The View from the Director’s Chair- An occasional series
By: Erica Fischer-Kaslander
7 years ago, we were in the process of opening and assigning our first batch of cases to newly trained CASA volunteers. One case in particular stood out to me as particularly troubling. A young man—on the verge of aging out of the foster care system that had raised him almost all of his life. He had everything going against him. A track record a mile long of behavioral issues, educational challenges, and more foster care and residential placements than anyone could count. Even him.
With no family to support him, he was approaching his 18th birthday with no plan. Education was one of his greatest challenges based on his file and we had a school principal who had just finished our training program. It seemed like a perfect match… until I remembered that she specifically had said she didn’t want to work with a teenager.
I still remember thinking, “Oh well, she’ll have to get over it. This kid needs her background.” I was hoping she could make sure he graduated high school in one piece, I would have been happy with that. Little did I know that one fateful decision would lead to so much more.
7 years later, CASA had our 6th Annual Tricky Tray fundraiser this week.
Amongst the chaos that an event like this produces, that young man, now a 25 year old man thrived. He helped push the tables of prizes, lift and carry things for the rest of us and organize the used prize buckets. The 7 years since I first met him haven’t been easy , however if you didn’t know that he used to be the boy in the file- you wouldn’t know it today when you met him. You wouldn’t see the behavioral struggles, the homelessness, or the legal issues. The troubled boy who ran through Christmas tree farms to escape his residential placement doesn’t run anywhere now unless it’s an evening jog with his dog. He is a loving and generous person. He has a job that he loves and that loves him. He is more passionate about yard work than any 25 year old I know. It is probably because this is the first time he has had a yard to call home.
There have been many times in the last 7 years that I have questioned my position here and wondered if we were really making a difference. Thankfully, one of those moments is usually followed by an inspiring success to reinforce the reason behind the daily grind.
This week, the rare opportunity to see the long term result of CASA’s involvement in his life, made it more like an epiphany. Tricky Tray’s are usually not a particularly emotional event, but as I watched this young man, I flashed back to the seemingly endless stacks of case files bearing his name and the number of times I was on the receiving end of phone calls reporting some negative occurrence in his life. As I did, I couldn’t help but tear up in pride. I am proud of him- in the end, he deserves the credit for overcoming the childhood he was unfairly dealt. But I am also immensely proud of his CASA. A volunteer. A woman who took a case that was completely contrary to what she had requested, simply because I asked her too. She is a superhero to him and to me. Over the last 7 years, she has been there for every step of his life, good and bad. To support, coach, guide, encourage, teach, and occasionally, to shed a tear on his behalf.
When he turned 21, the rest of the players that were in his life left. Officially, so did CASA. That’s what happens when you “age out” of foster care. The people who you listed as your “in case of emergency” are no longer paid to be there when the phone rings. The case worker who made sure you had your vital documents is gone. The attorney who negotiates on your behalf has moved on to other kids. The Judge that made decisions for you suddenly says it’s your turn to make decisions. Before you know it, you are standing on the corner with all your worldly belongings in a black garbage bag.
Although we ask for an 18 month commitment, or the length of the case, this CASA volunteer didn’t turn off her phone the day his case closed. Despite never being paid a dime, she gave him more consistency than anyone who was paid to be there ever could. It was that consistency that made all the difference for this young man. The road has definitely been rough for both of them in the intervening years, and we don’t know where the future will lead but I believe it will be bright. I am proud of the CASA program for being the force that placed them in each other’s lives and honored to call them both friends. Looking back at the day I chose to assign her that case, I am very glad I didn’t listen to her when she said “No teenagers please.”
"The View from the Director's Office" is an occasional series featuring the success and struggles of the CASA program, volunteers, and staff in the quest to provide a voice for every child in the child welfare system that needs one. Erica can be reached at Erica@passaiccountycasa.org