While Hurricane Sandy uprooted the lives of many people across the tri-state area, children in foster care who already live with a degree of uncertainty as to whether they will ever find a stable and permanent home often remain in the shadows. The recent storm added another set of challenges. According to an official with Hudson County’s Court Appointed Special Advocates – a group that works with Hudson County’s several hundred foster kids – in one case, a girl who was not in a good foster home was apparently made to sleep without blankets during the storm because her foster mom was punishing her.
“We were very concerned,” said Beverly Savage, Executive Director for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA). CASA trains volunteers who represent the best interests of children in foster care with the goal of finding them a permanent home.
She mentioned that the nonprofit, which is located in Jersey City, was without power for a week and was trying to ascertain that all the children they represent were safe.
“We found some things that we were not happy about,” said Savage. She said her organization tracked families all week, including one that went to a shelter.
“What is happening this year is not typical in Hudson County.” – Beverly Savage
In Hudson County last year, 1,095 children went through the foster care system, giving the county the distinction of having the third largest population of foster children in the state of New Jersey. The children often have been removed from their families because of some form of neglect or abuse.
This year, the annual celebration that takes place in Hudson County for National Adoption Day –scheduled for the Friday before Thanksgiving – was canceled for the first time.
“Unfortunately, what is happening this year is not typical in Hudson County,” said Savage. “We always have a big celebration [and] quite a number of adoptions.”
CASA, the Division of Youth and Family Services, Hudson County United Way, and UPS, are cosponsors of the event, which is in its fifth year in Hudson County.
“There are so many resources going justifiably to hurricane relief,” noted Savage. She said hosting a celebration was likely “not the most appropriate use of our resources.”
Rather than 20 to 25 adoptions, a smaller scale of 8 to 10 families planned to adopt on Nov. 16.
“This year we did not have as many families who wanted to wait for the day,” said Savage. Towns like Secaucus support the day by collecting teddy bears and gift card gifts for the children and families.
In Hudson County 54 children have been adopted this year.
In total, National Adoption Day, which is officially Nov. 17, helped nearly 40,000 children move from foster care to a forever family. This year the National Adoption Day Coalition expects 4,500 children in foster care to be adopted on that day. There are more than 100,000 children in foster care across the country according to the national web site.
Finding a permanent home
“We get assigned by family court to the most serious cases of neglect and abuse,” said Savage. “Our mission is to find safe and permanent homes.”
CASA works with children who may have suffered neglect, physical or sexual abuse, and may be medically fragile as well as emotionally damaged, according to Savage.
Appointed by family court judges, CASA volunteer advocates typically handle just one case at a time — and commit to staying on that case until the child is placed in a safe and permanent home.
Volunteers undergo 30 hours of training that includes sessions on Child Abuse and Neglect, Understanding the Courts, and Medical Advocacy, among others.
“We really ask them to commit to this,” said Savage. She stressed that it is not a mentoring role but rather the volunteer is “taking responsibility for a child’s future.”
The volunteers have access through court orders to all of the stakeholders in the child’s life. In putting together information for the court they talk with teachers, relatives, doctors, and the biological parents.
While all the children under New Jersey state law have a law guardian, Savage explained that these guardians have a very high caseload and can have more than 100 children who they represent. While the law guardian tells the court what the child wants, CASA is obliged to tell the law guardian what is in the child’s best interest.
“We are eyes and ears of the judge…the fact finders,” noted Savage.
She said that last year, volunteers’ recommendations were converted to court orders at a level of 80 percent. Hudson County has about 70 CASA volunteers. CASA carefully considers volunteers through an application and interview process and seeks individuals who are mature, openhearted, and intelligent.
“I would encourage people to get involved,” said Savage. “We are always looking for more volunteers.”
Next volunteer info session
The next Volunteer Information Session will be held on Dec. 11 from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. in Room 400 of the Hudson County Administration Building, located at 595 Newark Ave. in Jersey City. Attendees are asked to use the side or rear entrance. For more information, call: (201) 795-9855.
Adriana Rambay Fernández may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.