By Eric Johnson
CASA of Tulare County
Even in the best of times, child welfare systems in California are beleaguered, underfunded and stressed. There are too few social workers for foster children and their troubled birth families, and these caseworkers are often overworked within a huge bureaucratic system. Juvenile Dependency judges will have caseloads of 500 children, and children’s attorneys are likewise overloaded. Last year, California had 83,000 children living in foster care—the largest number of any state in the nation.
Times are tough enough for a child who has been removed from their family because of parental abuse or neglect. And foster care is nothing we would wish on any child. But the invisible, stealthy, silent enemy that is COVID-19 has thrown all of this dysfunction into even more chaos.
More and more, child welfare departments are starting to limit in-person emergency visits to only the most severe cases. Thus, welfare check-ups are going down just when the potential for child abuse is rising. For social workers, the potential toll is physical as well as emotional. The national shortage of gloves, masks, and safety gear is impacting foster care, as caseworkers worry about visiting homes without any protection. The court’s mandated visits between biological families and children are stopped because of the pandemic. And shutdowns at family courts are burdening all parties—children and families, judges, court professionals, foster families—and the result will be even longer stays in foster care for children who have already experienced unthinkable adverse life experiences.
The closing of schools has been a disaster for abused children. Teachers are the primary reporters of suspicious bruises or behavior suggesting child abuse. But now those protective eyes and ears are not on children who may be being seriously hurt at home. There is a rise in admissions to hospitals of children injured by family members, and it is not surprising. Sadly, history has shown us that child abuse increases when there is heightened family stress such as that now being brought on by the Corona virus pandemic.
But there can be other valuable “eyes and ears” on children: Court-Appointed Special Advocates—called “CASAs”—who play a powerful part in California’s foster care system statewide. In Tulare County CASA is an important community resource. Our CASAs are ordinary citizens who volunteer to be the “voice” of a child in foster care. They are recruited and well-trained by one of the 44 local CASA programs that cover the regions of California where 99% of foster children live. Today, across the state, 9,000 of these volunteers are advocating for 14,000 children in foster care. Here in Tulare County, we currently have 113 active volunteers serving 230 kids.
Supervised in their advocacy work by CASA program professionals, CASA volunteers are effective and influential advocates for children in court and in school. Moreover, they are, mentors and friends –adult role models for children who have suffered greatly and who have lost all trust in adults. CASAs help children get the medical and educational support they need, and they work with the professionals in the child welfare system towards either reunification with a family (if services are completed) or towards adoption and a permanent living plan for the child.
COVID-19 has dramatically upended the landscape for CASA programs. CASAs can no longer visit their case children face-to-face, and can only connect through text, phone, or Facetime. With school out, it is harder for CASAs to inspire a child to do their homework or read more books. CASAs try to help their children from the required “social distance,” but it is difficult. There are now no outings to a park, a library, or an ice cream shop—those “ordinary” times a CASA shares with a child who may be deprived of such experiences. Most important, many Juvenile Dependency courts are now either shut down or operating on limited schedules, and so the critical court advocacy that CASAs offer to foster children is on temporary hold. All the while, the child is living in temporary and often less-than-ideal foster circumstances, not sure what the future holds or where he or she will be living next month or next year. Older foster youth are suffering from lost jobs or, if they were attending college, a lost school year—including no dorm living. For these older kids, the chance increases for them to become homeless, hungry, sick, trafficked, or tempted into crime.
Like all nonprofits, CASA programs are facing a drastic drop in contributed income. Fundraising events have been canceled, and donations are shrinking. While volunteers are the heart of the CASA movement, these nonprofit CASA programs are essential to professionally recruit, train, and supervise critical court advocates. The truth is: we need CASAs now more than ever. And we need more of them. We know we will be seeing a rise in child abuse and in children entering foster care. A CASA can be a beacon of hope to a child who has lost all hope, and it is essential that the CASA system in California be shored up and adequately supported by public and private funders. CASAs are critical in helping children recover from trauma and ultimately find that safe “forever family” that we wish for all kids.
Foster children are our children, and we must help them through this pandemic nightmare which impacts them so disproportionately. Even at the height of this pandemic, CASA of Tulare County is recruiting volunteers and is prepared to conduct training “virtually” while we practice social distancing. What better way to spend time at home than training to be a CASA? We need you!
We cannot let this global health pandemic evolve into a child abuse pandemic. And we cannot allow those children entering foster care to be left to languish because there are not enough CASAs to advocate for their best interests. We urge the California State Legislature to enact emergency support for the 44 CASA programs that are helping 14,000 children and that must continue to do this important work even through the horror of the COVID-19 pandemic. And we urge members of the community to step up now and volunteer to help a child. We must not forget the abused, neglected children in our community. They need and deserve the advocacy that only a CASA can deliver.
– Eric Johnson is the executive director of CASA of Tulare County. CASAs, Court-Appointed Special Advocates, speak up for children who are victims of abuse and neglect, advocating for their safety and well-being by training community volunteers to represent their best interests and be their voice in court. For more information, visit www.casatulareco.org.