By: Annalisa Ciro, Follow South Jersey Writer
BRIDGETON, N.J. – Aisles adorned with chocolate hearts, bouquets, and sweet “I love yous,” warm eyes scan stores big and small, poring over Valentine’s Day treats and trinkets for friends, families, and lovers alike. But candies and cards will be the last thing on the minds of many of the children in the foster care system, who will be facing this special day far away from their loved ones.
When a family is in crisis and a youth enters the child welfare system, they are often placed with unfamiliar families in homes far from their community. Children in the foster care system are regularly forced to move from placement to placement and school to school, running the risk of losing touch with the friends, mentors, family, and other loved ones they hold dear. Through no fault of their own, these children face challenges and unforeseen consequences resulting from their stay in foster care.
But a difference can be made, and their stories can be changed.
Volunteers with Court Appointed Special Advocates of Cumberland, Gloucester, and Salem counties (CASA of CGS) advocate for children in foster care. By speaking up for their best interests in court, CASA volunteers ensure that the children they serve are placed in a safe, permanent home as quickly as possible, and they work hard to keep the children connected with their communities, families, and loved ones while they are in foster care and beyond.
CASA volunteers not only act as a critical voice in court through their advocacy and recommendations, they are also a major support system for their CASA youth. With their worlds often unpredictably changing in foster care, children look to their CASA volunteers as consistent adults who support and vouch for them no matter what.
“Studies show that one of the key indicators for child well-being is the number of committed adults in their lives,” said CASA of CGS Program Director Jennifer Henderson. “In addition to speaking up for children’s best interests in court, our CASA volunteers can play an integral part in making sure they maintain positive relationships with their parents, families, friends, mentors, and home communities in whatever ways possible.”
CASA volunteers are everyday people who are appointed by a judge to advocate for a child or sibling group in the foster care system. CASA of CGS is one of fourteen county-based CASA programs in New Jersey that recruits, screens, and trains these volunteers.
“Foster care can be scary, lonely, and uncertain for children, especially when they are placed far away from everything and everyone they know,” said Henderson. “CASA volunteers advocate for these children in court, school, and other settings, building a positive relationship with them, helping to keep them connected, and reminding them that they are not alone.”
CASA volunteers get to know the child on a personal level and communicate with everyone involved in their life, including parents and other family members, foster parents, social workers, and others. They work with the child’s caseworker and others on the case to build and strengthen a lifetime network of family and other committed adults who will support the child and each other even after the child’s time in foster care ends.
“CASA volunteers advocate first and foremost for reunification with the child’s parents, with the child’s safety as the first priority,” said Henderson. “When reunification is not safe or possible, they advocate for the child to live with other family members, or with a caring adoptive family.”
Last year, 160 CASA of CGS volunteers served 365 children in the foster care system in Cumberland, Gloucester, and Salem counties, but there are still children in the tri-county area who are awaiting the critical voice of a CASA volunteer to advocate for their best interests.
“Every child deserves to feel loved, supported, and connected this Valentine’s Day and beyond,” said Henderson. “Become a CASA volunteer and help give a child and family a better chance at a brighter, happier future.”
CASA of CGS is currently recruiting volunteers for their upcoming virtual training course beginning on February 22. For more information and to apply, visit www.wespeakupforchildren.org. Reach out to Training and Outreach Coordinator Julia Shulzhenko at email@example.com with any questions. To stay up-to-date on all things CASA of CGS, follow them on Facebook and Instagram, and subscribe to their monthly newsletter.
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