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For A Foster Kid, One Relationship Can Make All The Difference

As Weavers, we sense, but donโ€™t always see in sharp relief the difference our relationships with others can make. Iโ€™ve volunteered to support foster kids and their families for many years, as a court-appointed special advocate (CASA). Reading news stories about the life and death of Ma'Khia Bryant, a foster kid, brought me to tears and gave me the blessing of seeing the impact of what I do.

As a CASA volunteer, I am an unpaid advisor and friend to kids who, for many reasons, have gotten involved in the child welfare system and are separated from their birth families. Anyone can do this, with a bit of training and a background check. The role has created some of the most meaningful connections of my life.  I want to share the story of one of โ€œmyโ€ kids because it shows how showing up for vulnerable kids can help change a childโ€™s life.

I met Frankie, age seven, and his five-year-old sister in 2012 at the home of their foster mother, where they had lived for about 6 months. They were both quite shy but softened a bit when I opened up the coloring books and chess set I had brought. I sat down on the floor with them, as their lawyer and foster mom talked at the kitchen table. Frankie loved chess and beat me handily.  Rosie drew a picture for me.

I knew their older sister was โ€œon the run,โ€ a phrase I came to detest. I preferred โ€œmissing child,โ€ but the gnarly world of child welfare relies on expressions that vilify, rather than express compassion for older kids. These two young children had no idea what happened to their older sister and were confused about why they had been removed from their birth home.

Frankie and Rosie stayed in the foster home for a few years and, after their mother lost her parental rights and dad was incarcerated and then deported back to El Salvador, their case shifted to adoption. Against the odds, a young couple expressed interest in adopting both of them. I transported the kids back and forth several hours each month as they all got to know each other.

It wasnโ€™t a smooth transition, but I could detect glimmers of hope. I attended their adoption hearing and promised to stay in touch.  A year and a half later, I read Facebook posts from the adoptive dad about how difficult Frankie was (yes, I was horrified that he was sharing this info on social media). The tension escalated to the point where they โ€œreturnedโ€ Frankie to child protective services.

When he was placed in a group home, I immediately worked my way back into his life as a โ€œcommunity resource,โ€ since I was no longer his CASA. At 13, he was acting out, running away from the group home (going AWOL) and engaging in risky behavior. I started visiting him in his deplorable, rundown house in a tough neighborhood. Weโ€™d sit in a room that had padding on the walls. I listened for words that rarely came out of his mouth while I did most of the talking and tried to hold him during long periods of silence.

I had to re-build a relationship with a now-adolescent whom I had known as a young boy.  It was going to take time.  About a year and a half later, after he had established trust with the caretakers in his life and demonstrated much improved behavior and signs of maturity, he moved to a nicer group home which offered more independence.  

Throughout this time, I have been the consistent, unpaid adult in his life. We talk, we message on Facebook and I continued to visit him during the pandemic with masks and a window between us. Iโ€™m proud to say he just graduated from high school in early June - a straight A student who is headed to college to study psychology so, as he says, โ€œhe can become a therapist and help other kids.โ€

Frankie beat the odds. Only 3% of youth who have experienced foster care head to college. In a normal world, we would never have crossed paths. Thatโ€™s how different our two worlds are... me a 62-year-old white woman and he a soon-to-be 18-year-old Latino. The relationship I have with this young man has enriched both of us. If I had never signed up and trained to become a CASA, we never wouldโ€™ve met.

I plan to be with him when he turns 18 and signs himself into care as he will no longer be in the custody of the child welfare system in Massachusetts. Heโ€™ll be his own โ€œvendorโ€ (another detestable term) so he can take advantage of all the financial and other resources to which he is entitled. He will have an adolescent outreach worker should he need assistance.  And, he will always have me. The best part is that as he turns this magic age of 18, he gets his first taste of adult freedom. For Frankie, that means a fishing trip to Cape Cod! And heโ€™ll be a friend for life, I suspect.

Charles Lerner-Lewis, executive director of At the Crossroads, a San Francisco-based nonprofit working with homeless youth and former director of the CASA program in Boston, says, "The number one predictor of someone's trajectory in life is whether they have one safe and consistent adult who guides and lifts them up."  It's too late for Ma'Khia, but not for thousands of kids who deserve better.

Being a CASA iss omething we can all do. It just takes a touch of bravery to plunge into the emotional, bureaucratic and gritty world of foster care. Yes, you do it for the kids. But you also do it for yourself. Relationships are the real gold in this life.

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