By Michelle Talsma Everson
Kris Jacober, her husband and her family dedicated themselves to children in need as a foster family for 15 years. During that time, she said she was privileged to care for 18 children — all were fostered as the family never adopted.
Now, as the executive director of Arizona Friends of Foster Children Foundation and president of Arizona Association for Foster and Adoptive Parents, she spends her time encouraging other families to consider fostering and supporting those who already do.
“It is the hardest job you will ever love and the children you meet will change your life forever,” Ms. Jacober said.
“What I want to share is the answer to the question and comment we received over and over again as a foster family: ‘I could never do that; I would get too attached and I wouldn’t be able to give them back.’ Well, here’s my reply: It’s not about you. It’s about children who are hurting and need a safe place to grow up.”
The numbers and the need
Gillian Vanasse, program administrator for Foster Care and Post Permanency Supports with Arizona Department of Child Safety, said there are about 14,000 kids in foster care in Arizona, but there are only 9,000 foster beds at this time.
“Children come into foster care through no fault of their own,” Ms. Vanasse said. “Their parents are not able to care for them in a safe way. Neglect is the most common reason children enter care, meaning their parents are unable to safely meet their children’s basic needs. The primary goal for most children who enter the foster care system is to reunite them with their family once it is safe to do so.”
Ms. Vanasse said DCS’ biggest need right now is for foster families for teens and sibling groups of three or more. Additionally, the organization has a great need for CASA — Court Appointed Special Advocate — volunteers, who advocate for foster children as their cases move through the court system.
“Another request we continually receive from young people and the community is flexible and supportive housing options for youth after they turn 18,” she said. “Our department recently released a request for information to begin a formal process of creating more housing options for young adults. However, there is still a large need for community providers to develop creative and supportive transitional housing models for youth experiencing homelessness or who lack supportive housing in Arizona.”
DCS often works with community organizations and nonprofits to help address foster families’ needs. For example, organizations like Jewish Family & Children’s Service provide support, education, skill building and safe environments for families referred by DCS. The nonprofit works with DCS to help families involved in the foster care system with family preservation, reunification, parent aide, a transition to adulthood program, and more.
While community support is vital, one-on-one care for each foster child is crucial on an individual basis.
“Young people need assistance in identifying individuals who can walk alongside them as they transition to adulthood,” Ms. Vanasse added.
Voices for CASA Children
The needs of the foster care system hit home with Robert Pirone more than three years ago when he came across a booth of CASA volunteers at a concert. He learned that only one in every nine foster children are assigned to a CASA worker due to a shortage in volunteers.
This tugged at his heartstrings, but he didn’t take action until he started seeing billboards around the Valley promoting “Red Flags for CASA,” a campaign run by CASA of Maricopa County in conjunction with the Arians Family Foundation, founded by former Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, and his wife, Christine.
“I kept hearing about CASA. The billboards were all over the Phoenix area. So I went to the [web]site,” Mr. Pirone said.
Voices for CASA Children is the nonprofit fundraising and recruitment arm of CASA of Maricopa County, which provides assistance to volunteers, be it financial or informational training.
Christine Slomski, marketing and fund development manager for the organization, said a CASA is a volunteer who is appointed by the court to walk with a child living in foster care and advocate for his or her best interests to the judge in order to receive important services and, ultimately, a forever home.
“Voices for CASA Children creates awareness in the community about the need for volunteer advocates in the lives of foster youth in addition to ongoing training and support for existing CASA volunteers. Voices additionally works with community partners to provide much-needed items for foster youth such as school essentials, personal items, and enriching experiences that foster a sense of well-being and childhood normalcy.”
Out of the 9,000 children in foster care, only 1,000 of those children have a dedicated CASA volunteer.
“A CASA volunteer is often the only consistent, unpaid adult in the life of a child living in foster care,” Ms. Slomski said. “Other adults, friends, foster homes, caseworkers, and teachers come and go as the child moves from place to place, however the CASA remains a constant, learning the concerns and needs of the child. Because of this, the CASA becomes the voice for the child in court, securing essential services for the child’s well being such as educational and medical attention. Foster children assigned a CASA perform better academically and socially; they are less likely to move from home to home; and they are more likely to find a permanent, safe home.”
Mr. Pirone has been a CASA volunteer for about a year-and-a-half. He took his first case in April of 2018, and has taken on a second case, both of which are ongoing and involve babies. Devoting 15-20 hours a month, the experiences bring him into contact with all parties involved with the process — from the foster parents and DCS case workers to lawyers and judges. Mr. Pirone’s duties range from building relationships with the children and foster parents, going to doctor’s appointments, as well as a range of others.
He likens it to being the eyes and ears of the judge.
“As a volunteer I have the time to really get in and find out what is going on with the child, what is going well and where they have needs and where there are concerns. I make sure all parties have the information they need to help a child get what they need and hopefully get out of the system as soon as possible,” he said. “One of the aspects that I enjoy most is writing court reports for the judge where I let the judge know not only what has been happening but give my concerns and recommendations to the judge.”
Mr. Pirone said it is the most heartwarming thing he has ever done and receives so much more than he gives.
“It touches my heart to be a voice for the voiceless. It feels great to be able to help a kid in need and make sure their needs are being met. I get to be that voice to speak up for them,” Mr. Pirone said. “When you have a chance to make a difference and make real change in a child’s life, it’s something that has a deep and profound impact upon your own life.”
How to help
While being a CASA volunteer is a serious time commitment, for those who want to help but cannot become a volunteer, Ms. Slomski said there’s something everyone can do.
“Community members can hold fundraisers or item-drives that correspond to seasonal needs [back-to-school, holidays, etc.], which directly impact the youth that CASAs work with,” she said. “One-time or ongoing donations are very welcomed and deeply appreciated. And always, sharing the CASA mission with work, friends, and personal networks helps increase the chances that more and more youth living in foster care will receive an advocate by their side.”
For those in the West Valley, CASA of Maricopa County and Voices for CASA Children are hosting an information session to teach interested citizens about becoming a CASA volunteer, 5:15 p.m. Thursday, July 18, 2019, at Peoria Community Center, 8335 W. Jefferson St.
Ms. Jacober said children with a CASA volunteer are more likely to receive services, spend less time in the child welfare system and are less likely to return to foster care. An advocate can make an immediate impact on a child’s life, she said.
“No child should ever experience the trauma that leads to foster care, but I’m grateful that when they do, there are incredible people who step up to love on, advocate for, and care for them as they navigate their way through an unfair childhood,” Ms. Jacober said.
“Our family has a unique shared experience of so much heartache, laughter, love, and pure joy wrapped up in the stories of 16 kids. It’s weird because in my adult life these stories, and something that was so instrumental to who I am, doesn’t casually surface in conversation anymore. But I will say, that whenever I’m among family it’s rare we have a conversation without a memory of one of them, because that journey was such a gift to each of us.”
Editor’s note: News Editor Philip Haldiman contributed to this report.
If you go
What: Join CASA of Maricopa County and Voices for CASA Children for an information session to learn about becoming a Court Appointed Special Advocate. CASA volunteers advocate on behalf of an abused and neglected child in the foster care system.
When: 5:15 p.m. Thursday, July 18, 2019
Where: Peoria Community Center, 8335 W. Jefferson St.
For those interested in learning more about how to help foster children, here are some local resources:
- Arizona Department of Child Safety: change2lives.com
- Arizona Friends of Foster Children Foundation: affcf.org
- Arizona Association for Foster and Adoptive Parents: azafap.org
- Voices for CASA: VoicesforCASAChildren.org/events