by Donna McBride, Supervisor, Court Appointed Special Advocates unit, Pinal County Juvenile Justice Court
Thousands of teens will graduate this May in Pinal County. Families will arrive with balloons and gifts, screaming when they see their senior walk across the stage.
Now – imagine Andy. He finally made it. After living in three different group homes, he finally stayed in one place long enough to catch up, make the grades and is graduating. His row stands and they march toward the stage. But he knows when his name is called, there will be no cheering, no clapping, no picture-taking from his family. Instead of being proud, he feels ashamed and humiliated. He should have skipped this lame ceremony.
It is a simple fact: Older youth in foster care are one of the most vulnerable populations in this country. These kids are less likely to be adopted into a permanent home and end up being labeled as “aging out.” It’s a label they will never be rid of. And while there are success stories, nearly 200,000 young people hold this title.
Suddenly, these young people are expected to make it on their own as independent adults. Some experience the foster-care-to-prison pipeline firsthand. Some leave foster care and become homeless on day one. Many never graduate from high school. Most are underemployed, and later, at age 26, they earn less than half what their peers do.
This is unacceptable, and we can change it.
CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) of Pinal County believes every young person in foster care can achieve high school graduation, living-wage employment, a place to live and a healthy, thriving adulthood. We also know that a caring, consistent adult can make all the difference.
For teenagers in foster care, their CASA advocate may be the one consistent adult in their life who helps them set goals, build connections and prepare for life after foster care. But it isn’t an easy road for our advocates. Sometimes the teen doesn’t want their help. Sometimes they think this person will be like so many others – breaking promises, disappearing when they have a setback. So they build walls – BIG ones. They test the advocate. But our advocates are trained in how to deal with it. They don’t lose their temper, raise a hand, walk away. They stay, and stay, and stay.
While our program averages about 80 advocate volunteers, we can’t serve these young people fast enough. With over 1,000 kids in foster care from birth to 18 years of age, we must prioritize cases. But how can we say a 2-year-old is more important – or less important – than a 17-year-old? We can’t.
On a national level, CASA has created a focus on this crisis. With Fostering Futures, the National Court Appointed Special Advocates Association is developing an enhanced, evidence-based volunteer framework to help them thrive.
While CASA volunteers advocate for youth in all areas of their life, Fostering Futures CASA volunteers will focus on outcomes in the areas of enabling educational success, preparing youth for adulthood, increasing access to living-wage employment and promoting good health — including improving access to mental health services and preventing substance use disorders and unintended pregnancy.
With Fostering Futures, bold questions will be asked:
- What if every youth in foster care graduated from high school?
- What if every former foster youth earned a living wage?
- What if every youth leaving the system had a place to live?
- What if youth in foster care had the support they needed to thrive as an adult?
- National CASA will be consulting with former foster youth, innovative leaders, identifying peer organizations to test promising practices within our network and evaluating which interventions work.
But the fact remains that, on a local level, we need to recruit new volunteers who are passionate about serving older youth and whose demographic characteristics match those of the youth we serve.
Pinal County has its limitations in respect to resources – but we have to start answering those bold questions and find resources. And we need everyday heroes who will step up to the challenge. The 10 to 12 hours a month that someone can give to our older youth, like Andy, will result in healthy communities and a stronger workforce.
And perhaps in a young person who will walk across that stage at graduation knowing someone is out there, clapping and cheering for him. Especially for him.