Contributed by Roger Lurie, CASA Volunteer
Two of my most memorable experiences in recent years have taken place in Boston. In 2006, I had the privilege of running the Boston Marathon, a 26.2 mile run through this fascinating and historical city; then, this year, I returned to participate
in the 2018 National CASA Conference. As with running a marathon, being a dedicated CASA means that we are focused and committed. We have drive and determination and will keep going when we hit the wall. Unlike running a marathon though, being a CASA also means we are attentive to children that are far less fortunate and need us to provide continuity and stable, long-lasting relationships.
The theme for this year’s National CASA Conference was “Working Together for Their Best Interest.” In my professional career, I participated in many conferences, but found this to be the most rewarding. 1,200 volunteers and dedicated professionals gathered together in one place with a common purpose and commitment to serve children that have suffered and have come from broken homes. There was no pretentiousness or competition; instead, I met folks from all over the United States that share a similar bond in their caring and tenacity to work for improved conditions and support for the 433,000 children in the United States that are in dependent care. Understanding the behavior of our youth, finding new and creative ways to support them, and building on the success of our national CASA movement were themes of almost every session I attended.
There were too many excellent presentations to highlight all of them; two in particular stand out in my mind:
1. Interviewing with the Brain’s Stress Response System in Mind, presented by Candace Saunders, MSW from the Simmons School of Social Work.
In this session, Ms. Saunders explains how our right brain provides sensory, emotional and non-verbal characteristics; the left brain provides more focus, thinking and verbal queues. In stressful situations experienced by abused children, the left brain shuts down making it difficult for the children to think clearly. In extreme states of stress, these children go into a fighting, freezing or fleeing mode that is best contained through meaningful relationships. In these situations, as CASA volunteers, we need to focus on a child’s strengths and remind them of many people care about and love them, acknowledge their silence and focus on building trust over an extended period of time.
2. Where Brain Science Meets Policy: Supporting Youth Transitioning from Foster Care, presented by Molly Doran, Alexandra Lohrbach and Kayla Eckerman from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Based on research done through the Jim Casey Initiative (http://www.aecf.org/work/child-welfare/jim-casey-youth-opportunities-initiative/), in this session it was shared that in the United States, 23,00 youth age out of foster care every year. Of these, 1 in 4 will become homeless within 4 years, 71 % of women in this population will become pregnant by age 21 and only 50 % even graduate high school. Their research has demonstrated that a brain is not completely developed until a person is in their mid 20’s, yet in over half of the states, dependent care ends at age 18. In this study, these three articulate speakers spoke to the need for 3 R’s:
- Rewards – providing these youth opportunities for some risk taking in a relatively safe environment.
- Relationships – ensuring that they have at least one caring adult consistently in their lives.
- Regulation – supporting them in making sound decisions and providing a structured environment that is not emotionally charged.
Furthermore, the Jim Casey Initiative has developed a model for delivering life skills training so critically important to our foster youth that will age out and face a world in which they need to know how to manage finances, drive a car, and get admitted to a community college or university.
Several of the sessions that I attended had a deeply moving personal impact on me. The conference also has given me a new sense of purpose and resolve. I am more committed than ever before to view my CASA children through a new lens of caring and support. I am more determined than ever before to ensure that my time with them counts and leaves them assured that I care and am there for them. I am committed to find new ways to support those children that are aging out of the system with a path forward and mentorship to help them succeed in the next chapter of their lives. And, similar to the theme for this conference, I am committed to being there to support my peers and professionals that are “working together for their best interests”.
I am honored and humbled that I was selected by Voices for CASA Children to represent the community at this conference. At the same time, I am honored by the opportunity to serve as a mentor, friend, and advocate for foster children and am resolved to live up to the expectations that this entails.