ESSEX COUNTY AREA, NJ — The Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for Children of Essex County is currently seeking volunteers to help the organization serve more children throughout the county who have been removed from their homes due to abuse, neglect or abandonment. In support of this mission, CASA Essex County is offering a training session beginning on Oct. 24 and is also hosting its third annual Homeward Bound Walk to raise funds and awareness on Oct. 14 in West Orange.
According to CASA Essex Recruitment Coordinator Jessica Earl, there are currently more than 1,700 children in foster care in Essex County alone. CASA serves nearly 600 of these children thanks to volunteers who “act as the eyes and the ears for the family court judges and make recommendations that will help move the child to a safe and permanent home as quickly as possible while ensuring the child has access to the services they need while in care.”
Earl noted that children with a CASA are more likely to be adopted, are half as likely to re-enter foster care, typically perform better in school and spend an average of eight fewer months in care than children without a CASA. There are currently many volunteers from Livingston, West Orange, Caldwell, Essex Fells, Fairfield, Roseland and other towns throughout the county serving as advocates, but there are more children out there who could benefit from having a CASA.
As one of the many local advocates already involved in the Essex County area, Livingston resident Daena Silverman described her experience with the program as being extremely meaningful, not only for her but also for the children and teens who benefit from it.
“I have been a CASA for the past year and a half and it is such an amazing organization,” said Silverman, who works with three foster children, ages 2, 9 and 14, on a regular basis. “These kids can slip through the cracks if there’s nobody else looking out for them and checking in to make sure all of their needs are met. Any little amount of time that people have to work with these kids is better than nothing because they just need the support.”
Silverman learned about the CASA program through her volunteer work with The Rachel Coalition, which is a Livingston-based nonprofit that works to provide a variety of services to victims of domestic violence. Noting that there is often an overlap between high-conflict households and children who end up in foster care, Silverman, the mother of two grown daughters, knew she had to do something to help these kids.
She explained that she meets with her children about twice a month in a casual setting, often playing games with them or helping them with their homework while also establishing a connection where they feel comfortable sharing what’s going on their lives. In between these meetings, Silverman is tasked with checking in to ensure each child’s needs are being met. This includes being in contact with their caseworkers, doctors, schoolteachers, etc.
As an example of how this program has recently helped one of her three CASA children, Silverman noted that his academic skills have improved significantly since she became involved. Once it became apparent that he was having a rough time in school, Silverman established a relationship with his resource parent as well as his teachers to ensure that they were all being consistent in supporting his learning needs.
“Once he realized that he had so much support both in the home and from CASA and the school, and that we were all working together, he really started doing much better in school,” said Silverman, who believes that much of his frustration was alleviated by the additional support. “That’s one of the big things CASA does—they get involved…And the schools are happy to have us involved; they are so happy that there is somebody else looking out for the needs of these kids.”
She added that the CASA’s main job is to be “another set of eyes and ears to see what’s going on.” Although she is an advocate for three children, Silverman said many volunteers have only one child to look after and that the program is flexible with the amount of time each advocate is able to commit to the program.
“Many of these kids have had many different people involved in their lives—they’ve been in and out of different locations, they’ve had foster parents, they’ve had the DCPP (Department of Children Protection and Permanency, formerly known as DYFS) caseworkers, they have a law guardian who’s assigned to them—and all of these people do care about the children, but they may change over time,” said Silverman. “The CASA is someone who is consistently coming back and stays involved with the child the whole time they are in this placement. We are really just a familiar face for the kids and somebody they can count on; we’re there to look out for their needs and make sure that they’re safe and that their need are being met.”
Prospective advocates partake in 30 hours of training, typically over the span of a month or in a one-week crash course. Training sessions cover the basics of the child-welfare system and childhood development as well as some of the reasons children end up in foster care, such as mental illness, substance abuse, poverty, etc., and how these experiences might affect a child.
“Our advocates need to be able to be open with different types of people and understanding of different circumstance rather than going into this with any preconceived notions,” said Earl, who said some of the training includes role playing with different scenarios that the advocates might experience. “There are a lot of things that, if our CASA wasn’t there, would likely get overlooked. The people at the DCPP have a lot of cases and everybody has a lot on their plates, but our advocates focus one on one.
“The one-on-one attention is really important, and our CASAs are focused on what’s in the best interest of the child. They have a broader perspective because they know what’s happening both at home and at school, so they’re able to see something in a different light.”
Those who can’t volunteer but are interested in supporting CASA Essex County are encouraged to help raise funds and awareness through the Homeward Bound Walk on Oct. 14 from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. at The South Mountain Recreation Complex Clipper Pavilion in West Orange. Friends, families, neighbors, coworkers and pets are all welcome to walk together in support of hundreds of children who deserve safe and loving permanent homes.
CASA for Children of Essex County’s mission is “to promote the welfare of children who have been removed from their homes because of abuse, neglect or abandonment by providing a safety net of support, advocacy and mentorship.” All proceeds from the walk will support the efforts of CASA’s 230-plus advocate volunteers.
“We’re a nonprofit, so of course fundraising and awareness is key,” said Earl. “Even if you can’t volunteer, if you can tell people about it and let them know that CASA exists, what CASA does and how important it is, that’s really important to us as well, so events like this help us raise awareness.”
Advocates must be 21 years or older, but there are no specific background requirements to be an advocate. A background check will be conducted on all applicants.