Sarah entered foster care when she was 16 years old. She has a long history of people
abandoning her throughout her life. The trauma she has endured from this abandonment has caused her to feel a lot of mistrust in the people around her and feeling alone in this big system we call foster care. Sarah was not perfect while in foster care, what teenager is? She was moved from placement to placement when she would act out or runaway (one time) and no one gave her a chance…. Except the CASA. Sarah’s CASA, has been by Sarah’s side since the beginning of the revolving doors of case managers, attorneys, and placements. I firmly believe without the persistence and support from the CASA, we would have lost Sarah even more to the negative outcomes of children in foster care.
Sarah was not doing well in school due to her numerous placement changes but was
determined to get her GED so that she can go to college one day. She has big dreams to be
successful. But, there was a lot of problems with that process. Sarah, at this time was living in a hotel because placement could not be located for her and the CASA had to step in to find financial resources for her to take her GED because the steps for the State to pay for this would take weeks and those weeks would turn into more discouragement for Sarah with a system that has already not followed through on promises before. The CASA was able to get GED testing paid for. Within a week, Sarah had her GED! She passed with high scores all on her first try. We were over the moon excited for her!
As time was getting closer and closer to Sarah turning 18, we knew the clock was ticking
fast to help encourage her to stay in foster care to receive all the benefits that come with that. The CASA helped schedule a tour of a local Transitional Living Placement so Sarah could see first hand what it looked like and what all was offered to help her into adulthood. This motivated Sarah to want to stay in care but she was also adamant that if she was not in a transitional living placement as promised by the time she turned 18, she would be signing out. Again, this is coming from a youth who is already so frustrated with being told mistruths and things not happening as explained, she was giving one more chance to not be let down.
In order to be approved for independent living for youth over 18, there has to be approval from the State representatives for this to occur. Sarah was assessed and denied for transitional housing a couple days after she turned 18. This upset Sarah and she immediately wanted to sign out of foster care and just leave the state completely. The reasoning behind Sarah being denied were not fair in the eyes of Sarah and does not reflect supporting our older youth aging out of care, but stifling them more into the horrible statistics that we have for our youth turning 18 that include homelessness and incarceration. We have a motivated youth that has plans for her future and is motivated to do well but needs support. The support of her “parent” (The State). The reasoning for denial stemmed from past behaviors of not so good coping skills. Coping skills that Sarah has been able to articulate how she has improved and continues to plan to improve going forward in her life. But that was not good enough. The very things that she was denied services for were the same things that the numerous case managers never referred her for services for. Our older youth deserve a chance for a positive outcome with all the resources that a youth not in foster care would have from their parents. Sarah wasn’t given a chance, all of our youth deserve a chance.
About the Author
In 2012, I was living in Florida and was retired for some time. Looking for something to do, I attended a senior living fair. In my retirement, I volunteered for a variety of organizations: Garden Club, Museum Docent, library assistant, Women’s Auxiliary Club, and a two-year stint with Hospice, to name a few. One day I picked up a Senior Living Magazine when I got home and saw a small advertisement about becoming a guardian ad litem (GAL) — what we call CASA. It was a Friday afternoon, but I decided to call them and learn more about what it takes to be a volunteer. By Monday morning, I was sitting in a training class. The instruction was demanding. The subjects touched on a wide range of knowledge and requirements. Not everyone stayed. Each session, the class got smaller and smaller, but those who did stay became very dedicated GAL/CASA volunteers by the time the judge swore us in. I realized that I had “found my calling.”
Unlike many volunteer organizations, as a CASA, I felt I had a direct involvement and impact on the mission—THE CHILD. The work is rewarding, and the organization made me feel like a professional, although we were unpaid volunteers. In my experience, being a CASA allowed me to draw on my formal education and skills that I had honed in my former career. In addition, being a part of CASA introduced me to new friends and colleagues that have impacted my life. After all, we all worked together for the same goal, advocating for children.
In early 2014, my husband and I moved to Savannah. As soon as we got all the boxes unpacked and the pictures on the wall, I looked for a CASA program here in Chatham County. There were new faces and some different ways of doing things. Still, the special sense of fulfillment I had initially found in Florida was here in Savannah- a direct impact, use of my education and skills, a sense of professionalism, and camaraderie. I soon found myself a part of an creative organization, always looking to improve, and a real leader in the field of advocacy: Brightside.
Unfortunately, due to a health crisis within my family, I have not been an active CASA volunteer for the past few years. Initially, I wanted to return to what I loved being a part of. Unfortunately, I have yet to find myself in a position to begin dedicating so much of my time. However, I have been able to continue to make an impact by volunteering on special projects and have been able to participate in training other CASA volunteers. Most recently, I helped with landscaping at the Bright House.
Every hour I can give as a volunteer of any kind is an important donation— a donation of one’s precious time. But let’s face it, it takes money for Brightside Advocacy to expand its programs and innovative ideas to train additional CASAs to advocate for every child and create support programs that directly benefit these children and their families.
Thanks to Kate and her dedicated staff at Brightside, there are more ways than ever to make an impact. Over these past few years, as my role as CASA decreased, my role as a donor increased. I miss being a CASA and witnessing firsthand the difference in these children’s lives. But most importantly, my role as a donor still connects me with the original elements that made me feel I had “found my calling” to begin with. If you are looking for a way to make a difference, I encourage you to contact the Brightside team to hear about ways you can help.
About the Author
Throughout my life I’ve learned a ton of useful lessons.The most valuable lesson I’ve learned is that the best results come from leading with intention, integrity and intelligence. Knowing what your purpose is, being honest and genuine in your relationships and actions, and continuing to learn and apply the knowledge you obtain will allow you to show up as your best self without sacrificing who you are or what you’re here to do.
This sounds like a simple master key, but it took me some time to really get down and it still takes continuous practice. I see myself as an ever-evolving student of life. Sometimes that can be an overwhelming feeling, but mostly it allows me to remain present and committed.
After settling back in Savannah during the pandemic and before joining Brightside, I made the intention to involve myself within the community through volunteering and supporting various efforts and events. I knew I wanted to connect with the youth and their families. With that intention, I was able to make lasting connections with people I will be working alongside for years to come. This same intention is what led me to Brightside.
I am honored to have the position of Community Outreach Coordinator because it allows me to do what I love most, help inform and bring the community together. During my first weeks I quickly knew I wanted to volunteer to be a CASA. It just made sense to remain in grassroots work that makes such a direct impact in children’s lives. As someone who has had to navigate several systems, I know firsthand how vital it is to have the right information and the right people in your corner. In my opinion, it is the most effective way to combat hardships in life and why I’m sure I will enjoy being a resource for youth and their families. My intention with all that I do is to share the information I’ve gathered and be an advocate for those who need it.
I treat these relationships and this opportunity with great integrity because that’s what’s required to build strong foundations. I admire how we all show up and are willing and committed to serve. This work is truly rewarding and allows you to recognize the humanity in each and every person involved. Both adults and children are doing the best with what they have.
Becoming a CASA and learning more about the ins and outs of these cases has helped me consider the full capacity it takes to work within these systems efficiently. Understanding this, I challenge us all to come into each space with grace for one another and the intention to work towards a greater good using our intelligence and standing strong within our integrity. Together we can continue to make change.
About the Author
Jalecia Quarterman is a Savannah native and graduate of Georgia Southern University with her Bachelor's in Psychology and minor in Childhood and Family Development. Most of her work and volunteer time has been with nonprofits that focus on helping youth and their communities. She's always had a passion for advocating and forward progression and believes the most effective way for change is to lead by example. With this mindset she fits right in with the team at Brightside as the new Community Outreach Coordinator. She is excited to put her grassroots experience to the test by actively engaging and informing the community. Outside of service, she enjoys relaxing with her dog and practicing mindfulness through journaling, stretching and reflecting.
I recently began working as our Administrative Assistant and Training & Recruitment Specialist at Brightside Advocacy. As the Training & Recruitment Specialist, I get to do one of my favorite things: prospective CASA volunteer interviews. Through the interview process, I am always curious to learn why prospects pursue this kind of volunteer work. What drives a person to pursue a volunteer experience that may be emotionally draining, potentially stressful, and at times, frustrating? While I cannot answer for others, I can tell you why I chose this kind of work.
Before joining the Brightside staff, I was a CASA volunteer. I swore in October 2019. Reflecting on the last three years, I am reminded why I became a CASA volunteer.
My story: On a weeknight in April 2019, I was working on homework (did I mention that I was finishing my master’s degree while doing CASA training and working full time?!). Anyway, I took a quick break to scroll through my phone and stumbled upon an article about a little girl who was fatally abused by her caregivers. While this wasn’t my first time learning about child abuse and neglect, this time, I was deeply impacted by this little girl’s story. At that moment, empathy and action were aligned within me. I wanted to do something about the anger, sadness, and powerlessness I felt. Soon after that experience, I attended a CASA volunteer information session and began the application process. I remember both nervousness and excitement sitting in my chest. I was nervous about this new experience but excited that I was actively pursuing child advocacy. Even after I swore in, I was still afraid of the unknown. I was filled with thoughts like, “what if I mess up?” or “I’m not a legal expert,” and so on. However, my desire to change a child’s story outweighed my fears. Additionally, I was surrounded by support from my advocacy coordinator and the CASA team.
We tend to think that the presence of fear indicates that we are doing something harmful. While I agree that fear can be a protective warning, it may also present itself when we are doing something unfamiliar to us. Throughout my life, I have learned that taking action is the only way to ease nerves and abate fear. Many of us want to live more confident lives, but to gain confidence, we must grow- which can be scary. Had I given in to the fears surrounding CASA-volunteer-unknowns, I would not have taken the first step. As I consider my story, I see that my compassion trumped my fears.
What about you? Maybe you’re a volunteer who can relate to my story. Perhaps you know someone who wants to volunteer, but fear is getting in the way. In this instance, I would say that fear may be a taste of the unknown. I hope that your desire to change a child’s story outshines your fears.
Become a CASA volunteer today. Learn more.
About the Author
When I was asked to join other staff members for the CASA National Convention in Seattle, I was so honored. I did not know what to expect but was happy to participate and get to know some other members better. Little did I know how much it would affect me and help me better understand how important CASA's work is around the country.
Hundreds of volunteers and staff gathered to network, meet inspirational speakers, and attend small workshops of our choosing. There were times when the information we learned and the stories we listened to would move us to tears. We listened to the plights, problems, and solutions CASA's all over this country experience in their attempts to better the cases of the children they work with, including my home state of Mississippi and other counties in Georgia.
Overall, I felt a deeper sense of purpose in my volunteer work with CASA. I recently found a pad of paper from the Hyatt we stayed in Seattle. I used it to make notes while in my breakout sessions. One speaker really moved me, and I wrote down the take-a-way of what he tried to convey to us:
"You have one life.
How will you live it?
To elevate others?
Or diminish them?
Bring them up?
Or put them down?
Lend a hand?
Or walk away? Speak….?
It spoke volumes about those that work with CASA. We choose to DO.
Shelley Smith swore in as a CASA volunteer in October 2020. She won a fundraising competition with the grand prize of a trip to Seattle for the National CASA conference.
Shelley is a local artist, a gourmet cook, and one of the coolest people you will ever meet. Originally from Mississippi, Shelley chose to make Savannah her home and we are incredibly grateful for that.
When I learned I would be interning with Brightside Child and Family Advocacy (Brightside) this summer, I prepared in the best way I thought possible. I researched the child welfare system, trying to get a basic understanding of everything from juvenile court proceedings to foster care placements. I tried to understand how children were supposed to be protected and guided into a safe and loving home.
Once in Savannah, I learned that none of that really mattered. Looking at what’s on paper could only go so far. Luckily, I had the valuable opportunity to get in the room, watch, and listen.
I know not everyone has the privilege of doing that, so let me tell you what I learned.
I saw how Division of Family and Child Services (DFCS) court proceedings can be infinitely more complex than other cases. Just looking at the number of attorneys in the room was overwhelming: one for the child, one for a parent, one for DFCS, one for foster parents or relatives…the list could stretch on forever. I saw how a child’s voice could so easily be drowned out - until it was time to call upon their CASA. If there’s one thing I remember, it’s the passion CASAs and their Brightside team have for ensuring that each child gets the loving home they deserve.
I heard the love parents had for their children. A rampant misconception surrounding parents of children in foster care is that they have so terribly mistreated their children that they are incapable of a nurturing, healthy relationship with a child. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many parents have experienced trauma, have substance abuse disorders, or have been in foster care themselves without a model of healthy family dynamics. Their failures as parents are not for lack of love for their children, and they feel attacked and judged after having their children taken away. I have seen how, with support, parents can be reunified with children in a safe and stable home. Fortunately, this outcome is in the majority.
I saw the challenges DFCS faces in helping children. They are underfunded and understaffed. Many caseworkers handle over 30 cases at a time and can’t give each child the attention they so deserve. I vividly remember sitting in the DFCS office as a caseworker said three children could not be returned to their mother because services had not been put in place to support them. I was confused. Wasn’t putting those services in place DFCS’ job? They certainly don’t have the resources to sufficiently do so for every child, but this doesn’t mean inadequate support can be allowed. It means that somebody else must step in to ensure it happens.
I came to understand the extent of reunification’s benefits. I think the importance of Brightside's Visitation Center - The Bright House - can be hard to understand and appreciate at first, especially with minimal understanding of the child welfare system. My appreciation for it grew exponentially throughout the summer. How can parents build real relationships with their children sitting in a DFCS office or Chuck-E-Cheese? Reunification is a goal seldom achieved without support, and quality visitation between parents and children is the number one indicator of achieving permanent reunification between children and parents.
I’ve seen that little is ever as it seems or is supposed to be. Research can’t tell you about the child who writes his mom’s phone number down every time he moves to a new foster home so that he or she doesn’t forget it. It can’t describe the pain and despair in a parent’s voice as they try to heal their family but feel unheard. It can’t measure the hope around a mother baking cookies with her children while she works to get them back.
About the Author
When I became a CASA, I wanted to give a voice to the children who were in the care of the state. I know personally what it’s like to be in a courtroom and have everyone talking for you, but not having anyone asking what you want. I wanted to be the person who speaks up for the child.
Now as a CASA for almost two years, I have had the opportunity to work with several youths. These children, as well as the whole process, have taught me a lot. I learned quickly that I needed to work on my case as soon as I got it. I learned to read through all of the court orders, any medical documentations and any notes that I received from other service providers. In a few cases, I found that the children had medical needs that may not have been properly addressed. This gave me a starting point in my advocacy and gave me a good way to learn about the child and some of the issues that brought them into the state’s care.
After reading through all the documentation, I met with my child. I learned that initially, they were wary of me. These children have had to deal with moving from their families, possibly having their case managers changed, and maybe even spending time in the Regional Youth Detention Center. But once they saw that I was a consistent person working for them to have their best life going forward, they opened up. I listened carefully and made sure that I asked follow-up questions. Some of the children are amazing poets and like to dance!
For my kids who were living in group homes, I developed a relationship with the Human Services Professional and Program Manager. These professionals have insight into what the child is going through daily, and if any problems arise in their behavior, they will contact the CASA immediately. In one of my cases, the Program Manager called me whenever the child had a bad day at school or during a home visit. This allowed me the opportunity to alert everyone on the case about incidences in the child’s life that they wouldn’t have known otherwise.
In the beginning, talking to the parents of the child was difficult. At times, they didn’t trust me and they wouldn’t return my calls. In some situations, I had my children who were in contact with their parents reach out on my behalf to open the lines of communication. I started by explaining that I am a volunteer and explained carefully what I can and cannot do.
I have learned to established a relationship with the Department of Family & Children Services (DFCS) Case Managers and, if applicable, the Probation Officers. I have had wonderful relationships with my Case Managers. Together, we would conduct joint virtual visits with kids. I have witnessed the emancipation process and we would inform each other about home visits that we had conducted. The Probation Officers are also helpful because they see the children often. While the child may not talk with them much, they can alert you to any abnormal behavior which I could address the next time I met with my child.
Even with all this support, things don’t always go as planned. Through experience, I learned to be sure that I had a backup plan if the original doctor you wanted the child to see isn’t taking new patients, or the visitation schedule isn’t working the way everyone thought it would. At each step, I explained everything to my child and worked through their feelings about unpredicted changes.
And through all the ups and downs, I kept my Coordinator informed. Sometimes, I called my Coordinator just to vent. Other times I called him to figure out the best move going forward. Vent to them if you need, because the CASA Coordinators are the go-to resource if there are any problems in your case. And most importantly, they are there to help you celebrate your successes.
Being a CASA has been a very rewarding experience for me. I have witnessed a non-verbal autistic child say my nickname. I was on hand when a teen stopped getting into fights at home and school and started to dream of becoming a neurosurgeon. And I was able to assist a child who had left residential placements to reunite with her mother.
Being a CASA sometimes means becoming the parent, aunt, uncle, sister, or brother that the child needs. When you advocate on their behalf, you are giving them a chance to become more than their current situation. You are giving them hope.
My first two years at CASA have been spent almost entirely on one case. Just last month, it finally closed, and had a very happy ending. To briefly sum up the case, a baby had been removed from his mother’s care immediately after being born, and remained in the hospital for the first month of his life until the grandmother was awarded temporary custody.
At first, I thought this would be a fairly simple, open and shut case because he was already placed with family, had a loving grandmother willing to be his guardian, and she was already the guardian of his older half sister. But I was wrong.
The justice system is slow and complex, even when a child seems to be in the ideal scenario, and this case was especially slow due to a high turnover of DFACs (Department of Family and Child Services) caseworkers, which resulted in X different caseworkers just on this case over the last two years. Every time the case was handed over to a new caseworker, it pushed the process back.
Information was lost, misinformation was passed along, numbers changed, hearings were rescheduled, and so on. What’s already a confusing and foreign process for most families became even more difficult to track. But this is where I, as the CASA, was able to be the one constant person in this family and child’s life throughout the process. And my role was huge.
When the grandmother wasn’t sure who to turn to, she reached out to me. When the mother didn’t know what her case plan was, she reached out to me. When the caseworker changed for the first, second, and third time, they all reached out to me.
CASAs are so much more than just an advocate for the child. They’re the support for everyone who loves that child as well. They’re the liaison between the complicated justice system and the families. Our job isn’t just to check-in and report, it’s to gather information on BOTH sides of the case, and communicate with both sides.
I found myself reporting more to the family than I did to the court. Because so much was happening behind the scenes, it was hard for them - grandma and mom - to keep up with dates, plans, evaluations, phone numbers, doctors appointments, etc. In a process that is often chaotic, emotional, scary and uncertain for many families and children, CASA can act as the one constant support throughout the case. I understand now just how important the role of a CASA is, and that what is required may vary from case to case, child to child.
Even though the case is closed, and there couldn’t have been a better outcome, I still speak to the grandmother, now the permanent guardian, on a regular basis. We’ve developed a genuine friendship and respect for one another over the last two years, and I look forward to seeing the child grow. I think the takeaway here is that every case is going to have its challenges, and the process is unpredictable. This is why it is so important that the CASA be the one person the family can rely on.
About the Author
The last time Sarah* saw her five year old son, Michael, child protection services was removing him from her hotel room. At that time, Sarah was under the influence of substances that numbed her senses. That day was a blur. A horrible blur. The cries of her child. The police officers observing. The case manager filling a trash bag of Michael's clothing. She saw it happening, but she felt she was watching from somewhere else.
Today is the first time Sarah will see Michael in months. She is excited but nervous to see him. Will he be angry at her? Will he be sad? She arrives at the Bright House with ingredients to bake a cake and hope in her heart. She is sober today. Thanks to the help of Recovery Place, she hasn't used in 6 weeks. She is committed to making a change. She doesn't want to use substances to treat her past trauma anymore.
Bright House staff greet Sarah with a smile. It sets her at ease. They sit down and talk to her about what she is feeling. She hesitantly shares a little bit. She doesn't know the staff well yet, but they seem kind and helpful. Together, they plan what she will do with Michael when he arrives.
A minute later, there is a knock at the door. Then Michael comes bursting through it. He runs up to Sarah and wraps his arms around her. Sarah's eyes well up with tears. It's been a long time since she has held her son. Even when he lived with her, she was so numb she didn't get to fill this fully.
The Bright House staff retreats to their office, where they will supervise the visitation by the video feed. Sarah and Michael explore the living room, dining room, and kitchen tentatively. Michael is excited to pull out toys and play with them. She asks him if he wants to bake a cake with her. He excitedly agrees. They bake a cake together, laughing and getting more and more comfortable. While the cake is baking, they go outside to kick a ball around in the backyard.
The two-hour visit goes quicker than they wanted, and soon the transporter arrives to take Michael back to his foster home. Michael's eyes fill with tears as he is again separated from his mom. Sarah promises him that they will visit again next week. She knows she hasn't always kept her promises, but things are different now. She knows she must follow through if she wants her son back.
After the visitation, the Bright House staff sits down with Sarah to discuss how it went. They give her advice on redirecting Michael without raising her voice or losing patience. They ask her what it is like to parent sober, something she has never done. She acknowledges she feels the highs and lows much more deeply. Staff encourages her to discuss this more with her therapist. They talk about her case plan and other things she needs to complete before getting her child back. Staff provides resources on job placement, low-income housing, and additional support.
For the first time in a long time, Sarah feels hope. She doesn't feel alone. She has something to look forward to – not just next week's visit but eventually getting Michael back with her. Sarah is committed to overcoming her substance use disorder and becoming the mother she knows Michael deserves and she is grateful The Bright House is going to help her get there.
The Bright House provides court-mandated supervised visitation and family support services in a home-like setting. Learn more here.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.
About the Author
Since 1991, CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) has served thousands of children who entered foster care due to abuse or neglect from their biological families. As of today, there are over 150 CASA volunteers who, remarkably, give freely of their time and talents to help the vulnerable child through this difficult period. For the superlative work by staff and volunteers alike, Chatham County/Savannah CASA has been honored as Best CASA in Georgia.
Our Dream – Tackle the Glaring Gap in Service:
Supervised visitation is a mid-way step in the foster care process that is ordered by the Courts to begin reunification between the biological family and their child. During the months, and sometimes years, a child is in foster care, research has demonstrated that parents and children benefit from quality time to “start-over” and learn new skills as a family. This is crucial to strengthening parent-child attachments and decreasing the child’s sense of abandonment. Family visitation time is linked to improving a child’s well-being such as spending less time in out-of-home care and faster reunification with the biological parents.
Sadly, Chatham County has one of the largest populations of children in foster care outside of Greater Atlanta. In 2021, there were 102 children entering foster care and an average daily number of 360 children (!), a number comprising all children still in care over multiple years. Though recognized as crucial to family-child success, Chatham County had no Visitation Center. But with vision, inspiration, devotion, and dogged fundraising, the CASA team opened The Bright House on February 14, 2022, and actualized this dream. Chatham County has its first Family Visitation Center.
Now the Hard Work
A child coming into foster care is often the vulnerable recipient of deep-seated generational trauma. The causes may be a parent’s mental health instability, stressors due to poverty, or multiple factors combined, at times expressed by substance use. The Bright House’s goal is to help parents start to confront the underlying causes of family dysfunction and begin to heal so that their child can return home. This is hard, uphill work on the part of the parents, the child, and the professional team of The Bright House. Typically, approximately 50 percent of the children who enter foster care in Chatham County are reunified with their parents. The Bright House team hopes to raise this percentage and achieve the ideal outcome for more and more children – reunification with the biological family.
Since opening our doors, The Bright House has already served over 40 family members and completed 44 supervised visits. We strongly believe – and research verifies - that this one-on-one support increases the chance that families are reunited. In our safe and warm environment, families begin to create new memories and rebuild trust and bonds.
Our Community Came Together:
Thank you to all our dedicated stakeholders, volunteers, and families for trusting us to close this service gap in the foster care system. As we know from years of successful CASA work, our supportive community is motivated by the deeply held beliefs that children are our future and deserve their best shot to succeed in life. This year, CASA evolved to be Brightside Child and Family Advocacy. We stand poised to make a new and significant contribution to the well-being of children and their families.
About the Author