The dog was in the middle of the street, just outside the restaurant where we ate lunch. A car blew past, nearly hitting it; the driver hit the brakes and stopped inches away. Horns blared. The dog sat frozen, terrified.
“I think we should try to catch it,” I said to Jade, my lunch guest, the foster child I’d been working with for nearly a year. We spent the next ten minutes unsuccessfully pursuing the dog as it bolted back onto the sidewalk. After a few blocks, we nearly caught up to it, but then the dog ducked down a side street and disappeared.
Seeing my dismay, Jade said, “There are a lot of strays around here, I see them all the time. It’s kind of like with kids — people get tired of them, so they dump them out on the street. There’s nothing you can do.”
There have been a lot of times when Jade has matter-of-factly said something heart-wrenching. Sometimes I think she sees it as her job to educate me on how the world works, instead of the other way around. In our first meeting, she told me, “Everyone in my life is just using me for something.” And after a year of working with her, I can’t say she’s entirely wrong. The world she’s growing up in is vastly different from mine; what I consider to be a risky or dangerous situation, she usually dismisses as no big deal.
I started volunteering as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) because the research I’d done while working on a novel about foster children was incredibly disheartening. Half of the children who age out of foster care end up homeless or incarcerated. That’s nearly 12,000 kids per year, a number that should be considered a national crisis. Instead, few people even know the statistic.
Only 58% of foster children ever graduate from high school, leaving them vastly unprepared to enter the job market. Seventy-five percent of girls in foster care end up pregnant at least once before turning 21, as opposed to 33% of their peers. And many of those babies end up in foster care, too, perpetuating the cycle .
Just imagine if we took measures to break the cycle early. Helping to ensure that these children attain a high school degree would be a major start; offering them easier access to community college, college, and/or vocational training would be even better. Unfortunately, even though some schools have special programs designed to help foster children, there aren’t nearly enough of these programs, and they’re usually ill-equipped to deal with the emotional scars that many of these kids struggle with — not to mention the many other issues they confront on a daily basis. All too often a child is shifted from one placement to another, forced to change schools each and every time; it would be difficult for any child to get a decent education under those circumstances.
The CASA program was specifically designed to help. As advocates, we’re assigned to one child for the duration of their case (usually around two years). Every child comes to us with different problems, and it’s our job to try to help solve them. Unfortunately, there are only 1,000 CASAs in Los Angeles, which means that the other 29,000 children — Los Angeles has the largest foster care program in the country — don’t receive extra help.
Everyone I’ve worked with in the system, from lawyers to judges to social workers, all devote their lives to these children. But the sheer number of children in the system renders individualized attention impossible; a DCFS (Department of Children and Family Services) social worker in Los Angeles is responsible for roughly twice as many cases as their counterparts in New York City.
We need more CASAs, preferably from every possible background. The vast majority of children in the system are people of color; many of them aren’t native English speakers. But like me, most CASAs are white. I know when Jade looks at me and my life, she’s not necessarily seeing a path she can follow.
Being a CASA has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. After I helped enroll Jade in a charter school where she could work at her own pace, not only did her school attendance improve, but she quickly caught up to grade level. For the first time, she’s talking about graduating high school. She wants to volunteer in a senior center and dreams of eventually become a nurse.
I firmly believe that if every child in the system had access to the extra help a CASA can provide, it would make a difference. And it’s not terribly time consuming; some months I spend ten hours on her case, some only one or two. I’m hopeful that by the end of our time together, Jade will have a better shot beating the statistics.
When I dropped Jade off later that day, she paused before getting out of the car and turned to me. “You shouldn’t let it get to you,” she said. “That dog probably knows how to take care of itself.”
I told her she was probably right. But what I wanted to say was that it shouldn’t have to. Society should do a better job of caring for its most vulnerable members.
To find out more about being a CASA in Los Angeles, visit https://casala.org/
M.G. Hennessey is the author of the forthcoming novel for middle grade readers about a group of foster care children, The Echo Park Castaways, which HarperCollins will publish on July 2, 2019.
Photo: “The Ancient Tilly, pt. 4,” by mattscoggin, is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0