LGBTQI+ in the Foster Care System

LGBTQI+ Youth in the Foster Care System

Pride Month is about recognizing our collective humanity, where everyone is treated equally no matter how the people in our communities identify. At CASA of NWA, if there is a child in need, we will have a volunteer ready to advocate for their best interest, no matter what. The way in which any particular youth identifies simply does not negate the support and compassion kids need to grow, let alone their right to basic needs and access to resources.

LGBTQI+ youth enter foster care for similar reasons as other children and youth; regardless of the situation, the birth families or legal guardian were not able to provide a safe and stable home for the child. The exception is often the rejection LGBTQI+ youth face from their families. They are especially at risk of abuse and neglect, often after disclosing their identity or questioning status to their family members, which can lead to alternative placements or homelessness.

LGBTQI+ are also overrepresented in foster care. This means that the percentage of youth in foster care that identify as LGBTQI+ is larger than the percentage of LGBTQI+ youth in the general youth population. A study in 2019 found youth that identify as LGB or unsure made up 11.2% of 12–18-year-olds, compared to 30.4% of the same group in foster care. LGBTQI+ are also more likely to be victimized or abused sometimes within the foster care system as well, which is further associated with poorer functional outcomes and a lack of permanency. LGBTQI+ are also often faced with verbal and/or physical violence because of their gender identity, which can then lead to multiple disrupted placements, compounding the trauma of navigating foster care in the first place.

This is precisely the reason our advocates are there by every child’s side—so they can look out for  these issues and make sure their child’s needs are met and can work toward finding permanency. Not only do we try to recruit volunteers that identify as LGBTQI+ so we can better pair them with similar youth, but we also provide LGBTQI+ training to all our advocates throughout the year.

To show our support this pride month, we have compiled a list of both community and national resources for LGBTQI+ members, as well as others who’d like to learn more!

Local NWA Resources

Nationwide Resources

Transgender/Intersex

Youth

Academic/Government

 

Sources Used Here

  1. Baums, et. al (2019)- LGBTQ Youth in Unstable Housing and Foster Care- American Academy of Pediatrics
  2. LGBTQ+ Youth in Child Welfare System- youth.gov
  3. LGBTQ Youth in the Foster Care System
  4. Profiles in Pride– Compiled many of the sources above

Foster Care And Five Things You Can Do

Foster Care

And Five Things You Can Do

CASA of NWA

May 2022 


In observance of National Foster Care Month in May, we at CASA would like to share why and how foster care matters to us. Strengthening relative and kinship foster families is incredibly important in the work we do, and we aim to empower children by providing a dedicated voice to guide and advocate for them. Above all, we prioritize the safety and security of our kids entering, transitioning, or navigating foster care and tumultuous times in the family.  

Few organizations share the unique opportunity of serving such a vulnerable population of children in such a direct way; it’s in our name: C.A.S.A. Court Appointed Special Advocate– meaning we are assigned by court order in juvenile cases involving children facing abuse and neglect. 

What’s especially unique is that not only are our CASAs made up entirely of volunteers, but our organization revolves around providing professional training and development to these volunteers so that we can best equip them to deal with any case, for any and every child. A CASA’s incentive to volunteer their time comes from knowing that each minute they spend with a child is a minute that can be used to improve their situation, and ultimately their life.  

Getting to Foster Care in Arkansas 

If there was one key takeaway about how placement works, it’s that reunification is the number one priority, if possible. This goes for the county judges and DHS, as well as CASA. Judges will deliberate based on a number of different records, documents, and testimonies during adjudication, and the DHS caseworker works tirelessly to understand as many elements of each case as they can-and they have a lot.  

Last year, almost 27,000 investigations took place for abuse and neglect in Arkansas, or around 4,500 per month on average. In our area—made up of Benton, Washington, Carroll, and Madison Counties— this number was almost 5,000 investigations. The majority (54%) of case plan goals in the state work toward reunification, with the next closest being adoption at 24%.  

The process to determine whether termination of parental rights (TPR) is necessary is never an easy one; it is difficult and heavy on everyone involved yet calculated to be in the absolute best interest of the child.   

Finding Permanency  

Family separation can be a significant source of trauma, which is why the next best alternative to reunification would be for a child to receive care from relatives or kinships. Children who are placed with kinship caregivers overall experience less placement disruption, fewer behavioral problems, and fewer mental health disorders. Family and kinship foster care can also serve to create more stability by engaging in shared culture and language. 

In our area, nearly 46% of the cases that our CASAs worked on resulted in reunification with the parent(s). In addition to that, another 21% of our cases found custody with a relative/kinship home. In the state of Arkansas in 2021, 43% are reunified with their parent(s), while 21% of children are formally adopted by relatives.   

While most children will be either reunified with their parent(s) or will find care with family or kinship, this process is far from simple or timely; it can take years depending on the circumstances. For example, of the 982 children in foster care in Northwest Arkansas in 2021, more than 500 of them were in care for over a year, and another 200 for over two years. In the state, it can take an average of 29.1 months (about 2 and a half years) of staying in care before finalizing an adoption, and there are between two and three hundred children that age out of foster care each year.  

Adoptions are always special days for CASA volunteers. By this point, they have endured termination hearings, disclosure meetings with potential adoptive families, and likely difficult conversations if pre-adoptive placements fail. You can only imagine what it would be like to be in court the day your child finds their forever home. 


Is There Anything I Can Do for Foster Care in Arkansas?  

Easy. Here are 5 things that anyone can do, and any one thing could have an enormous impact. 
  1. Know the signs. If no other way of getting involved is an option (that’s okay!), but you still want to support the safety and well-being of your community’s children, educate yourself on the warning signs, and know how to report if you notice anything.
  2. Get involved with CASA. Our CASAs are intricately trained to be equipped to handle any case for any child, and we ensure that each child has someone advocating for them through the entire court process.
  3. Be informed. Having a general understanding of how the system works and keeping up to date with new developments or legislation regarding foster care, juvenile courts, and CASA is an important first step in becoming active in your community and helping a child in need. Here are a few resources to get started:
  4. Get involved in the Arkansas Division of Children and Family Services (ARDCFS)
  5. Become a Foster Parent. 

Social Work Month

For Social Work Month, we asked our licensed social workers, Shelley, Tara, and Abra to share a little bit about the difference they make in the lives of volunteers, children, and families.

Shelley Hart, Program Director

“For me as a social worker, I think I make a difference at CASA by helping advocates to see certain situations differently. Child welfare is never black and white. And emotions are high when a child is involved, certainly. But as we know, children are always better with their families if they are safe and care is taken. So, I help my advocates put things into perspective. Do we have a parent that has a bucketful of unresolved trauma? Let’s make sure there are services in place to work on that. Do we have a parent that is abusing substances? They are not bad people but have made some unfortunate choices. What do they need to do to stay sober? Do we have a house that is messy and unsafe? Does the parent have different standards of cleanliness than the advocate, is the parent depressed, do they lack the skills? How can we help them in that situation? Again, these cases are grey and will not always have the happy ending of a beautiful reunification story. But as a CASA supervisor, I use my social work skills to point my advocates in the direction of a strengths-based advocacy, looking at what people are doing right and how we can build upon that to effect change as opposed to focusing purely on the negative aspects.”

Tara Marcom, Advocate Supervisor and Trauma-Informed Practitioner

“One of the most valuable things I have gained and enjoyed from getting my degree and license in Social Work is truly listening to those that I am working with. Letting people talk, giving them the space and  time to explain their situation, how they are feeling and how they got to this place. I’ve learned that this not only builds trust but helps people feel heard and motivates them to change their situation and want to be a healthier parent emotionally and physically. There are so many times I have met with families and no one has taken the time to just listen and understand, and I think that can be one of the greatest things we can give them. ”

Abra Morgan, Advocate Supervisor

“I think I have helped some of my advocates create healthy boundaries with the families, workers, foster parents they are working with. I think this is impactful because it helps prevent burnout.”

Celebrating 25 in 2022

The year was 1997. Jewel and Backstreet Boys were at the top of the charts. Ally McBeal and Buffy debuted on television. You may remember it as the year you married your spouse or graduated high school. We remember it as the year that CASA of Northwest Arkansas took root.

Throughout 2022, we are celebrating our 25th CASA-versary! We thought it might be fun to begin the celebration by meeting one of our advocates who has a lot in common with CASA…she TOO was born in 1997!

Meet Savanah Ruff.

Like CASA of NWA, she is a force to be reckoned with. An Art History major at the University of Arkansas while assisting a realtor part-time, Savanah still makes time to speak up for children in care!

Q: When and how did you become involved with CASA?

A: I joined CASA right after turning 21 years old. I always had an interest in helping children, so when my stepmom found out about CASA, we signed up together! It can be scary when you first start off as a CASA, so it was nice to have a partner on my first case.

Q: What inspired you to join the cause?

A: I didn’t have the easiest childhood. CASA helps me use what I experienced to help others. I grew up, sometimes feeling isolated and alone. I often wondered, “Am I the only one going through this?” I don’t want other kids to feel that. They aren’t alone. There is a whole community out there to support them.

Q: You’re turning 25 years old this year, like CASA of NWA! How does your age help your service?

A: It’s actually helped a lot! Both of my cases have had children of varying ages, including a few teenagers. Being closer in age has allowed me to build connections with them fairly quickly. My older kids, especially, have opened up and shared what’s really going on in a way I’m not sure would have happened otherwise. A lot of time, they feel like they are being lectured to or judged by other adults in their lives.

Q: What’s the most challenging part of this job?

A: Trying not to judge. That can be hard when you hear about a drug addicted parent or when you reflect on what these children have gone through. You must be understanding and offer help and resources to these families. On the flip side, I’m a fairly trusting person. So, I have learned to look for actions, not just words, as proof that people have changed.

Q: What do you enjoy the most?

A: I love talking to everyone on the case, seeing the children, getting updates, and knowing the judge reads my report and takes my recommendations seriously. But, most importantly, I love helping children know they aren’t alone.

Q: Twenty-five years ago, CASA didn’t exist in Northwest Arkansas. Can you imagine what would have happened if it was never founded?

A: I can’t even imagine. DHS is supposed to do the work that CASA volunteers do, but they are not always able to. These kids and families need resources to get themselves right. To keep the children safe. I think about the case of Gabriel Fernandez in California and how every single sign was there, and yet he still suffered. Would that have happened if a CASA was on his case?

Q: What would you say to someone considering joining our team of advocates?

A: This is a great organization. The training and staff supervision is extremely helpful and reassuring. But, this is heavy work. It is not an easy job, especially emotionally. But, for me, it is so fulfilling. Whenever a case closes, and I know I’ve done all I could for those children and family, well…my job is done.

Asked & Answered: How has CASA advocacy changed over the past 25 years?

From the number of staff to the counties we serve to additional programs to meet the needs of our community, here are just a few of the ways our advocacy has changed and shifted since our organization got its start in 1997.

Expanded Team and Impact

-After a long strategic journey, we now serve every child assigned to us by the court system! We finally have volunteers waiting for cases instead of children waiting for volunteers.

-To meet the growing needs of our children, our volunteer base and staff have grown tremendously over the past 25 years. What started with a couple of dedicated team members and a handful of advocates has grown to 18 staff members and more than 400 volunteers.

-As Northwest Arkansas continues to grow, so too has our local CASA program. Founded as an agency serving children from just Washington County, CASA of NWA has expanded to include children from Benton, Madison, and Carroll counties.

Our Volunteers

-While new volunteer recruitment will always be needed, we believe focusing on retention and relationship building with our current volunteers is key to growing and maintaining our volunteer base.

-With the move to our current building in 2014 and the conversion of garage space to a training room in 2020, we are better equipped to offer high-quality, pre-service and continuing education for our advocates.

Family Focus

-Guided by changes to legislation at the federal and state level, our program has shifted its mindset over the years in how we advocate for the child. The primary goal of foster care cases is to return children to their homes of origin if it is safe to do so. Therefore, CASA volunteers work more closely now with biological parents, helping to identify resources or answer questions they may have.

-Another big shift is trying to place children with appropriate family members instead of kids being placed directly into foster homes. To assist this process, CASA of NWA developed a family finding program and incorporated it into our new volunteer training.

Transitioning Teens

-In response to the unique needs of teens aging out of the foster care system, we developed our Older Youth Program in 2013. By offering life skills classes and transitional life planning for our teens along with specialized training for older youth advocates, we help foster independence while putting safeguards in place for these young adults.


 

Answered by Program Director Shelley Hart

 

Asked & Answered: Has research been done on the effectiveness of CASA advocacy?

You know what a CASA volunteer does: she/he advocates in court for the best interests of the children on their case. But have you ever wondered, “How effective is CASA advocacy?” A number of academic studies have compared outcomes for children with a CASA to those without a CASA to answer that exact question.

The research found that children with a CASA volunteer:

  • Have significantly less placements than a child without a CASA volunteer. 1, 2, 3
  • Reported significantly higher levels of hope. A child’s hope has been linked to numerous positive outcomes such as academic success, overall wellbeing, increases in self-control, positive social relationships, and optimism. 4
  • Are more likely to have better outcomes: children tended to perform better academically and behaviorally in school as measured by whether they passed all of their courses, whether or not they were expelled, and their conduct performance. 5
  • Are half as likely to reenter the child welfare system. 1, 2, 6, 7, 8
  • Are more likely to achieve permanency. 1, 2
  • Are as likely to be reunified with their birth parent as a child without a CASA volunteer. 8
  • Are more likely to be adopted. 7, 8
  • Are ordered to receive more services. 2, 6, 7, 9, 10

These are just a few of the studies’ overarching findings focusing on outcomes for children who benefit from the advocacy of a CASA volunteer. CASA volunteers assure that the court and child welfare systems remain focused on the children’s wellbeing, assuring that the specific needs of individual children are addressed. As you can see, having a CASA volunteer on their case and by their side can improve almost every facet of their life: personal wellbeing, relationships, school, and permanency.

(These studies were completed across the U.S. and are not specific to CASA of NWA.)


 

Answered by Development Coordinator Nikki McDaniel

 

 

1 Calkins, C.; Millar, M. The Effectiveness of Court Appointed Special Advocates to Assist in Permanency Planning. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal. 1999.

2 Gershun, Martha, and Claire Terrebonne. Child welfare system interventions on behalf of children and families: Highlighting the role of court appointed special advocates. Current problems in pediatric and adolescent health care. Volume 9. 2018.

3 Leung, P. Is the Court-Appointed Special Advocate Program Effective? A Longitudinal Analysis of Time Involvement and Case Outcomes. Child Welfare League of America. 1996

4 Stanley, Jessica, and Chan M. Hellman. Nurturing Hope Among Children Experiencing Abuse & Neglect: Examining the Effects of CASA Volunteers. 2019.

5 Waxman, H.; Houston, R.; Profilet, S.; Sanchez, B. The Long-Term Effects of the Houston Child Advocates, Inc., Program on Children and Family Outcomes. Child Welfare. 2009

6 Office of the Inspector General Report, US Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General. Audit Report Results for CASA Advocacy. Washington, DC. January, 2007

7 Poertner, J., & Press, A. Who best represents the interests of the child in court? Child Welfare: Journal of Policy, Practice, and Program. 1990.

8 Abramson, Shareen. Use of court-appointed advocates to assist in permanency planning for minority children. Child Welfare: Journal of Policy, Practice, and Program. 1991.

9 Caliber Associates, National CASA Association Evaluation Project, Caliber Associates; Fairfax, Virginia. 2004.

10 Litzelfelner, P. The Effectiveness of CASAs in Achieving Positive Outcomes for Children. Child Welfare League of America. 2000.

11 Peters, C.; Claussen Bell, K.; Zinn, A.; George, R.; Courtney, M. Continuing in Foster Care Beyond Age 18: How Courts Can Help. Chicago: Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago. 2008.

Asked & Answered: How do CASA volunteers advocate for a child’s educational needs?

One of the areas where a CASA can make a huge and lasting difference in the life of a child, is in educational advocacy. Helping to ensure that a child is receiving educational supports and services appropriate for their particular needs can remove barriers that prevent a child from really thriving in a school setting.

Children in foster care often have educational gaps, and these are not always immediately apparent. If not addressed early, these gaps may become larger over time, especially if the child spends a significant amount of time in foster care or if they change placements frequently. A CASA, however, will be a constant in a child’s life, regardless of where they are placed. CASAs can help fill in some of the blanks about a child’s educational history and pass on pertinent information. A complete and accurate educational background, when combined with the knowledge a CASA will have about the child as an individual, not only helps ensure the child is receiving appropriate services in their current school, but can also be passed along to any future schools which will make for smoother transitions.

While not an exhaustive list, CASAs can support a child’s education in these specific ways:

  • Recommending enrollment in early intervention or daycare program
  • Requesting school transcripts, attendance records, and educational records
  • Ensuring IEPs (Individualized Education Plans) are shared with current school, requesting IEPs be updated, or requesting a child be evaluated for IEP services
  • Requesting appropriate behavioral supports
  • Requesting referrals for occupational, physical or speech therapy OR ensuring children who receive occupational, physical, or speech therapies are being provided proper service
  • Advocating for proper diagnosis and treatment of any underlying medical or mental health challenges that may impact school performance
  • Advocacy for involvement in extracurriculars, sports, clubs, music, art, or theater programs
  • Ensuring placement in correct classes (remedial, honors, AP, summer school, credit recovery etc.)
  • Advocating for alternative learning environments when necessary
  • Helping ensure ACT, SAT, AP tests are paid for and taken
  • Helping to navigate through college applications, admissions, etc.

We are grateful that most children will have the opportunity to return to an in-person setting this fall, and we are even more grateful that those who are in foster care will have the opportunity to put their best foot forward with their CASA by their side.


 

Answered by Advocate Supervisor Sadie Perkins

A CASA volunteer’s perspective on educational advocacy

Education is the great equalizer.

Shared often by one of her former principals, that paraphrase remains top of mind for CASA volunteer and former educator, Teresa Cornett.  Having spent 18 years as an elementary teacher, Teresa knew CASA would be a good outlet for her experience, knowledge, and passions when she retired in 2017. As kids return to school this month, we thought it might be helpful to share the many ways that CASA volunteers impact their children’s educational success. Teresa was gracious enough to answer a few questions for us.

Q. Did you have any students who were in foster care when you were a classroom teacher?

A. Yes. It’s hard to teach kids when you know they are transient. But, being a good teacher and human, you know you need to help as long as they are with you. It was very difficult to see kids come and go from the classroom and know they were facing an uphill battle from learning loss – both prior to coming into care and from being moved around a lot while in care.

Q. What do all students need?

A. Well, that’s easy. They need to feel safe. Their physical and emotional safety is number one. No one can be successful in a classroom if they are afraid and not secure in their surroundings. They also need their physical needs met; they can’t be malnourished, for example. Lastly, they need to trust their teacher and the adults around them. This is the same for my CASA kids as it was for my students. I am constantly reminding the young people I serve that “I’m here for you.”

Q. What are three simple things advocates can do to make a difference in a child’s education?

A. 1) Communicate with their teacher! Via email, chat, or by attending parent-teacher conferences. Let the teacher know you will follow through, and they’ll communicate with you. They’ll keep you updated on testing, missing forms, homework, supply needs, etc.

2) Check in on attendance, report cards, and units. This is extremely important, especially for our older youth who haven’t been in school consistently.

3) Meet the needs of your child by appreciating where they are. Not every child is working toward college. If your young person is looking for alternatives or is focused on completing their GED, lay out the benefits of their path and encourage them to succeed.

Q. Describe a specific time when, as a CASA, you were able to advocate for a child’s academic success.

A. Every child needs something different. That said, I’ve verified attendance for when a child struggled getting to school. I’ve helped advocate for a laptop for another. I’ve worked with a young person who was interested in a career in cosmetology to make sure she had enough credits to obtain her GED. And, I’ve advocated for one of my young people, with special needs, to access life skills from a community partner.

Q. Current or former teachers seem uniquely qualified to become CASA volunteers. What makes them so?

A. Obviously, teachers know how to work with children, but they also know how to work the educational system. Teachers can easily navigate requests for accommodations, additional therapies, and counseling at school. For the older kids, they also know how the unit system works and can make sure the young person is working with their guidance counselor or academic advisor to graduate and participate in career planning.

Beyond specifically educational advocacy, every effort an advocate can make to move these children out of survival mode opens them up to the freedom to think about the future.

What a gift to give, Teresa. Thank you for your years of service and commitment to children.

Asked & Answered: What is a CASA volunteer’s role in reunification?

As reunification is always the initial focus of the case, CASA volunteers play a vital role in not only advocating for the child, but also building a relationship with the parents, and helping them build a positive support system within their community.

The exact role a CASA plays in reunification varies case by case but often includes the following:

Service Provision: Helping the family heal and reunify requires aide from various community partners.  CASA volunteers work with biological families to identify appropriate resources that support reunification including mental health services, substance abuse treatment, parenting classes, and housing.

Parent Visitation: Throughout the case, CASA volunteers will also observe visitations/interactions between the parents and child and help ensure that visits are occurring regularly to help repair and continue to build the bond between parent and child. 

Residential Review: Advocates also make home visits to assess the environment and identify any safety/health concerns that may need to be addressed. The main goal is for the parents to be able to provide a safe and nurturing home for their child/children.

Partner Relationships: CASA volunteers play an integral role in their cases by collaborating with DHS, foster parents, biological parents, attorneys, and the child/children to assess the progress of the case and ensure that the child’s best interest is always being kept in mind. By maintaining these positive relationships and communicating with all parties involved, it greatly increases the opportunities for families to be reunified. 

During the course of a case, it may become clear that reunification is not in the best interest of a child we serve. But, seeing a child reunify with their family is one of the brightest moments of being a CASA volunteer and highlights the important role that an advocate plays in the foster care system.


 

Answered by Advocate Supervisor Amanda Quillen

A volunteer’s perspective on reunification

Reunification can be hard to understand, and many CASA volunteers are unsure about working with parents when they take their first case. We asked veteran volunteer Deanna Cicatiello for her perspective on reunification and working with parents in this Q&A.

Q: Was it hard to imagine working with parents when you first became a CASA volunteer?

A: “I was unsure about working with parents. After all, their actions resulted in their kids being taken from their custody. But once I started working cases, I‘d learn more about them and become invested in their success.”

Q: What surprised you about working with parents?

A: “It didn’t take long for me to realize that in some situations, they’re not bad people; they’ve simply made bad choices. And in a lot of cases, the parents have suffered their own trauma that they continue to struggle with. That adds another layer of difficulty to things.”

Q: How has your view of parents changed since working with them?

A: “My experiences have definitely made me more compassionate and understanding. I realize how important it is to go in with an open mind. They may have gotten in a bad relationship or they just need some help. I’ve definitely become less judgmental.”

Q: What are some of the issues they have to overcome?

A: “One of the biggest is probably sobriety when drugs and alcohol are involved. Getting over an addiction takes enormous effort. It’s easy to get discouraged, especially if they don’t have support.”

Q: How do you help parents when the case’s goal is reunification?

A: “Working toward reunification is a long process, and they might feel like they’re not getting anywhere. One of the most important things I can do is encourage them and let them know that someone’s in their corner. When parents get the case plan with the list of what they have to do if reunification is going to be an option, it’s overwhelming and intimidating. I think even just one person calling and checking on them and offering consistent encouragement can make the difference between failure and success.”

Q: Has seeing parents’ successes inspired you?

A: “Absolutely. In my first reunification, it was a mother wanting to reunify. I could see how hard she was working. It would’ve been so much easier for her to just keep doing what she was doing before, but she was committed to becoming a better person and a better mom for her kids.”