The Art of Advocating ~ Always Look for the Silver Lining
Maelena Arthur and Joanna Craig – March 2021
While the title “CASA” goes to our volunteers, the job of finding permanency for a child is a team effort. While the world has gone virtual, children continue to be placed in foster care. The role of CASA has become even more critical as DHS, schools and courts are strained to their limits. We asked the team of supervisor Maelena Arthur and volunteer Joanna Craig to share with us the story of Joey* a case they started – and closed – during the pandemic.
Onboarding during a pandemic can feel nerve-racking for everyone involved. I joined the CASA staff remotely early in the Covid crisis. Starting a new job from your kitchen table is odd enough, but when that job involves supporting volunteers who you can’t meet with in person, creativity is key. As a supervisor, I felt nervous when introducing myself on Zoom to my first set of volunteers. “What are ways to support children and their families during these hard times?” “How do we ensure a case is successful if it’s virtual?”. These are just a few of the questions I asked myself as I onboarded our first virtual volunteer training class.
In early September 2020, I met with Joanna, new volunteer that was taking on a complicated case that CASA had just been appointed to, by the court. At the time, 8–year-old Joey had been in the system for two years and was in a treatment level foster home. This case was challenging because the child had specific educational needs and the resource parent wasn’t confident that his services were helping him be successful. The child is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder and has an intensive Individual Education Plan (IEP).
Joanna shared with me that while living through the pandemic had been trying for her – as it has been for everyone – but she also saw some silver linings. She told me that life moving to the virtual world was what gave her the ability to move forward with her goal of becoming a CASA volunteer. Joanna, like so many of our CASA volunteers did an amazing job of adjusting to the pandemic and advocated as both a CASA and Education Decision Maker (EDM) volunteer on the case. I asked her to share her story of this pandemic success story.
Early in the pandemic my CASA and EDM training was seamlessly moved online. Learning through Zoom gave me the chance to pursue my volunteer goals while keeping me and my family safe. The online program gave me tools I needed to get started and within a couple months, I was ready to take on my first case.
I was particularly excited to take on this case as CASA and EDM because the elementary-aged boy, who is on the autism spectrum and has additional health and behavioral needs, requiring an advocate who was comfortable jumping into conversations with special educators and therapists. I have a personal connection to the neuro–diverse community and was eager to use my own experience to help.
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, I was unable to visit Joey in-person and had to do my best to develop a relationship and rapport over Zoom. This was definitely tricky as I did not have the typical tools of playing a game together, drawing pictures, or even getting a tour of the house or yard. After some trial and error, I learned that talking about all things ‘basketball was the key to reaching Joey. It also became important for me to develop a relationship with the child’s mother. It had been years since she had her child living with her, and I wanted to make sure she felt as supported as possible as she worked toward her goal of getting her son back and taking on full-time care of a child with special needs.
After two years of the child being placed in a foster home, many involved in the case saw it moving toward adoption. However, the realization that she might permanently lose her parental rights motivated the bio mother to get the substance use and mental health treatment she needed. After a lot of hard work, parenting training, and preparing for her son to come home, it became clear that we were getting close to a reunification. But, there was a lot of work we had to do to help prepare the child and mother for success. Together with Maelena, I was able to coordinate with teachers and other service providers to ensure that all of the child’s special education services, as well as in-school and at-home therapies would be properly transferred to his new home and school.
Just in time for the holidays, all parties agreed that the child should be reunified with his mother. I helped the mother communicate with the child’s new school and teacher to set up services and acquire school supplies and attended the IEP meeting to ensure that Joey has what he needs to continue to work towards his developmental and educational goals. All the pieces where falling into place!
When the judge ruled to close court supervision in February 2021, all parties felt confident that Joey was thriving in his mother’s home and his new school. At the hearing the judge recognized the work that CASA had done on this case and commended us for our support in reaching this amazing result. A few minutes after the hearing concluded, the mother called me and I will never forget the pure joy and relief in her voice as she celebrated officially getting her son back. Pre-pandemic I don’t think I would have believed I could feel so close to people I had never met in-person, but I am incredibly honored that I got to be a part of this family’s journey.
*Joey is a pseudonym.