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That was the innocent reply from 9 year-old Marissa when a school friend asked why her mom never walked her home from school anymore. A more detailed answer would have revealed that her mother was in prison for selling drugs, and Marissa had just learned that she wouldn't be able to visit her for quite a while. She had moved "far away." This was because moving prisoners out of state is one current remedy for overcrowded prisons in California. This child, now in foster care, didn't really know exactly where her mom had been taken, only that she might be able to talk with her on the phone -- "maybe next month." 


The number of children who have a parent (or both) in prison has risen dramatically in the last decade to an alarming estimate of more than 2 million kids, many of them winding up in foster care. Besides the typical challenges foster kids face when uprooted from their families and placed among strangers, these children must deal with the embarrassment and stigma of explaining where their parents are and often why they are incarcerated. Without the attention and support of caring adults, these kids are at very high risk of failure -- in school, in developing healthy relationships and in staying away from drugs and other juvenile criminal behavior. They need good role models and encouragement to keep their childhood hopes and dreams alive in spite of what they have gone through. 


A CASA advocate can provide desperately needed continuity and stability for these kids. In addition to making sure the child is receiving appropriate care in the foster placement and monitoring school progress, special counseling resources are available to give these kids some coping skills to help them deal with their situation. They can learn that they are not alone, which is how many of them feel and don't want to talk about what has happened. One caring adult who is willing to listen, not judge, and let them know they are valued, can truly be a life-saver for these kids.  I know ... I've seen it happen more than once and it is happening right now in communities around the country. 


As you might guess, the real need is pretty obvious:  more CASAs!  A lot more -- for these children of incarcerated parents and for all children in the system looking for a permanent loving family. Dr. Phil and Robin are leading an important crusade to encourage 100,000 new CASA advocates. It seems like a daunting task, but thinking of it as one child at a time whose life will be changed helps to see this as a critical responsibility and real possibility.


Do you have just a few hours a month you might be able to spare to change a child's life? Think about it!  There are training programs going on in most states, from big cities to rural communities, and there are children coming into the foster care system this very minute, each deserving of an advocate to speak up for them and assure them that someone is in their corner.


 For more information, visit: casaforchildren.org 


 Until next time ...
 
As a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) for children in foster care, I have been asked this question more than once.  But never has an answer come easily.

The first time I was asked this question was from an 8-year-old with the biggest brown eyes I've ever seen. Her mother had abandoned her two years before, she didn't know who her father was, and she could not understand why her mother kept her little brother and sister and but just dropped her off at the county children's home one day.

Then there was the moment a very angry and articulate 13-year-old told me the horrific story of an abusive mother who had adopted her as a toddler. Actually, she was quite sure this woman did not love her but still was always wondering (make that hoping!) that her birth mother, whom she never knew, had perhaps loved her.

Both of these girls were to find themselves in several foster homes and group homes after they were removed from their families and placed in what is called protective custody -- not always the best term for what they experienced. Both had some terrifying experiences in the foster care system.

And this is where CASA comes in. An advocate can't erase the past or promise what the future will bring to these kids. But one caring adult that a child can count on to listen to them and sometimes help boost them over the many hurdles they face, can make a life-changing difference. How do we know? Because they tell us. And they show us with their resilience and determination to make their way in the world if we'll just give them some evidence that someone really does care for them. We can't really answer that heart-breaking question about their mother. But we can show them what it feels like to be loved and to feel worthy of love. And from what they tell us ... that's really, really important.

Oh, by the way, the little 8-year-old was adopted by a wonderful, supportive mom, and soon found out what mother love feels like in what she calls her "forever family."  And the 13-year-old is now a successful college student with a long list of scholarships awarded her ... still searching for answers.

So, think about investigating the CASA program in your state or county. You don't have to know the answers to the big questions. Just being there to listen is a priceless gift to foster kids.

For more information visit: casaforchildren.org to learn how you might become a trained CASA volunteer to advocate for abused and neglected children. There is a child waiting for an advocate right this minute.
 
This week we're getting ready for our annual CASA Christmas party where over 500 kids in foster care will come together with their advocates for an afternoon of fun, food, music, dancing, craft projects and, maybe most important, a connection with friends they don't get to see very often.  For children who have been in foster homes or group homes for many years, this is something they always remember and look forward to each year....for some, they call each other "family."

But sadly, while many people and organizations reach out in kindness at this time of year, and songs and advertisements of  the season surround us with images of family celebrations and happy homes filled with cheer, these are not the memories of many children who have been removed from their home for abuse or neglect.  It's an especially emotional time for these children and teenagers and once a year parties, though filled with good intentions,  are not enough to make up for how they feel  without a permanent home and family. 

There are no sugar-plum magic answers to this situation,  but there are some  year-round gift s that can make huge difference in the lives of these children.   The gifts of caring....of listening....of supporting.....of understanding....of teaching....of showing up....of serving as a role model...of being someone to count on...not just on holidays but whenever you are needed.  That's  the gift that foster children have when they a CASA advocate in their life.  For many, it is a life-changing gift.

It's not unusual for foster children to  live in more than 10 different homes by the time they reach 18.  I met a child this year who had counted up to 29 moves and could not recall one  place where  she really felt at home or where she really belonged.

The gift that would mean the most, of course, is a permanent home filled with a loving family to celebrate all year long---something we want for every child and that certainly every child deserves.  But at least those children who do have an advocate looking out for them and standing up for their rights will experience genuine caring and support and maybe start to develop some new Christmas memories to look back on as part of their childhood and to carry with them into their future.

Of the 500,000 foster kids across the country, less than half of them have a CASA volunteer in their corner.  Think about becoming  this important gift for a child in your community.  Go to casaforchildren.org to find out how and where you can learn more about being a CASA volunteer.  It will be a gift that touches many lives with the real spirit of Christmas.....including yours!

Until next time....
 
If you saw the recent Dr. Phil show detailing the horror of abuse that sometimes goes on behind closed doors  in our own neighborhoods, you heard him close with these important words:  Pay attention to what's going on around us!

A few years ago I was appointed as a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) to a bright, talented, articulate 14 year old who had spent her first eleven years in the home of highly educated professional parents, in a huge home in a well-manicured neighborhood.  But inside that home were four children who experienced unspeakable abuse----physical, emotional, verbal, including food deprivation and periods of being tied to chairs or locked outside in cold weather.  It took a decade for someone, in this case a grade school teacher, to suspect abuse and call authorities.  The children were subsequently removed from this home and placed in protective custody, but then they had to go through the emotional trauma of testifying against their adoptive parents in a criminal trial.

Seeing the effects of abuse on children in foster care has been a wakeup call to me to follow Dr. Phil's advice:  Pay attention for any suggestion that any child is being mistreated in any way.  Such children usually cannot speak up for themselves.  They need someone to notice, to ask questions, to take action.  If not you.....who?  Nearly every community has a child abuse hotline where a trained volunteer or professional can respond to your concerns.  Sometimes it may be a false alarm and that will those who suspect something say nothing.

Children who are removed from abusive homes struggle to learn how to trust.  For most it's a long journey.  A volunteer CASA is often the first person a foster child begins to trust because we show up, we listen and we do our best to understand and support them.

Right now there is a child or teenager waiting for a caring friend to help him know there really are people who care.  Think about taking the time to be one of those special friends.

 For the location of a CASA organization where you live contact:  casaforchildren.org

If not you....who?

Until next time....
 
I have trouble picturing what a half million kids looks like. All I can think is that the town where I live has about 25,000 people, so I guess it would take about 20 communities this size to hold 500,000 children. Whoa!


Well, at any given time in the U.S., there are between 400,000 and 600,000 children who have been removed from their families and are in some kind of foster care. Where are they? They may be in foster families, group homes, county facilities or living with a relative. They are in your neighborhoods, attend schools with your children, worship in your churches, have part time jobs in your community. They're pretty much everywhere.


So my question is always: Then why don't more people understand who they are, what they're going through and what they need? Answer? Of course, they have the needs all kids have as they are growing up. Plus, the biggest need of all: They need a healthy, loving, permanent family. Ideally, this is the goal for every child that is removed from his or her home due to abuse or neglect. But until that happens, or often because it does not happen, how can we help these kids feel that they are not invisible? How can we remove the "foster kid" label that has far too many negative descriptions attached to it? Is that number, 500,000 kids, just too big to deal with? It sure feels like it.


But how about just dealing with the number one? Just one child ...with just one bumpy life story ... with just one set of big dreams ... needing just one person to count on to keep those dreams alive. That IS doable. Ask any child who has had one caring adult in her life. Ask her if it made a difference. The answer is inevitably, yes!


That's what a CASA advocate is to a child or teen in foster care. As a mentor, friend, resource and advocate, each volunteer CASA helps a child start to believe he is not invisible, that he is important, and that he has a future. This child has someone to count on who knows he deserves a place at the table of a family that loves and supports him. Every time someone decides to be a CASA, one of those half-million children is not just a statistic.


So please think about it. Investigate the opportunities in your community to volunteer as a CASA to a foster child. Go to the national website: casaforchildren.org


If you still have doubts, remember the starfish story (my first blog for CASA)!


Until next time ...
 
I recently watched a TV documentary that followed three homeless young adults through their daily lives on the streets of one American city. Sad? Depressing? Overwhelming? Yes! Easy to keep watching in hopes of seeing a happy ending to their stories? No! But I did keep watching when I heard over and over again how many of these "kids" had spent much of their childhood in and out of foster care, moving from one group home or foster home to the next one, gradually slipping through the cracks along the way. I also made myself keep watching because of a text message sent to me the night before. It read: "I can't do this anymore." This from a 15-year-old girl who was spending her first night in a new foster home, the third one this year, her first year in high school -- yes, make that three different high schools, and she still managed to pass all of her classes somehow and keep trying to look forward.

This is where a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) can really make a difference. When a kid changes to a new foster placement, the advocate is sometimes the one and only constant person in her life. There is often a school change, sometimes a new social worker, and all the changes and adjustments of getting used to a new home, sometimes another foster child or more to share a bedroom with, sometimes new kinds of food completely foreign, and on and on go the changes.

Foster kids learn to be amazingly resilient, but often they also learn to bury their questions and concerns and come to have low expectations of just about everything. Having a friend, a mentor, someone who will listen and not judge, can sometimes be the difference between pressing on or giving up----in school, in relationships, in dreams for a future that is hopeful, stable and secure. A one-hour walk together on the beach can sometimes be the turning point for a child in foster care in making the decision not to run away, not to quit school, not to give up on himself that day or tomorrow.

Besides taking a volunteer training program, the main requirement for being a CASA is really pretty simple: Just show up ... and then show that you care and that you can be trusted. Some 30,000 young people leave the foster care system each year to go out in the world on their own. Those who have had someone in their lives that they can count on along the way have a much better chance of not becoming a statistic ... homeless, jobless, pregnant, addicted ... with no one to turn to.

To read some inspiring success stories about former foster kids who did have a CASA volunteer in their life, go to the national CASA website: casaforchildren.org.

There are still more than half a million children and teens in our nation living in foster care, having been abandoned, abused or neglected by their own families. Thousands of them are waiting for just one person to be their advocate and their voice in court, to help make their stories into success stories. Check the website to find a CASA program in YOUR community!

Until next time....
 
"That's all I want," this 15-year-old told me through her tears. "I just want to be a normal teenager with a normal life like other kids. It's hard enough knowing I don't have my own family anymore without having to get through all this stuff on my own. I just want a normal life!"

This was not the first time I'd heard this plea from a teenager in foster care, but it still breaks my heart to hear it while trying my best to come up with a comforting response that won't turn into another broken promise. Most every child I've ever known wants to be "normal," and who knows how many definitions any group of children or teenagers might have for that word. But for kids in foster care there is often a persistent painful feeling that they aren't like other kids in many ways.

Being a teenager presents its own list of challenges without adding a few like these: Having to tell a friend who invites you to spend the night at her house that her parents will be required to have a criminal background check before a sleepover can occur. Going through high school without ever getting a yearbook with your picture in it because no one remembered to arrange for money necessary to buy one. Having to explain to your math teacher (again!) why you still don't have the right kind of calculator to bring to class because that wasn't covered in your school supply allotment, and it would be several weeks before a special request could be processed. Not ever having a parent show up at back-to-school night to see your award-winning artwork. Not going out for a sport because you don't know how to get enough money for the uniform and assume you can't be a part of the team. Wearing a friend's boots that are two sizes too big for you because it's raining and your two pairs of shoes are sandals.

These are just a few real incidents I've come across in serving as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for youth in foster care. The list of "not feeling normal" ranges from simple, yet painful, embarrassment at being different to life changing losses like not knowing you are eligible for many college scholarships expressly for foster kids.

Unfortunately, an advocate, a mentor, a good friend can't magically make a teenager feel "normal." But just by showing up in their life on a regular basis and listening....really listening to them, we can answer questions, help them access resources, and try to be tuned in to some of their fears and needs, and maybe prevent some of these hurdles from seeming impossible to get over. Most kids in foster care have survived some very tough family situations and are amazingly resilient and courageous. A listening ear and a little boost now and then can work wonders toward enhancing their self-worth and leading a "normal" life.

Until next time....

There are a half a million children in our country who are growing up in foster homes. Please consider investigating the CASA program in your community. It is a national program that trains volunteers from young adults to great grandparents to serve as the voice of a child in our foster care system. For information, visit http://casaforchildren.org.
 
"Do you think I'm going to end up homeless?"  That's what they say happens to foster kids.  So do you think that will happen to me?"

I'm sure it would startle me if anyone asked me if I thought they were going to become homeless. But coming from a 13-year-old who had been in foster care for two years and had already been in at least six different group home foster "placements," I was blindsided. This straight-A student and avid reader already knew the same statistics I knew and was already looking years ahead when she would likely be on her own and feared she would be on the streets.  Having been removed from her family after a lifetime of physical and emotional abuse, she still remembered a big house in an affluent community where she lived. The picture she was now carrying around with her was one of not even having a physical shelter, let alone a family.

I don't remember the exact words of my answer to this beautiful, frightened little girl who found it hard to trust anyone. I do know that by serving as her CASA advocate for the next five years that there were many opportunities to help her learn some basic life skills we don't learn in school and are pretty hard to come by if you have no family or even extended family to guide you and to pick you up when you fall. Without a family, who do you call when you are so excited you got the lead part in a musical production? Who do you ask to help you learn how to drive? Who can you ask your embarrassing questions that admit you really don't understand the whole "sex thing"?  And who can you believe when they tell you that YOU won't be one of those statistics?

The numbers say 50 percent of kids in foster care do experience being homeless sometime soon after leaving the system. Even more former foster kids face unemployment, lack sufficient education and job training, and the majority of inmates in our prisons spent some time in our foster care system. It's been said that when these kids "emancipate" from the social services system as 18-year-olds, too many return to the system through crime,  addiction to drugs or alcohol, unplanned pregnancies and joblessness.

Clearly we, the community, are failing these kids when it comes to getting them ready to go out into the world. Being in foster care is often referred to as dependency -- dependent upon the community to take care of them. Then we expect them somehow to magically become independent. For too many kids, this just isn't working. But we have wonderful examples showing that it doesn't have to be like this. Ask former foster kids who had a mentor or an advocate in their lives on a regular basis. They almost always say the same thing in different words: "I couldn't have made it without him."  "She was the only person I could trust." "He taught me what a real friend acts like." "She encouraged me and never criticized me when I failed." "She was the first person I could really count on."

Oh, and that little 13-year-old afraid of being homeless? She is "out here in the world," a pre med college student aspiring to become a doctor who serves the neediest in our world. There have been some big bumps along the way for her, but she now has a "family" of unrelated mentors and advocates who are cheering her on every step of the way.

There are teenage foster kids in your community who just need a listening ear and a role model, a safe place to ask questions and someone to turn to who won't give up on them when they make mistakes. It's a life-saving job and there are plenty of openings!



For more information on how you might get involved as an advocate for foster children, contact casaforchildren.org. There are CASA organizations all across the country, and there are over 500,000 children and teens in foster care. Every one of them deserves to know they have not been discarded or forgotten.



Until next time...
 
"Did you see Dr. Phil when he smashed those houses?  You know that's just how it feels to foster kids!  In the back of your mind you're always wondering if you do something wrong if they will keep you or not."

This was the voice of a teenager recently brought into the foster care system and already expressing worry about how long she might be living in her current foster home.  She had watched Dr. Phil's recent show dealing with a family who had brought two abused teens into their home and were struggling with whether or not they had the strength and commitment to keep these girls or return them to the custody the social services system.  If you saw the show, you saw Dr. Phil literally smash a lineup of little houses on the stage, with each jarring blow emphasizing what it feels like to a foster child to lose another chance for a permanent home and family -- to see their hopes and dreams smashed time after time.

Many foster kids, like my teenage friend, live day to day with the constant fear that if they "do something wrong" or "say something wrong" or "make a mistake" their foster family will "take them back".  "Back" usually means to a children's group home in their county where kids are initially placed when taken from their own families as a result of abuse or neglect.  It is where they await, sometimes for months on end, until a "bed opens up" in a foster home.

More than once I have been a CASA to a child who had lived in more than 15 places before turning 18 and leaving foster care.

This is not to suggest that there are no good, supportive foster families. There are. And they are my heroes!  But far too often, for far too many kids, there is not the commitment from foster parents, and the professionals that work with them, that every child deserves. The term "failed placement" is tossed around among foster kids with far too much resignation, tainted with shame. No child deserves to believe she is disposable and can be "taken back" like a piece of furniture someone decides doesn't fit as perfectly in their home as they had imagined when they first saw it in the store.

Dr. Phil hit the nail on the head, literally! And hopefully everyone watching got the message. I can assure you that any children in foster care, like my CASA kid, who watched those houses crumble, won't forget that someone understands their situation, and that in itself offers a gift of hope to all foster kids looking for a permanent, stable, loving home and family.

For information on how you might get involved as an advocate for children in foster care, contact casaforchildren.org. There are CASA organizations throughout the United States needing more volunteers to support and mentor thousands of our most precious treasure......our children.


Until next time....
 
An old African proverb tells us "It takes a village to raise a child," and when it comes to children and youth in foster care, this is literally true. Unfortunately, "the village" so far has not done a very good job of caring for the kids in our communities who have been removed from their families because of abuse and neglect.

Every so often something or someone breaks through the barriers of politics, budgets and bureaucracies, and stands up for foster kids, their challenges and their future.  And that's just what happened today in California when our governor signed into law a bill that will extend family care and support to youth in foster care to age 21, ending a long era of neglect and giving foster care youth the same kind of assistance we give to children from stable, intact families.  It is no surprise that an organized effort by foster child advocates got this important issue in front of our legislators.  Thousands of letters, emails and phone calls came from our "village".....and it worked!!!

As a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) I was one little voice in the village speaking up for foster children, but the signing of this bill into law, in a state with thousands of foster children, is truly worth celebrating -- especially in a time of economic challenge. In an atmosphere of much disappointment with many government leaders, I'm taking this moment to say "Thank you, Governor!  This was a decision that will help open doors and provide a safety net for foster children as they move out into our communities----really a decision that will change lives! "And thank you to those in our village who worked so hard to make this happen, including Dr. Phil and Robin who are such vocal supporters of CASA advocates working on behalf of our most vulnerable children.

Until next time...

For information about CASA and to learn about Court Appointed Special Advocate programs in your community, contact:  casaforchildren.org There are waiting lists of children and teenagers all over the country just waiting for someone to count on....someone who believes each child deserves a safe, permanent home and caring family.
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