Today and every day, we reflect upon where each of us can take up a needle and thread and begin mending places where the social fabric has frayed and inequalities exist. Child welfare is one such space. The foster care system is hard for all children, but some children are faring worse than others — in particular, African-American children are suffering.
While African-American children account for around 12% of the kids in Texas, they make up 23% of the population in foster care. After entering the child welfare system, African-American kids are less likely to be returned home and reunited with their families than children of other races. They are also less likely to ever be adopted.
We wish to improve all of these heartbreaking statistics; we don’t want a single child in Texas without a safe, permanent home. Yet we start with what we can influence, and everyday people can contribute toward increasing the presence of Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA volunteers, so that every child in foster care may have a dedicated advocate who champions their wellbeing.
A CASA volunteer is a regular person who plays a supportive role by staying at the child’s side for the duration of their time in the child welfare system. Foster care may mean abruptly moving from house to house and school to school, far from familiar surroundings. It may mean waking up near strangers, with only the belongings that fit in a grocery bag. A CASA volunteer visits the child, their family and their foster home, makes sure the child is safe and works to help get the services they need, from tutoring to therapy. The advocate strives to engage a network of connected adults, listens to the child’s feelings, and communicates recommendations to the judge.
CASA programs have been in action in Texas since 1989, and last year more than 11,000 trained volunteers served about 34,000 children. Yet our corps of volunteers must expand to meet the real need, and we must diversify our organizations. Most CASA volunteers are white and middle class, but most families involved in the child welfare system are not. We believe in the day when we can provide a CASA for every child in foster care, and we believe our capacity to skillfully advocate will be even greater when our volunteer pool grows to better reflect the communities we serve.
Children who are in new situations may feel most comfortable with an advocate who looks and sounds like them. Things as simple as knowing which foods and songs are familiar can make a difference in building trust. First-hand knowledge of child-raising norms and cultural traditions will allow CASA volunteers from within a child’s own community to more closely support families and give balanced reports to the judge.
If we are to care for our state’s most vulnerable children as well as possible, it’s critical that people from different racial, cultural and class backgrounds step up and serve as CASA volunteers.
We value and welcome volunteers from all walks of life. Every single advocate is essential, contributing vital stitches to our social fabric. When young people in foster care see that we are invested in them, believe in them and want them to have everything they need, they shine — no matter how difficult their life situation. Won’t you join us to make a difference?
Vicki Spriggs is CEO of Texas CASA, Austin-based statewide association for 72 local CASA programs advocating for children in the child protection system. These include CASA of McLennan County, which is always on the lookout for committed volunteers.