By Josiah Brown
November is National Adoption Month. Amid the opioid epidemic, with the number of Connecticut children in foster care increasing past 4,300 (after having earlier dropped below 4,000)— and with the total number of children under the juvenile court’s jurisdiction due to abuse or neglect exceeding 10,000 per year— let’s consider ways to help these young people secure safe, permanent homes.
All children deserve this, whether with their biological families, extended kin, or adoptive families. Let’s also recognize people who open their homes as foster parents, during traumatic periods of transition.
Public consciousness around adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) is growing. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study found six in 10 Americans experience at least one adverse experience —such as household violence, drug or alcohol or sexual abuse, or incarceration of a family member— during childhood. Nearly one in six endure four or more different types of such experiences, with women and African Americans among those at greater risk.
According to the CDC’s Dr. Anne Schuchat, “Preventing ACEs can help children and adults…. The more types of ACEs a person has, the higher their risk for negative outcomes, which will limit their opportunities.” Dangers range from health conditions like diabetes, depression, and hypertension to struggles with school, work, and relationships.
Progress, but serious challenges remain
Connecticut is making progress in caring for children at particular risk—the fraction who, after investigation by the Department of Children and Families (DCF, which decides to keep children at home in over 90% of cases), are placed under protection. Especially encouraging was the move, as former DCF Commissioner Joette Katz notes, from institutions to families; the percentage of children protected in residential facilities fell from about 30% to 8% between January 2011 and 2019. She observes, “of those who remained there, many have complex medical needs.”
Such progress is bolstered by public and nonprofit actors—from the Governor’s Task Force on Justice for Abused Children, Office of the Child Advocate, and Connecticut Alliance of Adoptive and Foster Families, to the Center for Children’s Advocacy and Children’s Law Center. (New Haven alone has, for example, Connecticut Voices for Children, Clifford Beers, ‘r kids, and various school, university, faith-based, and hospital resources.) Other things being equal, the aim is to return children to their families. But if that’s not safe or wise in a specific case, having foster care and adoption available is crucial.
Judges play a fundamental role in determining a child’s best interest in such cases. The process also includes professional attorneys and social workers, to protect children from birth to adolescence. But these professionals often have large caseloads. In this process, another valuable role is that of a court-appointed special advocate (CASA).
CASA volunteers can help
CASAs are volunteers from all walks of life whom judges appoint to collaborate in discerning and defending the best interests of children who have experienced abuse or neglect. These volunteers meet with children at least monthly, getting to know them and their circumstances—including teachers and social workers, foster parents and families. Carefully screened and trained through a systematic curriculum and part of a national network recognized for improving outcomes for kids, CASAs make evidence-based recommendations to judges. At the center: these caring, consistent volunteers’ relationships with the children themselves—with whom these adults can make a lifelong difference through one-on-one interactions at a difficult time.
The CASA network has an established affiliate in Fairfield County and a new statewide association. This work is expanding as a result of a 2016 state law. Until now, only 1 percent of Connecticut’s children in foster care had CASAs, reflecting an unmet need and an enormous opportunity for volunteers to get involved. In 2019, CASA of Southern Connecticut and CASA of Northern Connecticut started up, received 501(c)(3) status, and began welcoming applications from prospective volunteers. The first cohort will train in December and begin volunteer advocacy in juvenile courts early in the new year. Engaging as a CASA is one proven way to help change a child’s story. Ultimately the goal is to identify a safe, permanent home where the child can thrive.
“Help … light the way”
As Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, says: “Keeping children safe must be everybody’s business. CASA volunteers play a unique role on behalf of some of our most vulnerable children. Their commitment, vigilance and persistence offer hope where there has been little. They help to light the way for these children—and for all of us.”
November is Adoption Month. This holiday, as we cherish blessings of family and friends, let’s also think of children whose family ties have frayed or fractured. Whether through adoption, fostering, volunteering in some other way —including as a CASA— or supporting organizations advancing such efforts, there is much we can do— as well as much to be thankful for.