BY BRITT JUNG — Can you imagine what it would be like to be a child living in foster care and have no one exclaiming “I want you!”? To have no one fighting for you? That is the reality for hundreds of abused and neglected kids in foster care in Prince George’s County. That is why I became a volunteer Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA).
As a former teacher, I was looking for an opportunity to help, to give back. When a friend in D.C. told me about her experience as a CASA, I thought, “I’m capable and able. Why wouldn’t I help?” So many kids are dealt a bad hand and need someone to stand up for them.
A lot of people understand what a mentor is, but it’s a bit harder to explain what a CASA does. We’re the objective set of eyes and ears in the case, looking at the whole child. It doesn’t take any special education or experience; volunteers get plenty of training and a full day of courtroom observation before they can start work.
A CASA is just someone with a little extra room, a little extra energy to share with a child who needs an impartial advocate. Every situation is different, but every child needs a thoughtful, consistent person to be there when it matters. It’s not a huge time commitment, but for a child in foster care, knowing that there is someone out there rooting for them can be life-changing.
After going through screening and training, I was assigned the case of a 14-year-old girl, who has been bounced between relatives and foster homes so many times that I haven’t been able to piece together the timeline of her life. She is now in her second foster home just in the year and a half since I’ve known her.
The county Department of Social Services (DSS) ensures that her physical needs are met, but it is difficult for DSS workers to give each child individual attention. A court order empowers me to access information and ask the right people the right questions so that I can be a voice for this young lady.
As a CASA, I try not to be just another layer in the case. I’m the person who stays in contact with everyone in her life: her foster mother, both of her social workers, her counselor, her siblings’ CASAs, her teachers. That helps me make recommendations to the court about what is in her best interest. For example, I advocate to make sure she is able to see her five siblings and is getting the educational services she needs.
When we go to court, the Master (the person who adjudicates the case) asks her social worker, attorney and me a lot of questions about her health and safety, family visits, and success in school. When there’s a temporary crisis, I see my role as keeping my eyes on her future.
I personally worry about what it means in the long term if she doesn’t start reading at grade level, and so have maintained a focus on getting her help with schoolwork. I also try to provide her with new experiences that will enrich and expand her life, like attending the inauguration or seeing a different part of the state.
And though her options seem limited, her team is still working to try to make her dream of a permanent home come true. I’m proud of the work I do.
But there are so many more kids out there who still don’t have anyone in their corner. In our county alone, more than 600 children are in foster care due to abuse or neglect. Only about 20 percent of them have advocates. If you are looking to make a difference, and you’re capable, why wouldn’t you help?
Hyattsville resident Britt Jung has been a CASA/Prince George’s County volunteer since 2012. Training sessions run throughout the year; for schedule information, visit the website or call 301.209.0491. There is no charge for the training, and a light dinner is included at each session.