When you work with children on a daily basis, it can be easy to become focused solely on what you need to do to help them. It’s true whether you’re an educator, a social worker, a judge or a nonprofit volunteer.
But how often do we sit down and truly listen to what they have to say? To hear what they need and want? At Wisconsin CASA’s recent annual conference, nearly 200 of us learned just how important that is and how CASA advocates are filling that void. CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates. The children that CASA volunteers work with are in the court system through no fault of their own − generally because of family strife, abuse or neglect. A CASA advocate meets with them regularly to listen and assess their needs and wants.
We also learned how to do more than listen; we learned how to be alert for hidden biases we all have, how to work with Child Protective Services and how to be more aware of youth sex trafficking and domestic violence.
One of the most impactful sessions of the day involved a panel of former foster youth who shared their insights as to how they felt during their time in foster care, being in the courts and how this impacted their lives as adults. It was an honor for me to moderate the panel discussion, which was eye-opening in so many ways.
One of the panelists talked about the need for an adult to listen to them and to accept their emotional roller-coaster without judgment. She stated, “We go through all of these emotions. It’s overwhelming. I have to go to court, and I’m only 12 years old.”
Another panelist echoed that statement, “The most difficult part was not being allowed the space to experience difficult emotions.” When children are in the court system, they have many people talking to them and asking them questions. This can be overwhelming and exhausting to a child who only wants to know what is going on and to process how they feel.
Another big revelation from the panelists was how they felt about aging out of the foster system. “My greatest challenge that I faced aging out of the system was that my heart was broken,” stated a panelist. “I was trying to figure out where I was going to live, how I was going to eat, and how I was going to get a job.”
Another common problem that the panelists discussed was learning to drive and getting their driver’s license. Many didn’t know if anyone would teach them or how they would get insurance on a car. It’s not only the emotional support that matters, but the advice on life experiences as well.
The panelists also shared the difference their CASA made in their lives. One panelist feared that she would not make it to the age of 30, but with the help and support of her CASA, they found confidence in themselves and the care they needed to keep going.
Another noted, “My CASA listened. That was the best thing about being in foster care.”
For all of us attending the conference, the reminder about truly listening and caring and hearing first-hand how important that is, made us all the more committed to continuing our efforts to provide a CASA volunteer to every child who finds themselves in our court system through no fault of their own. As of right now, only about 10 percent of the children in that situation in Wisconsin have a CASA, but we will continue our quest to grow and expand our program until every child who needs a CASA has a CASA.