More than 400,000 children are in foster care in the U.S., and their lives are often a revolving door of authorities, from judges and lawyers to therapists and caseworkers to teachers and foster parents. They usually don’t have a consistent person fighting for their well-being and needs.
Katie Rickard works to be the constant in these children’s lives through her role at CASA for Children, the national non-profit dedicated to training volunteers to become advocates for foster care children. While foster homes might change and social workers move on to other cases, Rickard and other volunteers from CASA, which stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates, are the steady figures in their lives.
Catherine Sharick talked to Rickard about her role at CASA, and how others can help give foster kids a voice.
Tell us more about CASA for Children and your role.
CASA for Children trains volunteers to become advocates for kids who have been victims of abuse and neglect, and are currently in the foster care system. Our volunteer advocates work with a supervisor to make sure the child’s voice is being heard and represented in court. Advocates complete a thirty-three-hour training and are then sworn in by a judge, paired with a case supervisor and given a case. You have your case supervisor there with you the entire time to help as needed.
When a child is in foster care, he or she is exposed to so many different people—judges, lawyers, child protective service social workers, case managers, therapists, doctors, teachers, foster parents. They change regularly and often. Our job is to be the one who has been there from the beginning and stays until the end. Our main job is to be the “pushy parent” or “squeaky wheel.” We advocate for what is in the best interest of the child.
We talk to all parties involved in the child’s life—teacher, doctor, biological parents, resource (foster) parents, the child him or herself, siblings and other family members—[and] write a court report that is then submitted to the judge hearing the case. We go to court and speak up, literally, for the child. We are able to be impartial and advocate for anything the child needs—from more familial visits to a Halloween costume. Recommendations submitted to a judge always seek to advance two primary goals: to ensure that all appropriate services are provided throughout the child’s entire time in care, and to help move the child as quickly as possible to a safe and permanent home.
Can you give an example?
I was assigned a case that involved seven-year-old twins and a one-year old. This was their second time being removed from the home, and they had been victims of neglect and abuse. The twins were originally placed in one resource home and the baby was placed in a separate home. Since I was assigned the case two years ago, the twins have been separated and have been in three different homes. The now three-year old is in her second placement with a family member.
I spoke up in court and made sure that the siblings were able to spend the holidays together. I kept emailing and calling the school board to ensure that one of the children continued to receive the speech therapy she so desperately needed. I noticed that one of the children kept rubbing his eyes, so I asked that he be taken to an eye doctor. That child now wears glasses. When one of the children was placed in a treatment home in Central Jersey, I went to court to make sure that his mom received a bus pass so she can go visit him.
This volunteer opportunity has not only helped the children in the case I’m working on, but it has really helped me. I’ve become a better mother, a better wife, sister, daughter and friend. I am able to realize not only what I already have, but also ways to make sure every child has the same opportunities as my own. I’m there to make sure they get access to them.
What inspired you to do this?
Photo by Valbar/Shutterstock.com
After college, I decided to move from Pennsylvania to Los Angeles and was in the rat race of the business; I wanted to be an agent. I started in the mailroom, and was then an assistant at one of the top Beverly Hills agencies. I eventually switched jobs and had a stint at a successful men’s magazine, and then worked for a huge event producer in Hollywood. I was networking, schmoozing, meeting amazing people and going to jaw-dropping parties. However, after a few years of that, and after having met my now-husband, I realized I didn’t want that life anymore. I was so tired. Figuratively and literally.
More than 400,000 children are in foster care in the U.S., and they usually don’t have a consistent person fighting for their well-being and needs.
So, I went back to school at Cal State Northridge to become an elementary school teacher. My first job was teaching fourth grade in Compton, California. I loved it and I was really good at it. These kids had such a sparkle and magic about them. That first year, I had twenty-six kids crammed into my tiny classroom, and only about eight of them spoke English as a first language. It was such an awesome experience and so different from my “old life.” My husband and I moved to New York City and I taught fifth grade in Flatbush, Brooklyn. But after my first son was born, I made the decision to stay at home with him.
Going from Hollywood to teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) students to now staying at home with a child was quite a switch. I felt the tug to continue to help serve those small humans who needed me. I was not ready to go back into the classroom full-time, but I knew I needed to find some way to help.
How can others get involved in CASA?
National CASA has an amazing website, and all you have to do is type in your zip code and they will hook you up with your local CASA. A volunteer is asked to commit to at least one year of service; an average case requires approximately ten to fifteen hours a month. Our volunteers [include] full-time employees, stay-at-home parents, retirees, empty nesters—basically anyone with a heart for children. You make your own schedule. You are required to visit the child in the foster home once a month. I have small children at home, so I do my visits on the weekend. A lot of the work can be done at night (emailing the teacher or attorney, etc.) We also ask that you commit to attending court four times a year. These court hearings are especially important for us to literally vocalize and speak up for the children.
I love the idea that one person might have a really small part in breaking the cycle of poverty or abuse or addiction or educational neglect or [low] self-esteem. If you can help one child feel worthy and important, maybe you’ve changed that child’s trajectory.