Voices for Children Panel Blog Series: Vanessa's Foster Care Story
Voices for Children held a panel discussion with two individuals who have firsthand experience in the childcare system. They were kind enough to share what helped them become the strong, thriving adults they are today. The outcomes and experiences of these two showcase the positive impact the CASA program has on the trajectory of children who have experienced abuse and neglect. They are also equipped to provide a distinct view on ways to overcome these obstacles to have a happy and productive future.
Voices for Children’s mission is to transform the lives of children who are abused, abandoned, or neglected by providing them with trained, volunteer Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA’s). Founded in San Diego in 1980, Voices for Children is a private, nonprofit organization that recruits, trains, and supports Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteers who speak up for the needs and well-being of children in foster care. As the only agency designated by the courts to provide CASA volunteers in San Diego and Riverside Counties, Voices for Children’s CASAs play a crucial role in helping judges make the most informed decisions for these children’s futures.
This is the second of two individuals who provided insight on their experience in the foster system was Vanessa. Vanessa, is 20 years old and is attending UCLA and pursuing a Sociology Major. Vanessa’s Voices for Children interview is provided here.
Vanessa met her CASA at 11 years old, now at 22 she has had her CASA be a part of her life for eleven years. Vanessa’s mother was a single parent, from birth to 8 years old her and her brother were bouncing between different family’s homes and even being homeless. Her mother suffered from bipolar depression which greatly affected her family’s stability. Her mother’s emotionally abusive partner is what brought Vanessa and her brother into care. The children were removed from their mom when Vanessa was 8 years old and her brother was 11.
Vanessa was then placed in a foster home. From the time she was 8 years old to 18 years old she was placed to 12 homes, 8 which were different locations and there were a few repeat foster homes. She also stayed with her relatives for a period in a group center. Out of 12 placements only once was she with her brother, he was placed in group homes for the majority of the time.
When Vanessa was between the third and fifth grade she was bouncing between schools and was not old enough to understand what was happening. She did not have a CASA until she was in 6th grade and was being transferred back and forth between foster homes. This understandably caused Vanessa to struggle and develop emotional trauma and pain. She felt she was unable to control anything in her life. Fortunately, school became and outlet and was the one thing in Vanessa’s life she felt she could control. Education was a productive way to escape the system she found herself in and give her life some much needed structure and purpose.
What was a barrier faced in school?
Vanessa found herself confused and angry as many of us do when going through our adolescence and “weird teenage times”. She lacked self-confidence and had a negative self-image. Being an African American plus sized teen woman, she struggled with being able to look at her reflection in the mirror and love herself. Due in part to her lack of support, Vanessa was not confident enough to ask for the help she so desperately needed. Vanessa’s tough road had made it hard to form a distinct sense of self which made it nearly impossible to engage with others, have a social life, and made her not want to interact with friends.
Thankfully at 11 years old when Vanessa was paired with a CASA and was able to start to feel some of the support she so desperately craved. Although she still did not have full control of her situation and wasn’t always sure what the future would hold, Vanessa finally had one consistent adult in her life who was there for her and regularly checking in with her. As a relationship formed with her CASA, she was there to help Vanessa with all the tools available to her and help prioritize major goals that Vanessa wanted to accomplish. One amazing and life changing event that Vanessa’s CASA was able to facilitate was being accepted into a private school, allowing for a stable and excellent education!!
What allowed for success in school?
Vanessa was a very driven young woman and knew education could be a tool to break out of the situation she was in.
Vanessa’s CASA introduced goal setting and ways to help challenging herself. At 14 years old, Vanessa’s CASA advocated for her to attend a private school, she provided much support and walked Vanessa through the journey.
“This allowed me to find success and break generational cycles. I am the first person to go to college in my family”, Vanessa stated.
In school Vanessa found her place and passion by volunteering at homeless shelters and domestic violence organizations. By choosing advocacy and volunteer leadership roles, Vanessa was able to be a part of a group that was making a difference and pushing a collective story forward. This would also help to bring Vanessa’s past experiences and future dreams together to finally start living the life she deserved. The feeling of power and familiarity has kept her strong and continues to help her move forward.
How did your CASA support you in transitions and how did they help tap into who you want to be vs who they wanted you to be?
Vanessa was thankful to have met and been assigned a CASA before puberty, she said. She mentioned that during puberty, just as most teenagers she became upset and emotional. Her relationship with her CASA allowed Vanessa to feel supported and to build trust with a consistent adult.
“She understood who I was, what I liked to do, my interests and used that to move forward and challenge me. My CASA taught me how to make change in my life and that resulted in taking on leadership opportunities. She played my favorite music, brought me my favorite granola bar, we even have our own inside jokes. Her priority was to make me feel comfortable, supported, safe and seen. In a way a mother or father would do with their child.”
What does your future look like?
Vanessa’s plans for the future are constantly changing, she is hoping to graduate in the next year or two with a degree in psychology. With an entrepreneurial mindset, she is looking to develop her own nonprofit organization. Vanessa has additional aspirations to be an author and write a book on “Breaking generational cycles of trauma and replace with healing” to help others and apply everything she has been through and learned to share with those who need guidance. Her goal is to help others learn and to turn pain into power and help heal the world.
Reflecting on her experience Vanessa stated,
“I wouldn’t have evolved to the person I am today. The system gave me the toolbox and a mission. The system didn’t save me but helped me save myself. The foster system is broken, but there are many people especially the CASA volunteers who are supportive.”
Vanessa was able to avoid falling victim to her situation. She developed versatility and has been able to connect with anyone and learn from everyone.
Trauma is hard to work through especially when it occurs during childhood, the foster system doesn’t allow children to have time to adjust to this. Vanessa is thankful for the support she did receive and time to develop herself and overcome her circumstances.
How to improve the lives and future in foster care?
Stability is the most important factor in improving these children’s lives. Keeping siblings together is also extremely important. As a child in the foster care system Vanessa always felt wounded and unstable prior to having a CASA.
There could be more support with children and teaching them about positive body image. “Not understanding who you are and constantly being thrown in many environments is challenging” Vanessa said.
Vanessa would have “loved more support and guidance with things like: how to do my hair, how to eat right, how to go shopping, children in foster care need help to save ourselves and not be at such a disadvantage amongst other children who have supportive families.”
Support during the age of puberty would be a huge help. Puberty is a really hard time for all teenagers, those in the foster system feel they navigate this turbulent time alone. Support from CASA volunteers is an excellent start, being an invaluable resource and providing care and stability.
One take away:
Vanessa shared, “It takes a village! Anyone who is willing to be a part of that village is part of the story and effort to make the lives of children in foster care that much better”.
Vanessa said, “Don’t listen to respond, listen to understand. Understanding goes a long way in this world and will go a long way in the future of children in foster care.”
The benefits of a CASA Volunteer to a child in foster care are unmatchable. Having that one person to trust and believe in the child makes all the difference. Providing this support will change the trajectory of the children’s lives and increase the graduation statistic of children in foster care.
Want More Information About Volunteering for CASA?
Take the first step and follow these steps online or attend a General Information Meeting in Person:
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CASA Kane County is nonprofit volunteer organization advocating for the best interest of children in abuse and neglect situations throughout Northern Illinois. CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates/Guardian ad Litem) volunteers are specially trained to become the objective voice of a child for a judge.
CASA Kane County is currently seeking VOLUNTEERS! To learn more and Change a Child’s Story, please visit the organization’s website at www.casakanecounty.org or call 630-232-4484.