To the Editor:
Every year, more than 20,000 youth across the country age out of the foster care system. Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for Children of Atlantic and Cape May counties is one local organization that is trying to help older foster youth make lasting connections and prepare for adulthood if they leave foster care without a permanent home.
CASA has worked with foster youth for 18 years and has seen first-hand the negative effects of youth lingering in the foster care system. Youth ages seven to 17 are at greater risk of not finding a permanent home and aging out of the system.
This means many age out of the child welfare system at age 18, with no family to call their own. These youth have minimal skills, a high school education, at best, and lack the basic knowledge to live on their own.
One can imagine what happens to these youth. Homeless, jobless or underemployed, these youth can turn to crime and drugs as a means to survive.
A young person bereft of any family ties lacks the foundation, support, and guidance that all youth need as they mature into adulthood. Having permanent adult and family connections, like a CASA volunteer, provides teenagers with the critical legal and emotional support that all young people need as they transition into adulthood and possibly continue their education, seek employment, and start new relationships.
CASA volunteers specifically help this age group by encouraging educational achievement, ensuring sibling and parental visits to keep family relations intact, recommending appropriate long-term placements and helping improve social relations. CASA’s number one priority is to help them find a permanent home, so they do not age out of the system. If a permanent home is not possible, we want them to be as prepared for the future as they can be.
Not everyone will want to be a CASA volunteer, but everyone can be a youth advocate.
Here are some steps you can take to help older youth in need: Become a mentor; donate to or volunteer with a social service agency that helps teens and; keep educated on the topic and help others understand the need to help all youth experience equal opportunity. Advocacy efforts will not only improve their lives, but it will also enhance our own communities.
When we work together to protect vulnerable youth, it literally saves lives. We all have a role. How will you get involved?
Individuals interested in becoming a CASA volunteer should attend one of our monthly information sessions held at 321 Shore Rd., Somers Point. For more information, call (609) 601-7800 or visit www.AtlanticCapeCASA.org.
ED. NOTE: The author is the director of community development at CASA for Children of Atlantic and Cape May counties.