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News and Information from the National Court Appointed Special Advocate Association

From the CEO

The Connected Century

Michael S. Piraino
CEO, National CASA

The 21st century is almost 10 years old, so this seems like a good time to stop and ask what this century will mean to the children we advocate for as well as how our advocacy and our organizations might evolve.

Sitting on my shelf is a book from the last century in which Leroy Pelton points out that the removal of children from their homes is often due to the impact of poverty. Pelton’s work seems particularly relevant to the country’s current economic situation. Earlier this year, the Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect reminded us that poverty is still strongly correlated with abuse and neglect. And a lack of resources probably contributes significantly to the overrepresentation of children of color in child welfare systems. A recent informal survey of our programs documented an increasing concern both that maltreatment cases may be becoming more severe and that fewer resources are available to help children and families cope with loss of income.

At the end of the 20th century, over 14 million American children were living in poverty, including one in three African American children. These rates are likely to have increased significantly since then, according to the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute. As we implement advocacy practices to ensure equity and equal opportunity for all children in the child welfare system, we must recognize that poverty is also a factor in the failure to achieve timely reunifications. The result is that, all too often, the child loses important family and community connections.

Child protection policy in the last century often looked like a set of either/or choices. Parents are either capable of providing a safe home or not. A child is either in the parents’ care or in the care of the state. A foster child will either be reunified with family or adopted.

What if, in this new century, there were a middle ground between family care and substitute care? Could we design a system in which parents maintain responsibilities—and their pride as parents—even as systems of protection and support share some of the responsibility? On the late end of foster care, states will soon be able to implement the portion of the Fostering Connections to Success Act to extend care to age 21. This could be a time of increasingly shared responsibility as young people face the prospect of transitioning out of the system, easing them into early adulthood.

In the early 21st century, we are more informed than ever. The amount of information Americans receive every day has quadrupled compared to three decades ago. If we pay attention to the increasing flow of evidence-based research, systems of care for children could dramatically improve. The first decade of the new century has continued to bring forth amazing research on human development, emotions and brain functioning. According to John Cacioppo, director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, nature seems to want us to be connected to others. Without these connections, people face many forms of increased risk, ranging from poor health in young adulthood to Alzheimer’s disease later in life.

The young century’s new connection opportunities will change the way we work and how our organizations operate. Psychologist James A. Coan of the University of Virginia says that humans create networks of connections in order to “distribute problem solving across brains.” Within the CASA/GAL network, we are improving our ability to use technology to bring together the expertise, insights and diversity of our volunteers and staff to help abused children thrive.

In National CASA’s new strategic plan, we promise to work to maintain the child’s important family, community and cultural connections. The 21st century offers connection opportunities never seen before. Social networks can now be created without regard to geography.

Our organizations will also change by bringing in the voices of the youth we have served. In this new century, the generation of current 18- to 29-year-olds are moving into their key working years. A new Pew Research Center study about this generation describes a pretty amazing group. They are the most educated, diverse, confident, upbeat, entrepreneurial and open-minded generation now alive. They have strong commitments to family and community as well as to solving social problems. Their greatest desire is to be good parents.

The former foster youth I have the honor to know seem to be just what the Pew researchers were describing. They will be a huge asset to our advocacy and to our country in the 21st century.

Information on Sources

John T. Cacioppo, James H. Fowler and Nicholas A. Christakis, “Alone in the Crowd: The Structure and Spread of Loneliness in a Large Social Network,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (in press).

James A. Coan is quoted in the New York Times, February 23, 2010.

Mary Keegan Eamon, “‘For Reasons of Poverty’: Court Challenges to Child Welfare Practices and Mandated Programs,” Children and Youth Services Review, volume 26, issue 9 (2004).

Leroy H. Pelton, For Reasons of Poverty: A Critical Analysis of the Public Child Welfare System in the United States (1989).

Pew Research Center, Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next; Confident. Connected. Open to Change. February 2010.

US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Administration for Children and Families (ACF) Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation (OPRE) and the Children’s Bureau, Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS-4); Report to Congress (2010).

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Anonymous @ 10/6/2010 7:11:16 PM 
I was moved by your recent statement on Dr. Phil, that in order to have every child represented, the current number of volunteers would need to triple. That was shocking. Shocking enough that I signed up today for information. I will become a volunteer and an advocate to friends to do the same.
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