The first day of school is filled with many emotions-from pure excitement to nervous jitters-that accompany new classes, new friends, and the self-consciousness that comes with being a kid.
These feelings can be experienced by children who have a sense of belonging and familiarity, but for children who become a part of the foster care system due to abuse or neglect, nervous “jitters” doesn’t begin to describe how scary going back to school can be.
For many foster children, the first day means they once again have to start over-making new friends, and trying to gain a sense of stability in their often-unstable lives. While the first day of school starts in the fall for most children, for children in foster care they could experience the first day of school five or six times in one school year because they may be placed in several homes throughout the year in different parts of a city or state.
Going back to school is a pivotal time for a foster youth, and it’s just one of the many times they need someone in their corner, helping them navigate what could be considered an uncertain and scary experience. Court Appointed Special Advocate volunteers-also known as CASA volunteers or volunteer Guardians ad Litem in some states-can be one familiar factor for many foster children. CASA volunteers are everyday people, appointed by judges in cases involving abused and neglected children taken from homes and placed in foster care. The volunteers’ duties are many, but the primary goal is to be an advocate for the child in court and a watchdog for the child while he or she is in foster care. It’s an important role because, in a system overloaded with cases, the CASA volunteer can often be the only person focused solely on the welfare of the child.
Some 58,000 CASA volunteers represent 220,000 children nationwide, many of them going to a new school and also facing the prospect of changing schools during the year. It’s a daunting task but a very important one, particularly considering government numbers showing that only 60 percent of children who change schools four times before eighth grade eventually graduate high school.
How can volunteers help make the transition back to school easier for foster youth? Volunteers can spend time simply talking to the children in their care, listening to their concerns and fears. This is especially important for children who receive so little support in their lives.
Advocates can help children establish and practice a back-to-school routine. For children used to instability, establishing a routine can be difficult at first, but often becomes comforting. They also prepare children for the possibility of becoming a target of bullies. Sometimes being a foster child or an adopted child can bring a lot of unwanted attention from some bullies who may ask hard questions that may be difficult for the children to answer. Advocates can recommend a school change, if needed, for the child’s safety.
Advocates can ensure school records follow the youth so he or she doesn’t have to take classes and standardized tests over again and can remain at the proper grade level.
Their efforts do make a difference. In a 2005 national survey of family court judges, nearly every judge questioned said CASA volunteers made a positive difference in the lives of foster children. CASA urges each adult who is involved with a foster child to do everything in his or her power to make school a point of stability in an otherwise unstable life.
For more information on CASA, visit www.nationalcasa.org.