Advocating for ‘Our Kids’
By: Brittany Burcham, SSC Board Member and Voices for Children CASA volunteer.
“How to help kids in foster care without foster parenting.” That’s what I Googled. I was a single woman living in a studio apartment with her cat who had a crazy work schedule and knew I wasn’t in a place to have a child live with me. But I wanted to do something. I wanted to be a part of an organization making a difference in the lives of children in foster care in Montgomery County.
The first search result was Court Appointed Special Advocate, or CASA. CASAs are trained volunteers who are appointed by the Juvenile Court judges to serve as voices for the most vulnerable population – abused and neglected children. Each year, almost 570,000 children are removed from their homes and placed into foster care. A CASA serves as the ‘eyes and ears’ of the court, being the fact-finder for the judge, researching the background of the case and speaking on behalf of the child in the courtroom, and representing his/her best interests. This seemed like a great way to get involved without being a foster parent.
I went through several weeks of training with Voices for Children Montgomery, learning about child development and attachment, how the foster care system and courts work, and what my role would be. Each CASA is assigned one child for a minimum of one year, so they can best represent that child’s best interests. After I became an official CASA, I was assigned a child in foster care.
To say I was nervous at our first meeting would be an understatement. I had read everything about this child, all the court files and intimate details of her life, and now I was putting a face to a name. Part of being a CASA is being a constant in a child’s life. That involves spending time with your assigned child and getting to know them so that you can advocate for additional services like therapy or tutoring as well as being the person who is always there in the midst of the chaos that can be the foster care system.
The first few months of our CASA/child relationship weren’t rainbows and sparkles. She often gave one-word answers and rarely initiated conversation (but, let’s face it, how much of that was just being a teenager). However, over the past year, I’ve built a wonderful relationship with this child. I’ve stood up in courtrooms as her advocate and written reports on what I’ve learned and what I believe is best for her. I’ve gotten to know the social workers, the foster parents, the biological family, teachers, therapists, and more. I’ve sorted through stories to find the truth, pushed for better services when needed, and kept notes on everything I’ve learned so I can present it to the judge. It can be a very technical job, but one person makes it worth it: my kid.
Over bagels at Panera or playing cards, my kid has opened up about her life and what she really wants. We talk about college and her love of dance and yes, even school crushes. We’ve done art together, jammed out to the car radio, and I’ve attended her big life events, cheering her on and going out to ice cream to celebrate. She’s wicked smart with a dry sense of humor, who loves her friends, mystery novels, and singing. She’s an amazing kid, stuck in a tough situation.
There’s nothing magical required to be a CASA. I’m not a lawyer or a social worker. I’d never written a court report in my life before becoming a CASA. But I care about this child and her future. And that’s really the biggest requirement to doing this work: caring that her best interests are represented in court and serving as the advocate for her future.
Every child in foster care deserves their own CASA. And here in Montgomery County, these children are part of our community, they’re our kids. They’ll grow up and be our neighbors, employees, voters, parents, and more. I may just be assigned one child, but I can only hope that my work on her behalf will result in a more positive impact on my community as a whole.
My time as her assigned CASA will end when her case ends but I won’t forget the impact she’s had on my life or take lightly the honor of being an advocate for her. I hope you’ll join me – our kids need us.
To learn more about this program, visit Voices for Children CASA website at http://www.