In the Taveras-Polanco family’s Hudson County home, a toddler babbles, and a 4-year-old watches Trolls on her tablet, as her 10-year-old sister looks on. It’s hard to believe that before 2012 the household was childless. That changed when Alex Taveras and wife Anabel Polanco became foster parents. Flash forward five years, and they have a biological son and two adopted daughters. Gaining permanent custody of the girls was a long process that was aided by Judy Kinnard, a CASA volunteer.
Hudson County CASA is a nonprofit organization that aims to help foster children find permanent, safe homes. CASA stands for court appointed special advocates. These advocates are volunteers who take on the case of a child or siblings and help assess their best living situation. CASA volunteers are citizens from various backgrounds who want to help foster kids find their way home.
“We get a lot of volunteers who have corporate jobs, but social-work hearts,” says CASA Executive Director Beverly Savage, who lives in Hoboken. When she came to CASA in 2005 the office wasn’t as nice as it is now. “We were in a rundown commercial building,” Savage says. In 2009 CASA rehabbed the parish house of Saint Paul’s Church in the Jersey City Five Corners neighborhood. The new space is busy with meetings and events.
Lending a Hand
Volunteers must receive 30 hours of training before they are assigned a case. “It’s a dynamic training process,” says CASA Volunteer Coordinator Clare Daley. “We have a lot of inspirational people come in to speak.” The training material can be troubling as well. “We have one night of training called Child Abuse and Neglect, and it’s a tough night, but it’s part of the training to make sure that you are able to handle that subject matter once you’re a volunteer.” She says the training is a big commitment, but evening classes make it convenient for working people. Daly, who lives in Hoboken, knows it’s doable because she got her start at CASA as a volunteer. Now she works recruiting and training volunteers. “They’re really good multi-taskers,” she says. “These people have full-time highly demanding jobs, but they make it work. I love meeting these wonderful people, who use their personal time to help kids who really need it.”
“The average length of a case is 18 to 19 months,” Savage says, explaining that CASA requires volunteers to commit to a year of monthly visits to the child they are assigned to as well as court dates.
Once volunteers accept an assignment they meet the child or children involved. They talk to the biological and foster families, case workers, school officials, healthcare providers, and any other important people who are associated with the case. After reviewing the information, the volunteer makes a recommendation in court about the child’s placement. “It’s a unique thing to get to stand up and really have your voice heard,” says Daly. “When I was a volunteer I was surprised at just how much weight our opinions hold.”
Hoboken resident Brendan Canty did his CASA training this past September. He’d volunteered as a mentor in the past, but he wanted to do something more. CASA seemed like the perfect fit. “I think there are kids out there that certainly didn’t ask for their situation and would like the things that I took for granted growing up,” he says. “You’re making a tangible difference in something important.”
Canty took on the case of two brothers, Jack and Noah Martin (not their real names), ages 5 and 10. The boys were in a Jersey City foster home because their parents have problems with substance abuse and mental illness. “They have been bouncing around from foster home to foster home,” Canty says. The total is seven since 2015. “It’s difficult to process all of that change.”
The boys have had a lot of ups and downs while Canty has been working with them. For a while it seemed like they might live with their father, but then he relapsed. Next they were nearly adopted by distant relatives who moved out of state and ended the adoption process.
“Noah is extremely mature and smart,” Canty says. “Both of them are resilient as hell. Both of them are hilarious. Noah really knows what’s going on, and it really affects him.” Though the three have bonded, Canty is their advocate above all else.
“We make it very clear to people that this isn’t a mentoring program,” Savage says. “It’s not about taking the kid out to a movie once a month.”
“Sometimes we will get a child who is a teenager,” Savage says. “If a family member doesn’t take them in, it’s hard to find them a placement. Those are our hardest cases. They’re often the ones who need the most help.”
As a new volunteer, Hoboken resident Brenda Hurley was assigned to the case of teen Kayla Vidal (not her real name) who was living in a group home. Since Vidal was older, the assignment wasn’t about finding her a placement with a family; it was about helping her find her place in the world as an adult. She was nearly 18 and had dreams of attending college, but her caseworker was too busy to help her apply.
“Teens face an extreme amount of stress and anxiety as they count down to aging out and need someone to help them manage the process,” says Hurley. She was inspired to volunteer because she is the parent of a girl whom she adopted after fostering. “I know how overloaded the system is,” Hurley says. “The kids in foster care don’t have anyone who is just working with or for them, and it’s easy to slip through the cracks. CASA helps to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
“A caseworker is responsible for a caseload, and while that number has come down in the past few years, it’s still significant,” Savage says. “Our volunteers are responsible for one case, so it’s a different type of focus. All of the caseworkers are compelled to respond to emergencies; they’re on the front line so they can get pulled away. Caseworkers really have a hard job, and we work with some fabulous ones.”
Early in the case, Vidal was hesitant to let Hurley help. “We almost took Brenda off the case because Kayla kept standing her up,” Savage says, but Hurley stuck it out.
“It took some time to gain Kayla’s trust,” Hurley says. But, she adds, “We have had several breakthrough moments.” She lists big accomplishments like securing financial aid and scholarships. “I think these moments have let her start to trust that things actually can work out for her, and if she tries and puts the work in, there can be a positive outcome.”
Heart of the Matter
Meanwhile, at the Taveras-Polanco home, Taveras shares his CASA story.
“We wanted to become parents ourselves, and we wanted to have the experience of what it is to be a family and also help some kids out,” he says. At first they intended to invite only one child into their home, but soon learned about three siblings. They decided to make extra room. The children were Melody, who was just 5 ½ weeks old, Michael, 3 ½, (not his real name) and Julie, 5 ½. Taveras says it was a bit overwhelming to go from zero to three children overnight, but it was a great experience.
Soon the family met CASA volunteer Kinnard. “She was phenomenal,” Taveras says. “What really impressed us is that she was doing this as volunteer work. She’s a wonderful person.”
A few years into their time together it seemed like they might reunite the biological family, but it didn’t work out. Then they noticed a change in Michael.
“Michael was regressing instead of progressing.” Taveras says. For everyone’s health and safety, Michael went to live elsewhere. “It was very tough.” Taveras says that the girls still visit their brother as well as a younger brother who was placed in another home.
Taveras and Polanco worried the girls might be removed and placed with their biological parents or family members. “They became a part of our family,” Taveras says, so he and Polanco decided to make it official. Taveras says it didn’t feel real until they signed the court documents.
Now the girls are thriving, enjoying activities like ballet, acting, gymnastics, and swimming. Taveras beams with pride about their good grades.
“They say that we are a blessing to the kids,” he says, “but they are a true blessing for us.”—07030
Hudson County CASA
442 Hoboken Ave.