By Jamie Brooks, Executive Director of CASA of SW Michigan and Lindsay Richardson, Executive Director of Sturgis Area Community Foundation
“I’ve been in 3 homes and you’ve always found me”
—a seven-year-old foster child speaking to his CASA volunteer
Imagine you are seven years old and you are being abused. An investigator comes to your school asking you questions. They question others, too. In the end, they determine that your home is so unsafe that you must leave and live with strangers.
This happened to 177 children last year in St. Joseph County—most were younger than eight years old.
A Scary New Reality
While necessary for child safety, many do not realize that transitioning to foster care is traumatic. In an instant, children are removed from their homes, their parents, their schools, their friends, and often, they are separated from their siblings. In many cases, they are alone, surrounded by strangers, and feel like they have lost everything.
These innocent children will spend 12-18 months in foster care. During that time, they will have multiple professionals come in and out of their lives. Sometimes their needs will get lost in red tape. Sometimes, even the most dedicated specialists and caring foster parents won’t have the resources to address all of their needs. And, sometimes the system just doesn’t hear tiny voices.
But here, in St. Joseph County, that is changing.
Changing the Story
With the help of $20,000 in start-up grants from the Sturgis Area Community Foundation, CASA of Southwest Michigan launched a new Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program in St. Joseph County, providing new support for the 177 local children who are navigating life in foster care.
Typically, a child in the foster care system will see a caseworker once every 30 days, and an attorney once every 90 days. With grant support, children in St. Joseph County’s CASA program will visit with a CASA volunteer each week, reducing the amount of time they go without visiting a trusted advocate. In addition to weekly visits, CASA volunteers will talk to teachers, doctors, and caseworkers—relaying information to these professionals and answering important questions about the child’s well-being. They will make recommendations to the court, sharing the child’s thoughts, feelings, and wishes. As court-appointed special advocates, these volunteers will be there to tell the whole story on behalf of the child they serve.
A Proven Program
The CASA program works. Not only does the program provide vital insight about the child to the court system, but its outcomes promise positive change for both our children and community.
Studies show that children with a CASA receive more services and support, and exhibit better physical health, mental health, and academic performance than those without a CASA program. On average, children with CASA volunteers spend 7.5 less months in foster care and report fewer foster home placements than children in the general foster care population. At a cost of $3,250 per child per month, reducing the number of months a child is in the foster care system not only delivers stability to the child faster, but also helps reduce costs to the public. Most important, the program provides an encouraging and reliable adult in the lives of local children at a crucially important time.
CASA provides the support that each of the 177 foster care children in St. Joseph County deserve. Now, with the help of the Community Foundation, they will have it.
As a resource and leader in local philanthropy, the Community Foundation always seeks to connect local residents like you to meaningful projects and causes you care about. If you are interested in becoming a CASA Volunteer for a local child please contact Jamie Brooks at Jamie@casaswmi.org or visit the CASA website at CASAswmi.org. The October training class is forming now, and all training is provided free of charge.
More About CASA
CASA of Southwest Michigan is a member of the National CASA Association; a network of over 900 programs in the United States that served over 250,000 children in foster care. In July 2020, the first cohort of CASA Volunteers completed their training in St. Joseph County and are now ready to advocate for the county’s most vulnerable children. The CASA program is funded by the generosity of the community and does not receive state or federal funding. Without the Foundation’s support, it would not have had the ability to advocate for St. Joseph children.