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Opinion: Make a difference in the life of a child in need. Become a special advocate.

The room was both mesmerized and aghast.  

Open sharing in a room full of people representing agencies that span the entire child welfare system are surprisingly rare.  Rare, to the detriment of children whose bumpy journey through child welfare mirrors the young woman who, on the verge of “aging out” of child welfare, shared her pain, hope, anger and frustration poetically with the group.  

Edward “Ned” Breslin

She spoke of failed foster homes and painful experiences in the residential facilities that dot our landscape: harrowing times on Colorado’s streets, a failed adoption and the deep rejection and loss that she carries constantly. 

Jenny Bender

She spoke of moments in her journey where it was all too much, and of the plans she created to end her life. She spoke of poor grades, poor prospects and lost friendships because of her constant moves; how she felt her childhood trauma was being amplified, rather than addressed, and how it made her feel “worthless.”

Tears fell freely; knowing tears stinging with salt that screamed, “We are culpable.” Despite our best efforts, our society and our communities are still truly responsible for the painful journeys of Colorado’s children who have experienced unimaginable abuse, neglect and trauma. 

At this point in her speech, our brave guest paused and, with sadness mixed with a touch of anger, said she spends every waking moment “trying to shed the shackles of the child welfare system. Every. Day.”

Tears welled in her eyes, and the woman next to her, who has stayed close throughout her journey, pulled her even closer. Our young speaker, who opened herself wide for all to see, seeks solace from one person in the room — a mother — who is her Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA).  

The young woman sobbed, disappearing into this CASA’s arms and muttered, under her breath but impossible for anyone to miss, “You are my key.”

Let’s be frank. Case workers, lawyers and judges who work with traumatized children can be easily maligned and truly do wonderful work protecting and supporting Colorado’s children. Successes are rarely celebrated, and Colorado is filled with adults whose journey does not mirror this young woman’s because of the great work of case workers, lawyers and judges. Suggesting anything less is plainly dishonest.

That said, some children do struggle in ways that mirror the story above. And part of the solution lies in what this girl made so plain — the ability of children navigating child welfare to lean on their CASA as a human constant in their lives; their comforting support. 

CASAs offer trusted, stable relationships for children in a world of constantly shifting case workers, staff at a variety of agencies, foster parents and friends.  

CASA volunteers are sworn officers of the court, appointed by a juvenile court judge to advocate for children who — at no fault of their own — are in the child welfare system or foster care as a result of abuse or neglect.

CASA volunteers look out for the best interest of each individual child by serving as the child’s voice in court. CASA volunteers are the only unpaid professionals on the case.  

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

A child’s CASA volunteer can change a child’s story and give them the confidence that someone has their best interest at heart. CASA volunteers stay for the entire duration of the child’s case, their continuity ensuring that things move more smoothly and easily for the child. 

As if this weren’t enough, CASAs are so much more.  They are the “keys” who meet regularly with their children, often including them in family events and giving children (and foster parents) time to be kids in ways that others may not be able to do. 

We speak with so many Coloradans who have journeyed through child welfare, and the resounding feedback from this chorus is that CASAs were instrumental in the growth, development and future success of these former welfare travelers. 

We even hear about young child welfare travelers becoming CASAs as a way to give back to their community, which is a magical closing of a real, painful circle. 

In 2018, a record number of Colorado children experienced abuse and neglect — 13,329 documented cases, to be exact — and many of those children had to walk through big, scary courtroom doors without a family member to support them, speak for them, or consider their needs. Colorado CASA wants to change that; to make sure that no child walks alone.

By the end of 2020, Colorado CASA aims to add 2,020 additional Colorado volunteers to keep pace with the growing number of child abuse and neglect cases, and to offer the critical support and guidance that children need to feel less alone. 

Children in foster care who have a CASA volunteer are more likely to succeed in school, adjust to change, and feel a sense of purpose and worth. And they’re half as likely to re-enter the foster care system later.

CASA volunteers stood beside 4,857 Colorado children last year, listening to their fears, speaking on their behalf in court, and walking children toward better futures. Sadly, more than 8,400 Colorado kids did not have a CASA by their side. Let’s make sure 2020 doesn’t end in the same way.

Anyone can be the “key” for these children and change their story. Learn more at ColoradoCASA.org.

Edward D. Breslin (Ned) is the president and CEO of the Tennyson Center for Children. Jenny Bender is Executive Director of Colorado CASA.