When she entered foster care at 9, Keaira Jefferson saw herself as “not a great child.” Having one person who really listened to her, who stood behind her, who told her when she messed up — that made a world of difference.
Now five years later, Keaira is an extraordinary teen – an honors student who plays basketball, soccer and softball while serving on the student council and completing a fourth year in ROTC. After she graduates she plans to go to college to be a nurse and later a doctor. Or maybe she’ll join the military, Keaira said.
The life-changing difference for Keaira was Dawn Charleston-Green, her Court Appointed Special Advocate.
Imagine being a 9-year-old taken from the only home you know, not allowed to see your sister but subjected to a string of people who show up at your foster home and even your school all the time asking endless, embarrassing questions. You have to get permission for everything, Keaira said. “I felt like I was treated like an abnormal person.”
But Charleston-Green went to her ball games, spoke for her at court hearings and was always there to listen.
Last year in Richmond, Columbia and Burke counties, there were 399 children in foster care just like Keaira, children in need of CASA volunteers to be the one constant adult in their lives who speak for them and help ensure they are safe.
CASA volunteers are needed. The Child Enrichment Center is holding a meeting Tuesday to help potential volunteers learn more about the CASA program. The next volunteer training session will be in October.
For a child removed from an abusive or neglectful home, his whole world is turned upside down, repeatedly. One of the few constants in his or her life is often a CASA volunteer, Charleston-Green said.
CASA volunteers speak for children in foster care, and serve as the bridge between children, the court, the Department of Family and Children Services, and the foster family.
“The CASA volunteer is the voice for a child in foster care,” said Charleston-Green, who was a CASA volunteer before taking a job as a coordinator at the Child Enrichment Center and then becoming a director of the CASA program.
Children crave consistency in their lives, but for foster children they often get just the opposite. No matter how bad a home might be, no child wants to be ripped from a parent, from school, from other siblings, she said.
Charleston-Green had a 9-year-old girl who had been placed in seven different foster homes. At the last home, she told her foster mother she would just keep her belongings in the suit case, Charleston-Green said. The foster mother took that to mean the child didn’t want to be there, but from the girl’s perspective, it wasn’t a reflection on the foster mother but her expectation of being moved yet again, Charleston-Green said.
The goal is to have one person concentrate on a single case instead of having a staff with 10 to 30 cases each, she said. When caseworkers are overworked and no one else is watching, children can be harmed or worse, Charleston-Green said.
There are currently about 80 volunteers ranging in age from 21 to 76, and have education levels from GED to PhD, she said. Many work full-time and some are active duty military.
Volunteers worked with staff coordinators who can step in when needed. Volunteers are asked for a 12-18 month commitment. On the average a child will spend nearly a year in foster care, changing homes an average of five times.
“Once assigned to a child, you are the voice for that child,” Charleston-Green said. “It does take commitment.”
When Jenny Sikes decided she would step up to be the guardian for a teenage relative who lived out of state, she had no idea what to expect. The child didn’t even have a birth certificate, Sikes said. “It was very frustrating. I didn’t know what to do.” But the CASA volunteer was there to help her get through the tangle of bureaucracy and also deal with a teenage girl with runaway issues. “She was never willing to give up,” Charleston-Green said of Sikes.
CASA volunteers must undergo background checks and pre-screening interviews before training. In training they learn about the foster care system, child behavior and the court system. There’s a real need for male volunteers for boys and teens who often have no male role models in their lives, Charleston-Green said.
Randall Monk signed up at the beginning of the year to volunteer. He was assigned his first child the night he graduated from CASA training.
Monk works full time and has a part-time teaching job, but there’s never a problem making time for his child. “First of all, there is a lot of support for the CASA volunteers. You’re not going to be alone.”
While the time commitment is heavy in the beginning, training phase, the time spent with your assigned child is flexible, he said. It is just such a fulfilling job serving as a child’s voice, he said.
Reach Sandy Hodson at email@example.com or (706) 823-3226