CASA for Children of DC helps DC’s youth thrive, not just survive. Our mission is to provide every child and young person who has experienced trauma in DC with a caring adult who will advocate for their best interests while developing a relationship of trust. This is carried out through the recruitment, training, and support of volunteer court-appointed special advocates (CASA volunteers) who provide mentorship and best interest advocacy to foster youth in DC. While this is our purpose as an organization, these few sentences cannot aptly describe all of the amazing, life-changing work CASA volunteers put into making sure that their youth stay happy and safe, make healthy transitions in life, and have a voice for themselves in every and all situations.
When children become systems-involved – that is, youth involved in the child welfare system, juvenile justice system, or both – a slew of adult service providers come in and out of their lives. A high team member turnover rate (like social workers, attorneys, and service providers) can also make it difficult for youth to form meaningful connections with adult figures. However, this is where CASA volunteers can change this narrative; CASAs fill in the invaluable role of being a supportive and stable adult figure in a youth’s life. To bring to life this kind of volunteer experience and relationship between a youth and their CASA volunteer, throughout this piece, we will introduce Reggie* and his CASA, Hannah*, and show how they worked together with CASA’s support to achieve Reggie’s goals, celebrate his achievements, overcome obstacles, and eventually help the youth transition and start a new chapter in his life, adulthood.
When Reggie* turned 21 and prepared to age out, he was excelling in every way. Preparing to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in computer science, he had already secured an internship at a bank with the potential to lead to a full-time job. His CASA, Hannah*, had been there to support every success - attending every team meeting, hearing, and more to advocate for and support Reggie.
This is what it means to be a CASA volunteer; to be a friend, a source of support, and an advocate for youth, so that kids like Reggie know and feel like they always have someone in their corner, inside and outside of the courtroom. At CASA for Children of DC, we prepare and train volunteers to form one-on-one mentor-like relationships with their youth. This, and engaging them in positive activities for growth development and goal attainment, is fundamental to helping a CASA volunteer get to know who the youth really is. The more a CASA volunteer spends quality time with and listens to their youth, the more equipped they are to communicate the support and resources necessary for their youth’s well-being – practicing best-interest advocacy – in and out of Court. So often, youth in foster care, without supportive adult figures, are not heard; they lack a say in what they need and get disoriented and dismayed when their voices get lost in all of the court hearings and team meetings they are required to attend. This robs them of a chance to be a kid – of a worry-free childhood – and, at worst, more years in the system may hurt and take a greater emotional toll on already traumatized-youth. The longer the problems remain unaddressed, the more likely a youth will externalize or internalize these psychological stresses, resulting in negative behavioral outbursts and further placement disruptions, decreasing a youth’s likelihood of successful case closure or placement stability.
Toxic stress is a product of an overload of recurrent or prolonged experiences of trauma and worsened without the protective existence of a compassionate adult. This impacts the child’s domains of cognition, learning, and memory, thus, decreasing their ability to regulate emotions properly. A lack of emotional functioning – and trust in others – can deprive these youth of the necessary coping skills to deal with minor or larger stress factors and make it harder for them to form healthy relationships in the future. CASA volunteers are there to prevent this from happening to empower youth so they know that they have the agency to set a bright future for themselves. CASA volunteers form a link between the child welfare system and the youth’s voice.
CASA volunteers are there as confidants for youth who may not feel comfortable speaking to anyone else. Journee* was able to speak with her CASA Nia* about her cultural needs as a young Black woman, particularly around personal grooming and self-care. When a youth confides in their CASA volunteer, the CASA volunteer advocates to the team and Court to ensure the youth is receiving appropriate support and resources. From the start, in our robust volunteer training, we establish a culture of respect towards the youth as an individual, as well as to their uniquely-lived experiences, culture, and background. Listening to a child teaches them mutual respect, fosters a high sense of worth and self-esteem, and shows them that their voice is heard.
CASA Hannah continuously advocated for Reggie’s well-being and stability while living in the dorms. When his dorms required him to vacate over the summer, Hannah worked closely with the team and his previous foster family to make a plan for temporary placement. She helped Reggie navigate finding a work-life balance to succeed in school and to identify services that he is eligible for through his scholarship and other foster care grants.
Oftentimes, our volunteers also plan outings and engage in activities with their youth that pique their youth’s interests. It is in these spaces where CASA volunteers can connect with their youth in action and/or encourage intellectual development, enhance life skills and improve social skills through the various activities they partake in together. This time spent together – getting to know a youth and the realities facing them – better ensures that CASA volunteers’ are knowledgeable and confident in the court recommendations they make to connect their youth with the suitable services and resources to help advance youths’ goals in life and fulfill immediate needs. Other supporters of our community who can not donate their time can participate in CASA DC’s “Gift an Experience to a CASA Youth”. Individuals collaborate with CASA DC to gift DC foster youth with an enriching activity that other children their age may be able to enjoy. These gifts can range from music classes to educational or historic tours in DC – as an organization, we value community involvement and feel better supported knowing that there are multiple ways for people interested in our work to get involved.
For two decades, CASA DC has been a consistent presence in the lives of many youth. Throughout the years, CASA DC staff have been dedicated to developing and maintaining partnerships with interdisciplinary service providers through regular outreach with support providers in the Washington DC Metropolitan Area. Additionally, the organization, along with CASA volunteers, continues to hold innovative mindsets, responding to changing needs and altering programming to fulfill those needs promptly. The COVID-19 pandemic has created challenges for CASA volunteers and youth, but it has also presented CASA volunteers with new ways to provide for their youth and youths’ families.
CASA volunteers are the backbone of CASA DC. While youth in foster care are navigating childhood, adolescence, court systems, family, school, job placements, and more, our volunteers are there to support them every step of the way. In fact, many of our volunteers stay on a case to help guide their CASA youth through the transition out of foster care and into adulthood. CASA volunteers play a vital role in making sure that youth feel better prepared to face problems by themselves successfully.
CASA Hannah continuously made sure that Reggie had the support he needed for success, empowering him to understand the responsibilities of adulthood, how to balance work-related and social obligations to lead a healthy lifestyle, and money management - ensuring a successful transition to adulthood.
There are countless stories like the ones shared here today from the past 20 years of incredible, far-reaching, and highly-effective work, all made possible by CASA DC staff and volunteers. However, and more importantly, there will be many more triumphant stories in the years to come. Court-involved youth in DC are already going through critical transitions in life – i.e., like all youth, figuring out who they want to be – but, at the same time, are unique in that on top of growing up, they have to find healthy ways to manage and process through past and/or current traumatic experiences with neglect, abuse, grief and loss, dependency on unstable placements, or complications forming attachments with absent guardian figures. Youth in foster care have increased rates of trauma exposure, and how each youth copes depends on singular experiences, gender, age, and more. For example, younger youth tend to play out their trauma with play figures or in drawings, feel guilt or shame when they cannot please others, or become anxious or fearful of separation from a parental or guardian figure in their lives. A trend in older youth is externalizing their trauma, engaging in riskier behaviors, or losing interest in activities they previously enjoyed. However, every child is different and has unique needs. Thus, it is imperative that our volunteers receive CASA’s trauma-informed training. Although CASA volunteers are also required to meet their youth where they are at any given moment, they should do this from a strengths-based approach; all youth – and CASA youth especially – need to be acknowledged that they have strengths and are the experts in developing solutions to their own problems. This approach empowers youth and gives them greater hope.
In short, these youth deserve an ally to help them navigate through the child welfare system and life overall. An ally to remind them that they have the right to be heard and to be provided multiple opportunities for a brighter future. This is truly where the advocacy and mentorship of CASA DC comes in. Cheers to 20 years, and cheers to 20 more.
-Marina Chen, Intern Assistant, Multicultural Advocacy Program