NJ Foster Care Group Takes Top Honor for Diversity

Maya Angelou once said, “the ache for home lives in all of us; the safe place where we all can go as we are and not be questioned.”

As profound as that quote is, that’s not the case for many of Essex County’s youth in foster care. CASA for Children of Essex County has been acting on behalf of juveniles in foster care where home is no longer a safe place they can go. CASA, short for Court Appointed Special Advocates, has been providing necessary information to judges who rule on the cases of the neglected, abused, or abandoned children through its volunteers as intermediaries.

This June, while in Dallas at the National CASA conference, Essex CASA won the National Inclusion Award for their efforts in promoting diversity among volunteers, staff, and its board members.

Karen Burns, Executive Director and Carol Costello, Volunteer Director make presentations at a fundraiser.
Karen Burns, Executive Director and Carol Costello, Volunteer Director make presentations at a fundraiser.
“We have been based in Newark for over 25 years and have built strong and lasting ties in the community,” Karen Burns, Executive Director said. “We recognize the value of being in the heart of this community in order to best serve its citizens. At the same time, Essex County is not comprised of Newark alone. Our County is home to a wonderfully diverse population spread across 21 municipalities.”

CASA’s current roster of 236 volunteers is a patch quilt of different ethnic and religious backgrounds that’s as diverse as the cities they serve in Essex County. Currently, 43% are African-American, 43% Caucasian, 14% Multiracial, 10% Hispanic/Latino, and 2% Asian. Karen gives a large part of the credit for the organization’s diverse assembly of volunteers to the volunteer director, Ms. Carol Costello for her efforts to recruit, screen, and train its active volunteers.

CASA staff members pose for photos.
CASA staff members pose for photos.
“We’ve been able to establish a culture of diversity because we recognize that there isn’t one paragon of the perfect volunteer,” said Carol Costello. “People often ask, ‘Do you need to have specific work experience to serve as a volunteer?’ Our answer is ‘no.’ It’s the personality and passion of individuals that make them effective Advocates.”

“Every volunteer brings their own life experiences and therefore we are welcoming of individuals from a variety of backgrounds,” she said.

As an added component to their recognition for recruiting a diverse staff of employees and volunteers, Essex CASA has facilitated “Undoing Racism” an immersion training, funded by the Schuman Fund for New Jersey. More than 150 Essex Model Court agency members and CASA staff benefitted from the program’s training over the last two years.

“We are determined to harness the influential power of our community’s diversity; bringing together people of all backgrounds to collectively work towards shaping a more fair and equitable environment for our children, Burns said. “We strive for the Essex County Model Court to serve as a national leader in this pursuit.”

While Essex CASA can comfortably boast about its group’s racial diversity, there seems to be a need for more advocates, particularly more male advocates. Karen Burns explained that even with over 200 plus advocates, CASA only has the capacity to work with a quarter of the foster care population in Essex County.

“We need volunteers who have the time and inclination to do this very important work,” Burns said. “And we especially need more MALE Advocates! To accomplish this we need more opportunities to get our message out to the community in a way that will engage people to take action.”

Volunteers take photos at a Volunteer Appreciation Banquet.
Volunteers take photos at a Volunteer Appreciation Banquet.
For more than the last 25 years, CASA of Essex County has worked with the most vulnerable population, its county’s children. According to its mission statement, “CASA for Children of Essex County is to promote the welfare of children who have been removed from their homes because of abuse, neglect or abandonment by providing a safety net of support, advocacy and mentorship. CASA trains and supervises volunteers to speak up for the best interests of these children in court, to ensure that each child has the opportunity to thrive by receiving needed services and assistance while helping to move the child towards a safe and permanent home.”

According to Rachel Simon, the organization has been relatively successful through word of mouth referrals while recruiting its volunteers.

“Our current Advocates and supporters are our most passionate recruiters,” Rachel Simon, Director of Operations said. “Therefore we often attract new volunteers from the communities where we already have a strong presence. While this has been widely beneficial, our greatest challenge to growing our volunteer corps in both numbers and diversity is in gaining in-roads to new communities and community groups. We are always looking for opportunities to break into new segments within the County.”

If you would like to help further the mission of CASA for Children of Essex County by making a donation or serving as a volunteer, you can learn more at the organization’s website.

“CASA volunteers are everyday citizens that judges appoint to advocate for the safety and well-being of children who have been removed from their homes due to parental abuse and neglect. We are always looking for open-minded people who are patient and flexible as well as persistent when facing a sometimes frustrating bureaucracy,” said Costello.

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