CASA of Essex 4th AnnuAl Ruby Red Shoe BallLast November, CASA for Children of Essex County honored three of its high-profile volunteers during a gala event at the Green Brook Country Club in North Caldwell. Christina Baker Kline, Cathy Gerwien Pinto, and Anthony “Chef Tony” Villanueva were recognized for their involvement in advocating for abused and neglected children in foster care. The “Ruby Red” theme (from The Wizard of Oz) recalls Dorothy’s words: There’s no place like home.
CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates, a national organization that recruits and trains volunteers to support neglected and abused children as they move through the foster care system toward a safe and permanent home. CASA of Essex is one of the largest and most successful regional programs in the United States.
Villanueva is a longtime CASA supporter, while Pinto served as board president for many years. Kline, who authored the New York Times best seller Orphan Train, first learned about CASA while researching her book.In 2016, more than 2,000 children will pass through our state’s foster care system. The vast majority of families in suburban New Jersey will have no involvement with these children, who are the most helpless and vulnerable members of the community. People hear about kids who are abused, neglected and abandoned. We read about how state caseworkers are overwhelmed, and the quagmire that is the family court system. Yet short of becoming a foster family, there is seemingly little one can do to help these forgotten children before they become forgotten adults.
Thirty years ago, CASA for Children of Essex County began advocating for these children. An independent, court-authorized nonprofit organization, CASA trains and supervises a small army of volunteers who provide accurate, up-to-date information to help family court judges make good decisions about foster children. The 250-plus CASA advocates provide a critical safety net and act as mentors to the children whose cases they are assigned. They make sure each child receives needed service and assistance, while helping to identify a safe and permanent home.
CASA advocates function in tandem with caseworkers from the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCP&P), which was formerly known as DYFS. That state worker may be handling a dozen or more cases simultaneously— sometimes many more—and often the judge presiding over a case becomes frustrated over services that aren’t being adequately provided. At that point, the judge will reach out to CASA for an advocate. The advocate is sworn in as an officer of the court and is entitled to all information and access that one might have has the parent or guardian of an at-risk child. After becoming familiar with a case and getting to know the child and his or her situation, the CASA advocate will be asked to testify as to permanency plan for the child. That could include reunification, termination of parental rights, adoption or an independent living arrangement after aging out the foster care system.
Although there is no typical CASA volunteer per se, Ed Schwartz of South Orange is sort of ideal. He is originally from Newark and returned to the city as a schoolteacher after college. He got into commercial real estate and, in 2000, left a large brokerage to open up his own small firm. In 2008, Schwartz began looking for a volunteer organization where he might make a difference. When he stumbled upon CASAExecutive Director Karen Burns accepts a check from the employees of the Short Hills Branch of Wells Fargo Advisors
for Children of Essex County booth at a fair, he sensed an immediate connection. After 33 hours of training, he was assigned his first case. Eight years later, he is on his fifth.
“This is the most rewarding volunteering I’ve done in my entire life,” Schwartz says. “I would recommend it to anyone with common sense and a desire to help. In terms of time, I spend between five and tens hours a month in support of a child, and a day in the courthouse every month or two. You might be on a case until it closes, which could be a year or two or five years or more.”
The average child spends about 20 months in the foster care system, often switching homes three or more times during that period. So CASA volunteers become a familiar, trusted face during dizzying period. Do advocates become attached to the kids during that time?
“Of course you do,” smiles Schwartz, who joined the board of Casa of Essex last year. “We are straightening kids out. They become successful adults. You are saving a life.”