Family Friendly Helping kids find their way home

James and Sandra Gunshefski with their seven grandchildren
James and Sandra Gunshefski with their seven grandchildren

“Do you know how to spell our last name?” asks little Isabella Gunshefski. Her siblings and cousins help her spell it out. It’s a name they all share as of May 15 when James and Sandra Gunshefski of Bayonne adopted two of their grandchildren, Christian, 8 and Alexandria, 6. The two kids moved in with them three and a half years ago when their father died after battling years of drug addiction. Their mother, the Gunshefski’s daughter, currently has more than five months of sobriety and is living in a rehabilitation facility. She signed out for the day to attend the adoption.
“She knows that she can’t do it on her own right now,” Sandra Gunshefski says, adding that they visit her on weekends. She supports the adoption, and they support her recovery. “The kids are getting to know her again,” Sandra says.
The Gunshefski household also includes their son’s five children whom the grandparents have kinship legal guardianship over. This means that they stepped in as family members in place of foster parents. This set of siblings includes Michael, 8, Ian, 6, Isabella, 4, Tyler, 3, and Joan, 2. They have lived with The Gunshefskis for two years. Sandra says that she and James are not pursuing adoption because she hopes that her son and daughter-in-law will be able to regain custody of the children.
The Gunshefskis are part of a growing national trend of grandparents caring for grandchildren while their own grown children battle opioid and other drug addiction. Their case is unusual because they have all of their grandchildren in their home. Sandra says that she was happy that the kids were able to come to a familiar place in a time of crisis, rather than end up in the system, placed with strangers. “They were always here,” Sandra says. “We always had the house and the yard set up for them. They were always welcome here.”
All seven kids are excited about summer camp. They will spend a month doing arts and crafts and participating in outdoor activities at a Jersey City camp. Any parent knows that the cost of four weeks of camp seven times over can be enough to cover a dream vacation. The Gunshefskis were awarded camp scholarships through an organization called CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates).

Lending a Hand

Hudson County CASA is a nonprofit organization that aims to help foster children find permanent, safe homes. They also help kids in the foster system by providing access to enriching activities like camp. CASA’s advocates are volunteers who take on the case of a child or siblings and help assess their best living situations. 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. 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.
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 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, health-care 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.”

Real Results

John Sullivan of Bayonne agrees. He went through the training program and began volunteering with CASA 10 years ago. Sullivan learned about CASA in a newspaper ad. Retired from his career in pharmacology and drug safety, Sullivan was looking for a way to give back. “I liked the idea of CASA because it’s directly helping kids, but there’s a little bit of flexibility in that it’s not weekly,” he says. Besides the occasional court date all the scheduling is up to him.
He is currently working on his fourth case; it involves a 13-year-old boy. The boy was placed in the care of his great aunt while his biological parents were incarcerated. The Department of Child Protection and Permanency turned to CASA for a volunteer to work on behalf of the child.
“I told him it was going to be a quick little thing, and that was three years ago, and he’s still on the case,” Savage says. It took that long to ensure that the boy had a safe living environment.
“You try to find out where the problem is and how you can solve it,” Sullivan says. “The role of a CASA person is to work on behalf of the child, not the parents or the aunt, just the child.” He soon determined that the boy was thriving with his great aunt, and the parents had a long history in the system, but it wasn’t a closed case. The boy’s parents weren’t ready to allow the boy’s great aunt to fill the role of parent, despite their inability to do so.
“John was just a fierce advocate for this child,” Savage says, noting that he made multiple trips to talk with the biological parents.
“I visited the biological mother and father in jail, trying to explain to them that it would be in his best interest to let him continue with the friends he had made and the school where he was doing well,” Sullivan says. They finally agreed. “At the last court hearing, both parents were convinced to terminate their parental rights, so now the child is free for adoption.” The great aunt can now petition for adoption.
During the process, Sullivan continues to advocate for the boy. He hopes that soon the boy will have a safe and permanent home.

Blended Family

Back at the Gunshefski’s the kids are playing on the sidewalk in front of their home. Christian bounces on a pogo stick while the younger boys watch, waiting for their turn. Alexandria helps Joan fix her shoe when it comes off of her heel. Sandra says that the older kids help the younger ones without any prompting from her. They seem to have a bond, like siblings.
It is clear that the children are happy and well cared for with their grandparents. This case was an easy one for CASA to assess. “I love seeing these kids grow up,” Sandra says. James agrees and says that it takes him back to his own childhood growing up in a large family. They keep the kids on a steady routine. Sandra left her full-time job as a logistics manager in Secaucus to focus on the kids. James is a longshoreman.
“I’m doing it differently this time,” Sandra says. “I think I’m tougher. Even though I’m grandma and I’m supposed to be the opposite. This is supposed to be my time to spoil them, but because of the drug issues, and it’s the issue of the world, which is unfortunate, I’m tough this time around.”
CASA’s role is important. It finances special events at Liberty Science Center and gifts like backpacks and school supplies.
“For back-to-school they came and gave each kid, even the little ones, a backpack,” Sandra says. “The little ones got coloring books and crayons, so even though they weren’t going back to school, they felt a part of it, and they thought that was great.”
The grandparents didn’t encounter any setbacks from the courts, but they are glad to have an advocate who has their back just in case.
“I knew our CASA worker would be there for me if I needed another voice,” Sandra says. “I never had to ask for additional support, but I knew the support was there, and just knowing that it was there meant a lot.”—BLP