In his proclamation declaring May 2022 National Foster Care Month, President Joseph R. Biden underscored a commitment to ensuring that youth living in foster care receive “the love, support, and resources they need to thrive.” He noted the importance of supporting familial bonds and nurturing cultural identities—and he recognized the roles volunteers play in respecting and responding to each child’s unique needs.
The foster care system served 631,832 children in fiscal year (FY) 2020. The circumstances leading to foster care placement are complicated and vary, but neglect played a role in 64 percent of cases and parental drug use contributed in 35 percent. While most children (54 percent) in foster care spent 1 to 17 months in the system, approximately 6 percent remain there for 5 years or more.
A child enters foster care every 45 seconds, according to estimates by the National Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA)/Guardians ad Litem (GAL) Association for Children, an OJJDP grantee. A nationwide network of 950 state and local programs, National CASA/GAL’s 93,000 volunteer advocates annually serve approximately 242,000 children facing dependency court—most of them living in foster care. In FY 2021, National CASA/GAL received more than $11 million in OJJDP funding.
While each child has a unique story, foster care experiences often overlap in distressing ways. Many children cycle through multiple foster homes and schools, repeatedly encountering new teachers, social workers, and others unknown to them; they may feel unmoored, frightened, and angry. Long term, these youth are less likely to graduate from high school and more likely to experience homelessness, unemployment, incarceration, and trafficking.
“Trusting that an adult will show up for them consistently can be a difficult concept to grasp for many children in the foster care system. Positive changes for children occur when the CASA volunteer is able to build a trusting, consistent relationship with the child.”
—Laura Farmer, Executive Director, CASA of Southwest Missouri
Judges appoint volunteer advocates to assist children as they maneuver dependency court and its myriad processes. A simple principle guides the CASA/GAL program: Every child deserves a stable, one-on-one relationship with an adult who offers knowledgeable guidance and support. The terms “court appointed special advocate” and “guardian ad litem” vary by location.
Volunteers undergo at least 30 hours of preservice training plus courtroom observation. They advocate for the children, providing insights and information to the court so judges can make informed decisions about each child’s future. National CASA/GAL estimates that approximately 40 percent of children and youth in foster care are paired with their volunteers.
Many of the 350 children served annually by CASA of Philadelphia have “had to grow up too fast and not been afforded the opportunities to be children,” according to Executive Director Happi Grillon. “They have frequently had to take on adult worries and find ways to cope with unpredictable circumstances that stem from parental stress, substance use disorder, struggles with mental health, physical health problems, housing, or food insecurity. Often, several of these things at a time.” CASA volunteers offer stable, caring support “singularly focused” on a child’s or sibling group’s needs.
At CASA of Southwest Missouri, 305 volunteers serve 410 children each year, all of them in the foster care system due to abuse or neglect, according to Executive Director Laura Farmer. One little boy, Jacob,* entered foster care at age 4 after being “exposed to things that no child should ever experience,” Ms. Farmer said. His CASA volunteer became a steady, reliable presence, bonding with Jacob through regular visits.
“When Jacob went to court, he was the only child in a room full of adults who were all making decisions for him,” Ms. Farmer recalled. “He was scared and hid behind his CASA [volunteer]. That’s when his CASA [volunteer] knew Jacob felt safe with him and trusted him.” The volunteer continued advocating for Jacob and, in time, the child moved into his grandparents’ home, Ms. Farmer said. “On his adoption day, Jacob hugged his CASA [volunteer] and told him, ‘You’re my best friend.’”
*Jacob is a pseudonym used to protect the child’s identity.