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A WGVU initiative in partnership with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation using on-air programs and community events to explore issues of inclusion and equity.

CASA of Kent Co. calls for volunteers and funding for Michigan's foster children

CASA of Kent County

Workers and volunteers in the foster care system have been hailed the unsung heroes of the pandemic, advocating for children within its borders. However, those on the inside say it's these organizations who now need help if they're going to continue serving.

Cathy Weirick, Director of CASA of Kent Countysaid the year 2020, and the pandemic that came along with it, brought a new series of obstacles.

“When I first started down this journey...I thought I could conquer thes world the next day. Luckily nobody told me I couldn’t, so I haven’t given up yet,  but there’s years and years and years of barriers to break down," she said.

CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates. They are volunteers who speak up for children in foster care, visiting them at least three times a month to investigate their living situation. CASA's advocate their assigned children's needs in court every 90 days.

"In addition to the foster care system providing them that home environment, we provide them their voice in the courtroom. Foster care workers and attorneys are just bombarded with situations, and they don't have enough time to dedicate their sole focus on a child," Weirick explained.

When the pandemic hit both schools and CASA meetings went virtual, something Weirick said left a significant gap in communication, as the education system is one of the largest reporters of abuse.

“It really changes the dynamics, the virtual world does with your relationship with everybody, especially a child who now is doing all these relationships online, and it just it puts you at a distance that doesn't allow for you to understand everything going on and their life. So we do feel out of touch,” Weirick said.

Weirick said she is thankful that in the midst of virtual check-ins, all the current CASA volunteers have kept up with their cases. However, recruiting new volunteers was difficult. CASA of Kent County usually brings in around 50 new trainees per year. This year the organization trained around 25 people.

“There's about 1,000 kids living in foster care in Kent County, and we have enough volunteers to serve well about 220 to 225 of those kids. So we are actively recruiting, focusing on Black African Americans because that's the statistic of what more children need a voice that reflects their life experiences, and they’ve been traditionally kept out of our justice system.”

Despite seeing a decrease in children entering the system, Weirick said there's a chance an influx will comes later, noting "out of sight, out of mind" doesn't mean abuse isn't happening.

"The number of kids that are coming into care has dropped significantly. In most world's that would be good news, but for people who understand the child welfare system and are in this field for significant amount of time know that out of sight out of mind doesn't mean abuse isn't happening...One thing that I do know is that in times of stress, usually neglect goes up. The last time we started to see numbers rise was in 2008, 2009 and 2010, after the economic crisis. So this will likely bring about the same kind of number increase in 2020," she explained.

As she prepares for what could come in 2021, Weirick said there's a large threat on the horizon.

"There’s definitely a threat and reality that our VOCA (Victims of Crime Act) funds are going to be eliminated in fiscal year 2021 and 2022...I’ll lose a third of our funding and will probably lose serving 120 kids," she said.

CASA of Michigan is rallying with their communities to get legislatorsto continue the funding. 

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