal activities, drug use, or even because of extreme violence in the home. We learned to write our monthly court reports, and how to talk with recalcitrant professionals. Finally, on March 29, 2006, I graduated with my class and was sworn in by the Honorable Judge Gerald Council, “our judge.”
Little more than a month later, after legal background checks were completed, I was assigned my first case, two young siblings. Given my retired status, I was available to travel a bit farther for my monthly visits with the children than most CASAs. My children, originally from Mercer County, were placed in separate homes — one in northern New Jersey, the other in the southern part of the state.
A few months later, perhaps because I was one of the few males in the CASA of Mercer organization, I was offered, and accepted, the case of an older adolescent teenage male, also in south Jersey.
I have been able to advocate for specialized tutors for my CASA children, to shepherd one of them from a special service school into a VoTech, and to insure that the benefits to which the children were entitled were actually provided to them. I listen to them read, watch as they show me the karate moves from the class for which I advocated, and try to ease the slow progress towards adoption (one of their foster parents will be adopting).
I typically spend fewer than 10 hours a month on each of the children’s cases, and I have found the experience particularly gratifying, despite the occasional setbacks that test my creativity and ingenuity in working in “the system.” I have also been impressed with the heavy reliance our judges have placed on my court reports — often using them to chart the progress of the hearings. I have had exceptional relationships with my state caseworkers, although in the short year and a half that I have been working with my CASA children, in one or all cases, their DYFS caseworkers have changed. In addition, their clinicians have changed, their schools have changed, and because of his reassignment, even our judge has recently changed.
But I hope my CASA children take some comfort in the consistency of seeing this grizzled face every month. I certainly look forward to seeing them!
Cholewiak consults with the military and engineering firms on tactile technologies to solve unusual communication issues and is an adjunct professor of psychology at the College of New Jersey. A grandfather of two, he also advises several European psychology doctoral students.