In the eyes of the public, there are few heroes in the troubled world of foster care children. From inept social workers to insensitive lawyers, most people have a dim view of the plight children from broken homes are in.
If there is one bright spot for the kids involved, it's often a volunteer assigned by family court judges; volunteers who stand by the kids through all of their court hearings, all of their family changes and all of their school challenges.
These volunteers—known by the acronym for Court Appointed Special Advocates, or Casa volunteers—accept the challenge of shepherding a family through some of the most difficult and challenging periods most can imagine, regardless of how many years it may take.
Four Warren residents are currently serving as CASA volunteers, Carin Blatteis, Joe Westlein, Denise Powers and Jennifer Holmes, and they are among 43 in Somerset County currently working with 58 children, according to Tracey Heisler, executive director of CASA for Somerset, Hunterdon and Warren counties.
"CASA is the only program in New Jersey that uses trained volunteers to work one-on-one with children, ensuring that each one gets the services needed and achieves permanency in a safe, nurturing home," Heisler noted in a recent press release.
Blatteis, who volunteers now after leaving a part-time job with the family court in June, said the program was launched in 1975 intending to provide "the eyes and ears of the court."
She said the volunteers take one family case at a time—although that can entail multiple children—and provide reports which provide judges a view of the child's situation that's not filtered through bureaucratic or legal lenses.
"To be honest, we, as CASA volunteers, we're not trying to be the children's therapist—we're trying to be someone constant in their lives," Holmes said.
She noted that as children age, their cases can be transferred to different social workers, or lawyers, and they'll confront many different judges. But through it all, "the one constant has been the volunteer," Blatteis said.
The volunteers receive about 30 hours of formal training, and also undergo thorough background checks. Once ready to begin, they are given several case files to review before committing to one.
Blatteis said the challenges faced by each individual—including parents, because they are affected, too, she noted—determine what the volunteers endeavor to do.
"Sometimes it's looking for smaller victories," she said, noting things won't always work out well for a family in the long run.
But successes do follow—Blatteis said she once worked with a family with eight children placed in foster homes. She was able to get the children reunited with their mother.
Holmes said she has been working with a family with two children who have been separated from the parents and each other. The family's 11-year-old daughter was withdrawing from everyone around her until Holmes learned the girl loved animals and found her a place where she could spend a few hours each week working with animals.
"Now she's getting to try and take on a lot of different things that most kids take for granted," she said. "It's rewarding and amazing what the kids can do."
On Dec. 22, seven new CASA volunteers were added to the three-county group, but more volunteers are needed. If you are interested in learning more, visit the CASA website, or call 908-689-5515