Author Archives: Ben Figueroa

November Blog

This months blog post comes from Sadie Perkins, one of our two Advocate Supervisors that are trained as TBRI (Trust-Based Relational Intervention) Practitioners. We believe serving the best interests of children in care begins with having qualified and knowledgeable child welfare experts to guide our CASA Volunteers in their cases, which is why CASA of NWA invests in specialized training for our supervisors.

Trauma-Informed Advocacy

At CASA of Northwest Arkansas, we recognize that every child we work with has been impacted by trauma, which is why we seek to be trauma-informed advocates. But what does it really mean to be trauma-informed? And how should that guide how we interact with and advocate for the children on our cases?  

Trauma, very simply, can be described as a person’s emotional response to a distressing experience. All children in foster care have experienced at least one kind of trauma, in the very act of: being removed from their family. But realistically, the children we work with have likely experienced many traumas, often over long periods of time. For children in foster care, trauma is woven into the very fabric of their upbringing, and this impacts their cognitive, emotional, social, and physical development. In many cases, these traumas happen in the context of relationships, which can be particularly damaging to a child’s ability to grow and develop. At CASA of NWA, however we find hope in the fact that while trauma occurs in the family, healing can follow with the building of strong, positive relationships. And a trauma-informed CASA can be a meaningful part of that healing journey.  

The Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development provides us with three reminders as we seek to work with children in a way that is trauma informed.  

Stay Calm (No Matter What) Children who have experienced trauma often exhibit challenging behaviors and responses as a result. When faced with these responses from a child, our first goal is to remain calm, especially when the child is not calm. These behavioral can be very big and loud, may be inappropriate, can be illogical and even offensive. But a child in crisis cannot be calmed by an adult who is also in crisis. The ability to stay calm in the face of chaos requires us to be mindful of our own internal state and to care for ourselves before and after these difficult interactions. Being the calm in the storm of a child’s trauma response can build trust and connection that can help a child begin to heal.  

See The Need (Behind the Behavior) When we begin to learn about how trauma affects the development of a child, we can begin to shift our perspective from “This child is behaving badly” to “This child is trying to communicate something”. This shift in perspective can transform how we interact with and advocate for children. When we move our focus from “why are they misbehaving?” to “what does this child need right now?” we also begin to move from a pattern of punishing the child for making “bad” choices to a pattern of seeking ways to connect and help meet their needs, which ultimately leads to greater trust and healing.  

Meet the Need (Find a Way) When we begin to develop the mindset that all behavior is an expression of a need, we can better advocate for our CASA kids. If we can see the need behind the behavior, we can seek opportunities for those needs to be consistently met in a way that makes sense to the individual child. And a child who believes they are safe, that they are heard, and that they matter is a child who can begin to thrive. This pattern of consistently seeing and meeting the needs of the child builds trust in the relationship, and it allows children to begin to develop new, and more appropriate coping, social, and communication skills.  

Trauma informed advocacy does not allow for a generalized approach to working with children. It requires us to approach each child as an individual, with a trauma background that we will never fully know. It requires us to interact with and advocate for each child uniquely, as we take the time to learn who they are and what makes sense to them. It requires us to educate ourselves about the impacts of trauma and best practices for working with children who have experienced trauma. And finally, it allows us the privilege to sow seeds of hope and healing through consistent, safe, and meaningful connections.   

Interested in becoming a Court Appointed Special Advocate?

Click here to see what it takes!

25 Years of CASA Volunteers

25 Years of CASA Volunteers

 

“It will be hard, and I hope I can handle it. It will be worth it to help the child.” Annette Summers, CASA volunteer, 1997

“I think I look at things through a different lens now… it gave me a deeper sense of empathy for people and what they’re going through. Anytime I hear of something bad… I always wonder how they grew up; was there people there for them.”- Annette Summers, Executive Director of CASA of the Tri-Peaks, 2022


While attending a social work class at the University of Arkansas in 1997, Annette Summers found herself listening to a speaker presenting a brand-new program that was starting up in the area. The representative talked about a significant gap in the child welfare system- one that left children that faced abuse and neglect in a position of isolation. Removed from their home, too many children were navigating foster care, treatment facilities, court hearings, and school all alone and no one looking out solely in their best interest.

But the speaker had a solution. They represented a new organization that after three years of development, was now looking to train volunteers to advocate for these children that otherwise had no consistent adult figures in their life. The volunteers were to be the consistency the children desperately needed. Intrigued at the thought of working with children that sincerely needed help, Annette signed up right away.

That small organization beginning with only twelve volunteers and serving one county in Arkansas went on to train over 1,270 volunteers and serve over 5,000 children in four counties over the next 25 years. CASA of Northwest Arkansas now serves Benton, Washington, Carroll, and Madison counties and serves every child that comes into care in NWA.

“Whatever the speaker said must have really caught my attention and motivated me to sign up right away… It just made me really intrigued about that career path.”

Annette may not have realized then how much that day would come to influence her life, but she does credit much of her eventual interest in child welfare to her experiences as a CASA. At the time she was majoring in Business Management while taking some social work classes. After some time, she ended up finding herself working in child welfare in Arizona, San Francisco, and now Arkansas again. Now in her current role as the Executive Director of CASA of the Tri-Peaks— another CASA office located in Booneville, AR— she’s able to help children in a whole different capacity.

Speaking to how child welfare has changed over the years, Annette says, “Child welfare is a well-intended system. There is a lot more focus on trying to keep children with their families.” Over the years, child welfare has been more recognizing of the trauma pertaining to being removed from a home. “Things are more collaborative now. You’re encouraged to have different opinions between all the different stakeholders during staffings and meetings. Everyone’s voices are usually heard, and the judges are more familiar with CASA now. They look to the CASA reports as valuable information,” shared Annette.

CASA was needed back then because foster care can be lonely and scary as a child. Because of the high caseloads of other stakeholders (caseworkers, Ad Litems, lawyers, etc.), kids may not get the individual attention they need. “[CASA’s] serve that role of being a consistent and safe person for these children,” said Annette. Unfortunately, many of these circumstances still exist today, which is why having a CASA around for a child is just as important as ever.

CASAs are typically asked to serve as long as it takes for their case to be closed. After that, many choose to stay to take on more cases. Of course, life happens, and some volunteers end up departing our organization after a while. On the other hand, we have CASAs who have been with us up to 20 years! Others may choose to leave and come back. While our volunteer retention rate of 77.4% is strong, nobody can volunteer forever.

This is why every month, we host at least two separate CASA 101 Info Sessions, where anybody can come learn about what it means and what it takes to become a CASA volunteer. Next to retaining our volunteers, recruiting new volunteers is top priority. Making sure we can continue serving every single child who is a victim of abuse and neglect in Northwest Arkansas is our ultimate goal, and we can only do this by bringing in new volunteers.

When Annette Summers learned about CASA that day in class, it ended up influencing her life toward child welfare, and eventually leading an entire CASA program in Arkansas. Many other CASAs share how it has changed their lives as well; opening their eyes to things they’ve never seen before and helping children in ways they didn’t think possible. “Not only are you helping a child, in return there’s intrinsic value; it makes you feel good, to know you’re helping somebody. Some things are out of your control but knowing as a CASA you get to be there for them through it all is really important,” says Annette.

If you’re interested in taking the first steps of becoming a CASA like Annette, attend a 101 Info Session to learn more about how you can advocate for a child today.

Going Back to School in Foster Care

Back to School in Foster Care

 

Take a moment to think about your experience in school.

Now try to imagine the life of a child in care going to school.

As you walk down the hallway to your first class of the day, you notice a huge, white poster on the wall between the lockers and what looks to be an art room. You’re tired after visitation with your bio-mom this morning, so it only barely caught your eye. Your backpack is especially heavy today, and you remember you need to stop by the counselor’s office to drop off some paperwork your third caseworker this month gave you last night.  

You try not to think about what she said the other day, about how unlikely it would be for your mother to stop using. “She wasn’t trying to be mean, though,” you think to yourself as you slowly lift your eyes back up to the poster.  

The letters are blue with brown outline, you notice they look like your new school’s team colors. They read,  

SIGN UP THIS WEEK ONLY 
WOODSHOP WITH MR. SMITH
LEARN HOW TO MAKE A SIMPLE TABLE, BEAUTIFUL PICTURE FRAMES,  
CHAIRS, AND MORE! 
INQUIRE IN ROOM 422 BY 4PM THIS FRIDAY

You’ve never really had much interest in that sort of thing, but you remember particularly liking the smell of sawdust when your grandpa used to make all sorts of cool projects.  

“I always wondered how picture frames are made,” you think with a bit of energy, but you realize today is Friday and you have to leave early. You really don’t like when your therapist sets appointments on Fridays. Last week, they told you how you suffer from ‘emotional disturbance,’ which is apparently better than the last diagnosis.  

You’re about to turn 17 and you’re already so behind. “You could just get your GED,” you remember your therapist saying. You don’t even know all your teacher’s names yet, and they certainly don’t know yours. You’ve gotten used to this though, it being your third school this year. You smile at the thought of putting your favorite picture of your mom in a frame you made at school. The thought is nice, at least, for a moment. 

You look back up at the poster one more time. You nod your head, and you start making your way to class.  

 


 

This August in Northwest Arkansas, hundreds of kids in foster care will return to school, many of them will attend a school they’ve never been to before due to placements that can be inconsistent. Some kids are entering or exiting residential or therapeutic treatment facilities, foster homes may be in a different school district, or the family they are with has moved for a variety of reasons.  

In 2021, there were 982 children in foster care in Northwest Arkansas and over 58% of them were of school-age.  

Youth in foster care often lack consistency in their lives, especially when it comes to school. When they are thrust into a new school environment, a multitude of social and emotional issues can take place. While more efforts have been made to increase awareness in schools, most teachers may be unaware that they have a foster child in their classroom and few are trauma informed/trained.

The constant reminder that their peers are living with their biological families may also be present, especially when it comes to the often-limited capacity to participate in extracurricular activities. In addition to visitations with biological parents, they may also have to attend different services throughout their case like Occupational, Speech, or Behavioral Therapy— all of which require time taken away from educational time and extracurricular activities. For example, a child with four hours of visitation and three separate services takes seven hours—not including transportation— away from them each week.  

“You’re in school and you just want to be like everyone else, but you just can’t do any of those things, which can lead to many other issues.” – Amanda Wilkerson, Youth Engagement Specialist 

These potential problems in school are all in addition to the already traumatic experience of suddenly moving homes. The unfamiliarity of a new home takes getting used to by both the children and the foster family, and the new environment alone could cause disruptions at home and in school.  

CASA volunteers work to mitigate these problems. 

Having a compassionate advocate often makes the difference in outcomes as they add consistency back into the lives of kids in care. From obtaining records between schools, to working with school counselors on an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), or ensuring they are getting the care they need elsewhere, are all things our volunteers are trained to do. Volunteers also make recommendations on how to better manage all their requirements and help them still be a kid and a good student.  

Without a CASA, it’s entirely possible for a student in care to simply be unheard, or even left behind. When one person, one volunteer, is dedicated to a child with the purpose of supporting and advocating for their individual needs, their chances of success increase significantly.

Learn how you can get involved to help change a child’s story below. 

2022 National CASA/GAL Conference & 40 Year Anniversary

Gaining Valuable Insight at the 2022 National CASA/GAL Conference

At CASA of Northwest Arkansas, we are constantly learning; whether it be one of the many volunteer and staff training opportunities throughout the year, understanding new changes and developments in our community, or receiving information or guidance from our organization’s national entity, National CASA/GAL. 

This month, we wanted to share our dedication to educating ourselves, ensuring our staff and volunteers are highly trained and well-equipped to handle many of the difficult dynamics associated with foster care and volunteer advocacy. In June, a few members of our staff had the opportunity to fly to Seattle, WA, to attend the 2022 National CASA/GAL Conference. We asked them to share with us some of the things they learned.  

This is what they said:

“I sat in a session titled Supporting healthy racial and ethnic development for the youth of color in the child welfare system. Dr. JaeRan Kim, Assistant Professor of Social Work and Criminal Justice, University of Washington Tacoma. ‘Racial and ethnic identity development is not an “add on” but a critical dimension of a young person’s sense of self and needs to be treated as part of the child’s overall needs.’ This resonated with me because often these needs are not prioritized in the child welfare system. I think as a CASA we can advocate more to make sure children’s needs are being met.” Kayla

“I learned about a new tool/app that is looking for pilot sights called Connect our Kids, it will aid in finding family members and making those connections. Also connecting with resources in the family’s area. This could potentially be a new tool for our program and advocates to utilize to aid with family preservation. ” – Amanda Q.

“What really touched me the most was listening to those speakers with lived experiences. Hearing their stories, seeing how far they have come, to know that their CASA was a huge part of their lives, that is what lights my fire, and man, was my fire lit. Our kids are the reason I do what I do, day in and day out, and while I am only a piece of their stories, I want to help in every way that I can. Those young people have pushed so incredibly hard to achieve their goals and are truly making a difference.” – Emily

“One thing the conference showed me was just how fortunate I am to be a part of the Northwest Arkansas CASA program/family. My jaw dropped when I heard the issues that programs across the country have to deal with: not getting appointed to cases until after Termination of Parental Rights (TPR), navigating relationships with judges from opposing political parties -who have their own notions about CASA-, some programs only being appointed to the worst cases, lack of resources, etc. One program even informed us the earliest their kiddo could get an emergency mental health appointment is three months out.” – Evan

“…what really stuck with me were the classes on supporting the personal cultural communities of our kids and families. After hearing so many motivating personal stories from the panelists, I am invigorated to bring that energy to my work to better support our local community.” – Rachel

Insightful, Inspiring, and Inquisitive Quotes from the Conference:

“If your dreams don’t scare you, you aren’t dreaming big enough.”

“We need to hear from our youth and families. Those who are closest to the problem are closest to the solution.”

“They don’t need me to feel bad for them, they need me to help them.”

“Bring the humanity to the report, and the freshest perspective.”

“Need to focus on having not just a trauma informed court, but trauma responsive court.”

“Poverty is not neglect, be sure to keep in mind why the initial removal occurred and do not create higher expectations that can’t be achieved.”

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.