PIEDMONT CASA VOICES
Welcome to the Piedmont CASA Voices blog. We hope you will find the information posted here helpful, enlightening, and, hopefully, entertaining. Please feel free to send in your comments or suggestions for future topics to Sue Hoover at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our Girls Are Not OK
Every two years, the Centers for Disease Control conducts a Youth Risk Behavior Survey. The latest one, released in 2021, provided the first look at trends in teen mental health since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Not surprisingly, it found that “teen girls in the United States experienced record high levels of violence, sadness, and suicide risk in recent years, amid ‘significant’ and ‘heartbreaking’ declines in overall youth health and well-being.” Those teens who identified as LGBTQ+ reported even higher levels of violence and despair.
Poor mental health can result in serious physical health and development issues in adolescents – issues which can last into adulthood. Moreover, young people who feel hopeless and desperate are more likely to engage in risky behaviors that can result in HIV, STDs, unintended pregnancy, obesity, addictions, and other negative consequences.
Our young people are in crisis. Especially our girls. “Almost 60% of teen girls had depressive symptoms in the past year, which is the highest level in a decade . . . Nearly one in three girls also reported seriously considering suicide in the past year – a 60% rise from a decade ago and double the rate among boys.” The survey also found that “52% of teens identifying as LGBTQ+ experienced poor mental health in the past year, with 1 in 5 saying they had actually attempted suicide during that period of time.”
Shocking and sobering statistics. Why is this happening? Of course, the pandemic with its attendant social isolation played a huge role in overall teen mental health. But now that the kids are back in school and other activities, why are the statistics still so severe? All eyes turn to social media, but is it to blame?
Many teenage girls admit that they spend much more time on social media – particularly TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, and YouTube – than they intend to, and that these hours do interfere with sleep and schoolwork. But how much time are we talking about? And can we attribute this focus as the cause of their overall mental health decline? In a survey conducted by Common Sense Media, a research and advocacy organization which focuses on the impact of technology on young people, it was found that “on average, teen girls who use TikTok spend more than two and a half hours a day on the platform, and those who use YouTube spend a similar amount of time; for Snapchat users, it’s about two hours; and for Instagram users, it’s about 90 minutes a day.”
The overall view of social media, as determined by the survey results, was oddly ambiguous. Forty-three percent of girls reported TikTok to be a generally positive experience, while a little over 25% found it to be negative. “About a quarter of teens said that Snapchat is a mostly negative force, while 19% said the same of Instagram. By contrast, 38% of teens see Instagram as generally positive, while 32% say the same of Snapchat.” So, what can we make of these findings?
The Associated Press interviewed five teen girls about the state of their own mental health and what they see as the cause. Bullying, toxic friendships, and unwanted sexual pressure accounted for a large percentage of their anxiety and depression. Per the CDC report mentioned above, more than one in ten teen girls admitted that they had been forced to have sex, with almost 20% reporting experiencing rape or other sexual violence. Also deemed overwhelming were the jokes, inappropriate touching, sexual threats, and the heightened attention on looks so prevalent in society. Social media was mentioned, especially in the context of the focus on superficial appearances, body type expectations, and the overwhelming information on how to perfect one’s looks. “Social media has completely shifted the way we think and feel about ourselves in good and bad ways,” reported one of the teens. Academics, social issues, and the overall state of the world rounded out the list.
The CDC survey results “reflect many decades of neglect towards mental health, for kids in particular,” per American Psychological Association experts. “Suicide has been the second- or third-leading cause of death for young people between 10 and 24 years for decades now, and attempts are typically more common in girls.”
When we look at LGBTQ+ youth, 22% reported facing sexual violence in the past year. One in five reported an attempted suicide during that same period. Nearly 70% of LGBTQ+ youth experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.
While a history of trauma certainly plays a staggering role in this teen mental health crisis, social and environmental factors also drive the problem. We addressed social media concerns and the extreme focus on sexual appeal, but another interesting factor is the early onset of puberty. Girls today "are starting puberty early, and we know that hormones certainly start to differentiate issues for females versus males . . . When we look at research studies, girls, when they start to hit puberty, start to have increasing rates of depression and anxiety, so there are the hormonal factors that could play a role.”
Nearly all the experts point to schools as being part of the solution. “In schools, kids should be taught ways to manage stress and strife, just as they are taught about exercise for physical disease prevention.” Teachers should receive training in spotting and dealing with mental health concerns among their students. Unfortunately, while school districts around the country were willing to use federal pandemic money to hire more mental health specialists, they have been difficult to find. Those specialists who are located within schools find themselves stretched untenably thin – such that students who need expert care often face long waitlists.
Social supports that encourage a sense of belonging help girls withstand significant stress and sadness. “Studies have found strong links between a lack of parental and peer support and depression during adolescence.” Also helpful is acknowledging and celebrating achievements. Adults should be encouraging girls to value their gifts, be they artistic, athletic, or intellectual.
In 30 years of collecting similar data, “we’ve never seen this kind of devastating, consistent findings,” said the director of CDC’s adolescent and school health division. “There’s no question young people are telling us they are in crisis. The data really call on us to act.”
Making A List
The child welfare system is a rough one to navigate. We know that first-hand. Add in any one of the barriers of: limited English language skills, addiction, homelessness, incarceration, and poverty, and it can seem an insurmountable challenge. We are so grateful to our volunteers who are bright spots in this labyrinth.
But why do we do it? Why are we so invested in the care of the kids caught up in this quagmire? What are some of the variables that affect the work we do? So many questions, and the answers are just as myriad.
In my feeble attempt to insert some meaning (and maybe some fun) into this all-too-often heartbreaking world, here are some lists, guides, and rationales to consider.
Because they are kids:
- Have you ever listened to a kid tell a joke and then wonder, “Huh? I don’t get it.” There are reasons why “kids make these weird, often wildly unfunny jokes.” Even so, just laugh along. They’ll grow out of it. Eventually.
- I weathered my kids’ teenage years . . . barely. It’s a wonder to me how they both ended up so adult-like – paying rent, buying a car, getting married. Teenage life is tumultuous, so before you throw up your hands in exasperation, here are “7 keys to handling difficult teenagers.”
- Has the thought of being a foster parent ever crossed your mind? Without knowing more, it can seem overwhelming. Read this and then think about it again.
- What are your coping strategies for when things are tough? Meditation? Yoga? Going for a walk? Coping skills are something we all must learn – especially what works for us at each stage of our lives. Yet how do kids cope? What are some ways we can teach them? Try these.
- Many of our kids are refugees. Many are immigrants. Here are ways to connect with kids from all over the world.
Because life can be hard:
- Once the Child Tax Credit expired in 2022, over 3 million kids fell below the poverty level. “Among the almost 40 countries in the OECD, only Turkey spends less per child as a percentage of their GDP.” Why is America so stingy in fighting child poverty?
- Emotions continue to run high in our country – just watch the news and you’ll see. It’s no wonder that mental health issues are on the rise. Kids can suffer from anxiety or depression just like adults do. When children are sad, here are some things you can say to help.
- Speaking of emotions, “the factors that lead to child abuse are complex and often interwoven with other issues.” But, there are certain risk factors that play a part in the potential for abuse. Here are things to look for.
Because life can be fun:
- We love our Piedmont CASA volunteers. They are truly special people. If you need some additional incentive to volunteer your time, here are 7 benefits it offers.
- Did you know that you are “more likely to be struck by lightning, attacked by a shark, or die in a plane crash” than you are to win the lottery? Yet people play anyway. So how can you win and retire to your own private island? Here are some tips for picking the winning numbers.
- Or, maybe you harbor dreams of being a pirate and earning your money the old-fashioned way – digging it up. If so, I have a list of the top 10 treasure-hunting spots you need to visit. Good luck.
- And finally, the next time you find yourself faced with long lines at a supermarket, here are some tips for picking the line that will move the fastest. One that had never occurred to me: “be on the lookout for chatty cashiers.” And here I thought they were just being nice.
What Are You Reading?
Summer is the best time to read – especially when on vacation! Actually, any season is a great time to read. I am constantly carrying a book around my house in case I can snatch a few seconds of reading, and the stack of them on my bedside table is downright dangerous. I have not graduated to a Kindle like my husband; I love the feel and smell of a real book too much to give them up.
For a fun diversion, I asked the staff here at Piedmont CASA about some of their favorite books – those they are currently reading, and those that have stayed with them long after finishing. While most of these books have little to do with the mission of Piedmont CASA, we still hope you enjoy our recommendations and add them to your reading list.
In this book, the author, Dorothy Roberts, argues “that the child welfare system is better understood as a 'family policing system' that collaborates with law enforcement and prisons to oppress Black communities.” She believes that “black children are disproportionately likely to be torn from their families and placed in foster care, driving many to juvenile detention and imprisonment.”
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver
Set in the mountains of southern Appalachia, this newest novel from Barbara Kingsolver tells the story of a boy born to a teenaged, single mother who “braves the perils of the foster care system, child labor, derelict schools, athletic success, addiction, disastrous loves, and crushing losses.”
Steve is one of our office's big readers and here are two of his recommendations:
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
This is the story of how a “boy born in chains may embrace a life of dignity and meaning, and where two people, separated by an impossible divide, can begin to see each other as human. It is a story of self-invention and betrayal, of love and redemption, and of a world destroyed and made whole again.”
The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura, Anna Kushner (Translation)
Revolving around the assassination of Leon Trotsky in 1940, this story told in three parts is about “political ideals tested and characters broken, a multilayered epic that effortlessly weaves together three different plot threads ― Trotsky in exile, Ramón in pursuit, Iván in frustrated stasis ― to bring emotional truth to historical fact.”
Bridges Coach Gwen gives us:
In the Heat of the Night by John Ball
“They call me Mr. Tibbs.” Who doesn’t remember that famous line uttered by Sydney Poitier in the namesake movie? This is the book that launched the movie – a story about an African American homicide detective from California, who arrives in a 1960s Southern town to conduct an unpopular investigation into a local murder.
The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi Durrow
Here we have a portrait of a young, biracial woman growing up in the 1980s in a world that wants to see her as either black or white. The plot is a study of society’s ideas of race, class, and beauty.
The Bone Seeker by M.J. McGrath
Another thriller choice, this is the third novel in a series by this author. Set in the Arctic, there is a missing Inuit girl and the frantic search for her killer.
One of our newer Bridges Coaches Ashlie suggests:
All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks
“Venture with Hooks into her perspective on love in her value-filled chapters about what love is. This non-academic, though the intellectually written book, will allow you to consider your own thoughts and views on what love is while giving you cultural awareness on what society allows us to accept and what we are taught to believe love is.”
From our other newer Bridges Coach Rory:
Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor
“There is nothing more essential to our health and well-being than breathing: take air in, let it out, repeat 25,000 times a day. Yet, as a species, humans have lost the ability to breathe correctly, with grave consequences.” So what’s the fix?
And last, but not least, Sue recommends:
The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles
Told from the point of view of each of four boys, [this] novel “is a multilayered tale of misadventure and self-discovery, populated by an eclectic cast of characters, from drifters who make their home riding the rails and larger-than-life vaudevillians to the aristocrats of the Upper East Side.”
Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby
“Beauregard “Bug” Montage is an honest mechanic, a loving husband, and a hard-working dad. Bug knows there’s no future in the man he used to be: known from the hills of North Carolina to the beaches of Florida as the best wheelman on the East Coast. He thought he'd left all that behind him, but his carefully built new life begins to crumble . . . This is the story of a man pushed to his limits by poverty, race, and his own former life of crime.”
The Supreme Court in Action
Our Supreme Court has been busy lately, hasn’t it? Were you following the big decisions that came down last term?
There were three that caused major waves around the country and in the news – a ruling that ends affirmative action in higher education; one to kill President Biden’s plan to cancel student loan debt; and a decision that affects gay rights. Each case was decided along ideological lines – the same six justices in favor, the same three in dissent. Here is a brief recap of each:
The End of Affirmative Action
In 1978, the Supreme Court issued a ruling, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, a landmark case in which the Court affirmed that an admission decision based solely on race was indeed a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Bakke decision did, however, leave the door open for an educational institution to still consider race, but only as one among many other qualifications.
At the time, this decision was thought to broaden the pathway to higher education for marginalized groups and to help create more racially diverse educational environments. It was part of a movement to attempt to rectify a legacy of past discrimination in higher education, as the opinion noted that “the path to leadership” must be open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity.
Over the years, Bakke has been contested numerous times and, up until now, has remained in place.
In the cases, Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College and Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. University of North Carolina, et al., a joint decision issued on June 29, 2023 – 45 years after Bakke – the Court now deemed that these admission practices, those that do consider race as one among many other qualifications, continue to violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. According to the majority opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the admissions programs of Harvard and UNC, “are unconstitutional because they do not survive the ‘daunting two-step examination’ of strict scrutiny – whether the use of race in admissions serves compelling governmental interests and, even if it does, whether it is narrowly tailored, or necessary, to achieve those interests.”
In effect, the Court gutted the Bakke decision. It stated that both penalizing an individual based on race and/or rewarding him for the same reason, are both discriminatory practices. Any gain, however small, provided to an applicant because of race but not provided to another is a penalty for that other, and the purpose of the 14th Amendment is do to away with all forms of discrimination based on race. According to Roberts, “eliminating racial discrimination means eliminating all of it.”
So, for all colleges and universities in our country, diversity as a rationale for using race as an admission qualification, no matter how small it is weighted in the overall decision, is no longer allowed. It is feared that this decision will substantially reduce the number of minorities and other underrepresented groups in higher education.
It is also argued that it will have a much broader effect – the current discussion about legacy admission practices being one. Further, it is possible that this decision could be expanded to include almost any entity, from a workplace, police force, local and or state governments, and DEI programs everywhere, in that they will have to be scrutinized more fully to see how the issue of race is handled.
Student Loan Forgiveness Program Overturned
In the recent Biden, President of the United States v. Nebraska, a decision again authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court ruled that the Secretary of Education did not have the authority under the Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students Act of 2003 (the HEROES Act) to create a program that will cancel and discharge federal student loan debt. Rather, only Congress has the authority under the HEROES Act to create such a program.
As written, the Biden administration’s plan would have assisted only those borrowers who make less than $125,000 a year ($250,000 for households) in 2020 or 2021. It would cancel up to $20,000 of debt for anyone who had received a Pell grant to attend college, or up to $10,000 for remaining borrowers. It was argued that the relief program was necessary to avoid a surge in defaults or delinquencies for those with outstanding loans and who were affected by the COVID pandemic.
For context, student loan debt in the U.S. is now over $1.78 trillion dollars. Trillion. That is more than the overall credit card debt in this country which approximates $988 billion. It is a staggering amount of money, largely on the shoulders of younger, lower-salaried workers – those who wanted a college education and who may already be struggling with rent, car payments, childcare tuition, and other expenses. Also, keep in mind, that in the not-so-distant past, this country readily bailed out General Motors, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Chrysler, SunTrust, Wells Fargo, and many other Fortune 500 institutions – collectively in an amount many times over the $430 billion that the student loan program would have canceled.
The Court focused on “who” had the authority to create the loan forgiveness plan, not on the merits of the plan itself, and determined that it was not within the purview of the Secretary of Education. An immediate result of the decision is that it will have a chilling effect on the spending patterns and financial security of millions of borrowers juggling outstanding student loan debt. In the absence of a new forgiveness plan, monthly payments could be starting again as early as this October.
The First Amendment and LGBTQ Rights
The last case, 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis, pitted the State of Colorado’s Anti-Discrimination Act against the rights of a web designer who argued that to create websites for same-sex marriages, an act that countermands her religious principles and would require her to write text she did not agree with, would violate her First Amendment rights – her right to freedom of religion and to freedom of speech. The Court agreed – but only on the freedom of speech basis. It declined to go into the freedom of religion argument.
Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the opinion, stating that by enforcing its law in this instance, Colorado would thereby use it “to compel an individual to create speech she does not believe.” The decision is widely viewed as a retreat on gay rights by the Court as it opens the door for ways to skirt state anti-discrimination statutes.
Colorado’s Anti-Discrimination law (as do many other similar state laws) bars public businesses from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation – in addition to discrimination based on race and gender. The Court delved into what defines a “retail business,” as opposed to artistic expression or a “creative professional.” It determined that an occupation such as plaintiff’s fell into the latter category rather than the former. The Court stated that because a "creative professional offers services that are customized and expressive, the free speech clause of the First Amendment shields [that] business.”
The rub of this case is that the plaintiff, the owner of 303 Creative, had never been asked to create a same-sex website by any LGBTQ patron. Rather, she wanted the Court to protect her from such a possibility. Her filings suggest that she received a request from such an individual, a person named Stewart, but the name provided, with his address and phone number, is for a man who had never submitted any such request and had, in fact, been married to a woman for the past 15 years. Thus, it was a purely hypothetical case based on dubious facts.
Colorado and those that support its position assert that this decision will have consequences far beyond LGBTQ rights – for example, what about a business declining to create a website for a Muslim couple, or an interracial couple? One of the court’s more liberal justices wrote in her dissent that the decision’s effect is to “mark gays and lesbians for second-class status,” and that the decision opens the door to other forms of discrimination.
A Time to Grow
There is a child living in Albemarle County who has been removed from her home due to allegations of abuse and neglect. She is fortunate that the Judge reviewing the facts of her case assigns her a CASA Volunteer to advocate on her behalf. There is another child who lives a mile or two east of her who has also been removed due to abuse or neglect. This child is not so fortunate. There is no CASA program in her county; no one advocates just for her.
Children in need of a CASA volunteer exist throughout the Commonwealth. While families, lawyers, judges, and service providers all crisscross county lines within our Judicial District, Piedmont CASA’s Volunteers are limited to taking cases in only four of its nine localities. This means that children who find themselves in need of the services and support of a CASA Advocate in Fluvanna, Madison, and Orange counties, only a stone’s throw away, must do without.
As best interest advocates for children, how can Piedmont CASA turn a blind eye to the needs of children in our neighboring communities? It is in those children’s best interest that we expand our service area to include their home counties. They must have a voice throughout their foster care journey. So, with the support and approval of the presiding Judges, other professionals in the child welfare system, community members, and our Board of Directors, Piedmont CASA intends to roll-out coverage to these three additional counties in phases, beginning with Fluvanna.
Why start there? For one, it is closest to our current geographic region. We have Volunteers living in or near that County who are ready to serve. Necessary services are likely located in Charlottesville City or Albemarle County – providers we are already familiar with.
In terms of numbers, as of January 2023, Fluvanna had 21 children in care, over 75% of who were under the age of 18. The average time children spend in care in Fluvanna is just under 17 months, but the length of time for children whose goals are other than to return home or relative placement is significantly higher. These kids need a CASA Volunteer! We plan to begin serving abuse and neglect cases incrementally in Fluvanna this year, gradually increasing our coverage to 100% by July 2024.
After Fluvanna, Piedmont CASA will look to Madison County.
The DSS Foster Care Children Demographic reports state that there was an average of 20 children in care in Madison County each month of 2022. The average time in care was almost 29 months – 10 months longer than the state average. For those children who exited the system to adoption, that time was closer to 42 months. This adoption statistic is particularly significant as 60% of children leaving care in 2022 exited to adoption. Relative placement is particularly difficult in rural areas according to the DSS, and in 2022, no children in Madison County exited care to a placement with relatives. We believe that a CASA volunteer can help reduce the amount of time to permanency for these children.
Expanding to Madison County will present some challenges to our organization, but we are prepared to meet them. The distance of some parts of that County means that services for children and families will be received in locations unfamiliar to us. In anticipation of this, we plan to meet with local Madison County professionals to make connections prior to launching CASA services there.
We are also assembling a local advisory board to be a great resource for CASA, as well as an aid in introducing us to the community. Our intention is to begin serving Madison abuse and neglect cases in January 2024, with a goal of increasing coverage to 100% by January 2025.
Last, we will turn our attention to Orange County. There are currently 41 children in foster care in that County. However, from 2019 until now, that number has been steadily increasing. In 2022, the average number of children in care was 34; 24 in 2021.
Orange County spans 341 square miles, with parts of the County being closer to Charlottesville, while other parts closer to Fredericksburg. As with Madison, we are educating ourselves about the more distant parts of the County. We intend to meet with County professionals and residents to learn and to prepare. Some of our current Volunteers reside in Orange County, and, as with the other counties, we plan to recruit and train more volunteers from the area. We also intend to establish a local advisory board in each county. Our aim is to begin gradually serving cases in Orange County in July 2024, with a goal of reaching 100% coverage by July 2025.
As you can see, we are being intentional in our expansion efforts. We are carefully laying the necessary groundwork so that our expansion will not only be a success, but also sustainable in the long term. We anticipate having to both recruit new Volunteers and hire new CASA Supervisors. We are also investigating grants to help with the additional funding required for this ambitious undertaking.
Finally, it is our dedicated Volunteers who will help us make a difference for the children in these counties. Without a doubt, these kids need a CASA. How can we say no?
Virginia Department of Social Services, Foster Care Children Demographic Report for January 2023
Virginia Department of Social Services Foster Care Children Demographic Reports, January 2019 – December 2022
June is LGBTQIA+ Pride Month!
As we continue with our self-reflective work on one of Piedmont CASA’s newly adopted values – “Cultural Competency and Equity” – we are again challenged to respect and to celebrate diversity in all its forms.
Those individuals who identify as LGBTQIA+ are currently the focus of much animus and restrictive legal action in our country, particularly the youth. To help us learn more, and to be more effective advocates, here is a sampling of articles and events to raise our awareness and to challenge us to support and to action:
- “What the Science on Gender-Affirming Care for Transgender Kids Really Shows”
- “A Third of Trans Youth are at Risk of Losing Gender-Affirming Care, Study Says”
- “Few Transgender Children Change Their Minds After 5 Years, Study Finds”
- “LGBTQ+ Youth are Less Likely to Feel Depressed with Parental Support, Study Says”
- “LGBTQ Youth Coming Out Younger, Facing More Discrimination”
- “How to Support the Mental Health Of LGBTQ+ Kids in Your Life Right Now, According to Experts”
- Resources to support LGBTQ youth from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network can be found here.
- Information on Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Behavioral Health from SAMHSA can be found here.
- A vast array of resources from the Mental Health Technology Transfer Center Network can be found on this page
- Moving Beyond June
- The Brown Boi Project
- A great website here: Pride & Progress – A History of LGBTQ Political Power in the U.S.
- See the Mental Health Directory developed by the National Queer & Trans Therapists of color Network here.
- Your 2023 Guide To Virginia’s PRIDE Festivals & Events
- Pride Night at the McCormick Observatory
- Tour of the Memorial To Enslaved Laborers with the Out and About LGBTQ+ Social Group
- The Out and About LGBTQ+ Social Group
- Ten LGBTQ+ Spaces to Visit in Charlottesville and Albemarle County
- PFLAG Blue Ridge
What Does Trauma-Informed Care Mean?
As we continue our exploration of Piedmont CASA’s newly adopted values, we find the descriptive term “Trauma-Informed.” As one of our guiding principles, we aspire to recognize and acknowledge the impact of trauma on our kids and the importance of fostering resilience. And as a part of the child welfare system, we are mindful of our responsibility not to re-traumatize our kids or their families as we advocate for treatment and permanency.
Previously, Piedmont CASA Voices featured an article on resilience, a goal of successful trauma healing. Here we delve into what it means to provide trauma-informed care.
As context, did you know that at least one in seven children have experienced child abuse or neglect in the U.S.? And this is likely a conservative number as many cases go unreported. In 2020 alone, 1750 children died of abuse and neglect in the U.S. On a broader scale, almost 50% of all children, or 34 million kids younger than 18 years, have faced at least one form of a potentially traumatic early childhood experience. Thus, for many children and adolescents, traumatic experiences are all too common.
By definition, trauma-informed care requests us to use “practices that promote a culture of safety, empowerment, and healing,” whether this is in the health care system, mental health services, or through our work. So to provide trauma-informed care to our children, youth, and their families, we must learn how to effectively work within the foster care system without causing more trauma. How?
SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration within the federal Department of Health & Human Services, lists six key principles to adhere to in a trauma-informed approach:
- Safety – the child must feel safe, the family must feel safe, interactions should promote a sense of safety, and the physical environment should be a safe space.
- Trustworthiness and Transparency – decisions affecting the child and family must be transparent, made with the aim of building and maintaining trust.
- Peer Support – having those with lived experience, or other trauma survivors, should be part of the support system.
- Collaboration – equal partnering among all support staff, knowing that healing happens in relationships and in the sharing of power and decision-making.
- Empowerment – recognizing and building upon the strengths and experiences of the child and the family. Our kids and families, to the greatest extent possible, should share in the decision-making, choices, and goal-setting to help determine how best to heal and move forward.
- Cultural, Historical, and Gender Issues – recognizing cultural stereotypes and biases; and offering responses or plans responsive to the racial, ethnic, and cultural needs of our kids and families.
This quote resonates when considering how to implement these principles: “Trauma-informed approaches to care shift the focus from ‘What’s wrong with you?’ to ‘What happened to you?’” and then builds upon that knowledge as we advocate for our kids and families. When the trauma-related needs of children and families are identified, child and family well-being and resilience improve.
Keep in mind that trauma-informed care is the open-mindedness and compassion that all our children deserve. To neglect such care, especially for children, significantly increases the risk of serious health problems later — including chronic lung, heart, and liver disease as well as depression, sexually transmitted diseases, tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drug abuse. It is crucial then, in terms of providing effective advocacy, to understand the trauma history of our kids and their families, and to respond with empathy and understanding.
Resilience Week in Virginia 2023 is May 1-7. To learn more and to find helpful resources, click here.
Responding with Compassion
The Theme is “Black Resistance”
February is Black History Month.
At the beginning of this month, Kate invited all Piedmont CASA Volunteers, Board members, and staff to join her in reflecting on and learning more about one of our newly adopted values – “Cultural Competency and Equity.” As its title suggests, this value challenges us to respect and to celebrate diversity, and to work toward equity and justice for all of our CASA kids and their families.
To do so compels us to learn more about the history and impact of racism in our community and our nation – and particularly as it affects the systems in which we operate. To that end, here is a compilation of movies, books, videos, and articles to raise your awareness and to challenge your biases, be they acknowledged or not.
When They See Us
If Beale Street Could Talk
The Hate U Give
Remember the Titans
Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools
The Children of the Storm: Black Children and American Child Welfare, by Andrew Billingsley
Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi
The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander
Invisible Child, by Andrea Elliott
Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick: Stories from the Harlem Renaissance, by Zora Neale Hurston
And last but definitely not least, if you are unable to make it to the museum in person, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture has a “Searchable Museum” through which you can explore some of its exhibitions, all from the comfort of your easy chair. Now, let's get to work!
National Human Trafficking Prevention Month
By definition, the UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol states that human trafficking is "the recruitment, transport, transfer, harboring, or receipt of a person by such means as threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, abduction, fraud, or deception for the purpose of exploitation."
Three concrete actions are contained within the definition:
- The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons.
- The threat of or use of force, deception, coercion, abuse of power or position of vulnerability.
- For the purpose of exploitation.
Why such a grim topic? Because in December, 2022, President Biden officially proclaimed January, 2023, as “National Human Trafficking Prevention Month.”
This is a global crime. It exploits people of all genders, ages, and backgrounds – solely to gain a profit. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime issued its 2020 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons which reported that in 2018, about 50,000 human trafficking victims – predominately women and children – were detected and reported by 148 countries. And this is only a percentage of the actual total number of victims. Imagine the numbers who go unreported. About two-thirds of those convicted of human trafficking are male, although it appears that the conviction rate for female traffickers is on the rise. Human trafficking is a crime of opportunity and exploitation, and there are no definite patterns to it.
Closer to home, in 2021, the National Human Trafficking Hotline noted that there were 140 human trafficking cases identified in Virginia involving 179 victims. As a state, Virginia ranks 21st in the nation for identified cases – 1.35% of the nation’s total. Four cases were filed in the Virginia federal courts in 2021, involving five defendants. All of the victims were female and minors. Sadly, for the past two years, all federal cases have involved sex trafficking as opposed to forced labor.
Data collection on human trafficking in Virginia is highly decentralized, often collated by multiple sources such as the Virginia Department of Social Services, the Uniform Crime Reporting system, the federal Bureau of Justice Data, and the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission. As such, it is difficult to obtain an accurate picture of the extent or the scope of the crime in our Commonwealth. Nevertheless, in the state fiscal year 2021, 38 children and youth were identified by local DSS agencies as victims of sex trafficking.
Experts report that individuals in an unstable living situation, or who have previously experienced some form of trauma (such as domestic violence or sexual abuse), have run away, are involved in the juvenile justice or child welfare system, or if they are addicted to drugs or alcohol are more at risk of becoming a victim of trafficking. The individual’s trauma makes him or her more vulnerable and therefore more easily exploited.
Widespread myths surround the topic of human trafficking. Namely, that: it only involves undocumented aliens, it only occurs in illegal or subversive industries, it always involves sex, or the victim was abducted by the trafficker. Unfortunately, these myths, while sometimes true in the extreme, are far too simplistic. The crime has a much broader reach.
In a majority of the cases, the victim knows the trafficker. He or she masquerades as one who empathizes – wanting to help or to take care of the victim. Often the trafficker is a romantic partner or family member of the victim. The victims are both natural born citizens and foreign nationals, and human trafficking has occurred in a variety of legitimate industries such as restaurants, factories, construction, and cleaning services.
So how can one spot such a situation? How can we help? With victims of labor trafficking, some signs include:
- Pressure by his/her employer to stay in a job that the victim wants to leave.
- The victim is in debt to an employer and/or is not being paid what he/she is owed.
- The victim is living and working in isolated or dangerous conditions provided by the employer, and appears to be monitored by another person when interacting with others.
The signs of sex trafficking may include:
- The victim did not want to engage in the act, but was pressured into it.
- The victim is unable to leave his or her situation.
- He/she may live where they work or are transported between a set home and a workplace.
- He/she is monitored by another person and is not allowed interaction with others.
While telling, these signs are not all-inclusive. The best way to help is to pay attention to those you interact with. Figure out the context and try to learn the story.
The phone number for the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline is: 1-(888)-373-7888. Callers can remain anonymous.
Get to Know . . . Gwen Jones, Bridges to Success Coach
Now Introducing! Gwen Jones, Bridges to Success Coach.
Tell us about yourself:
I was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but moved to a small town in New York when I was four so my father could work as a chemist in a pharmaceutical company. After that, I moved approximately every 4-7 years until I got to Charlottesville. First, following my father, then chasing my advanced educational degrees. Most stops were small, rural towns (with the exception of Nashville, Tennessee, which really is a small town that grew too big).
I went to Bowdoin College, a small, rural college in Maine. At Bowdoin, I majored in Biology and Archeology. I attended graduate school in Massachusetts at UMass Amherst, where I got my Masters in Biochemistry. Figuring the best way to see the country and to avoid having to adult, I then enrolled in the Biochemistry PhD program at Purdue University. I managed to avoid adulting for the next ten years by pursuing a PhD in Biochemistry at Purdue and a postdoctoral fellowship at Vanderbilt University.
On the basis of a recommendation letter written by a Nobel Laureate on my behalf, I managed to land a faculty position at the University of Virginia. I eventually decided that the academic life was too stressful for me, so I took a job as a grant writer and program manager at the AIDS/HIV Services Group. Along the way, I acquired a dog, several cats, and a life partner. I also dabbled in officiating high school sports and taking in stray teenagers.
When did you begin work at Piedmont CASA and why?
I started working as a Bridges Coach in May, 2017. I was drawn to the job because I had spent ten plus years fostering teens, and I was frustrated by the lack of services available to them once they turned 18. When I saw the job announcement for the Bridges Coach position, I felt it was an opportunity to “put my money where my mouth is.”
What is the best part of your job?
Watching the youth I work with grow, mature, and realize that they can be more than they (or others) ever thought they could be.
So what, then, is the hardest part of your job?
When the youth reach that stage where they don’t need me anymore. Oh, and meetings.
Do you have any hobbies?
Gardening, reading, cooking
What are you reading right now? Do you have a favorite book?
My favorite books are Christine, by Stephen King, and A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving. I am reading a number of books right now. I have a different book on each electronic device plus paperbacks. The paperbacks are all work-related books (Raising Human Beings: Creating a Collaborative Partnership with Your Child, by Ross W. Greene is one), while the digital books are all mysteries that I download for free.
Do you have a favorite movie?
Oooh, hard one. Die Hard, Cliffhanger, the early Harry Potter movies, The Princess Bride, and anything with Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Spencer Tracy, and Katharine Hepburn.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
In the spring and summer, I obsessively garden. During the dark months, I obsessively watch true crime dramas and Scandinavian mysteries. In between, I spend time with my 75 pound German Shepard, hanging out with friends at my local bar watching sports (or not), officiating high school sports, and boxing.
Where is the best vacation spot you have been to?
St. Croix. I went with a group of friends and stayed in a house built for Leon Uris. Or, it could also be St. John, where my friends and I stayed in eco tents and were introduced to the “Painkiller” cocktail as we sailed around the Virgin Islands.
Name your favorite food.
Can you recall the best piece of advice someone gave you?
“If you do just one thing every day, you will eventually reach your goals.”
What My Bones Know, by Stephanie Foo
“I hadn’t understood how far the disease had spread. How complete its takeover of my identity was. . . My trauma is literally pumping through my blood, driving every decision in my brain.”
So begins the memoir, What My Bones Know, by Stephanie Foo.
This book is an odyssey through the battleground of Foo’s childhood into her adulthood, and the ensuing effects on both her body and her behavior of that trauma. It is her attempt to further her healing, a process she continues to work on.
Initially, Foo describes the emotional and physical abuse she endured at the hands of her parents, and the coping mechanisms she developed in order to deal with it. She describes her movement from wanting to please and do her best – to be a “good girl” – to an angry, defiant teen. She is unflinching in her description of her behavior – how she craved love, approval, and validation, yet was so needy and angry that she pushed people away. She was simply too much of an emotional volcano for most of her friends to handle.
Her unswerving focus to excel drove her to be the successful journalist that she is. You may recognize her name as a producer of This American Life and Snap Judgment, both weekly public radio shows. Yet as she was excelling in her career, working ever harder, she was collapsing inside.
Foo describes her search for a therapist, realizing that she was in desperate need of help. She saw one for eight years before she was told that she had C-PTSD, Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. She details the various therapies she tried – everything from EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) to IFS (Internal Family Systems therapy) to meditation to acupuncture to yoga and so on. At the same time, she was conducting a deep dive into the science of C-PTSD and trauma, providing the readers with an insight into her findings.
An interesting twist in her memoir is Foo’s exploration of her Asian roots, noting that many of her parent’s generation in the San Jose, CA area in which she lived were also Asian immigrants, having fled various wars, conflicts, and experiencing immigrant trauma of their own. Her theory is that the trauma these parents endured was then genetically passed onto Foo and her peers, just like eye or hair color, thereby influencing her generation's physical and mental health. She couples that insight with the traditional Asian stereotype, which was apparently true for her and her peers, of the pressure to excel in school, sports, music, or whatever endeavor they tried. That if she was not the top performer, she was a failure. She realizes that this idea of generational trauma is not her panacea, but it helps to inform her condition.
Foo was left on her own by her parents when she was in her teens, so it is a testament to her strength and determination that she fought her way through high school, college, and into the job world. And this was while she was suffering from depression, anxiety, and her myriad other behavioral and mental issues, or as she refers to them, “the many knives I have to carry.” As an adult she developed painful endometriosis, and discovered that 80% of women who suffered from childhood trauma develop it. Again, she is tying her childhood trauma to her eventual health problems.
The subject matter of childhood trauma and its lasting effects is a heavy topic, but Foo guides you through her journey with humor, self-perception, and surprising candor. She learns much about relationships with others, and how shame and punishment do not serve to make things better, they only isolate more. More than once I flinched at what she revealed. Her strength of spirit and determination to realize that there has to be a better life and to relentlessly search for healing is inspiring.
Because she also revealed it at the beginning of the book, I feel comfortable giving the Spoiler Alert: The memoir does have a happy ending.
I recommend you read it and find out.
“I am full of anger, pain, peace, love, of horrible shards and exquisite beauty, and the lifelong challenge will be to balance all of those thing while keeping them in [my] circle. Healing is never final. It is never perfection. But along with the losses are the triumphs.” – Stephanie Foo
What’s a Parent To Do?
By all accounts, in spite of high inflation, crazy interest rates, and less than enthusiastic consumer confidence, the job market is booming. As of August 2022, there were 1.7 jobs available for every unemployed person. Job vacancies have numbered over 10 million for 14 straight months. All things being equal, it should be no problem to be gainfully employed, right?
Think again. What if you are heading into the workforce, but are also a parent of young children? You found the job, but your path to financial independence is blocked by the glaring issue of child care. While the job market as a whole continues to gain momentum, the same cannot be said for the child care industry. Approximately 9.7% of the child care sector workforce has been lost between February 2020 and September 2022 when compared to pre-COVID levels. This amounts to roughly 102,400 fewer employees. And by industry tracker estimates, that leaves around 460,000 families scrambling to find reliable, consistent child care.
The reasons for this mass exodus? Overwhelmingly, it is the level of compensation and lack of benefits. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average pay for a child care worker was $13.31 per hour in 2021 – one of the lowest paid occupations, at $27,680 per year. One can work in a stocking position for Target, Amazon, or the local Whole Foods, and earn more per hour than a job in the child care industry. In fact, before the pandemic, 98% of occupations paid more than that of a child care worker.
Child care providers operate on a tight margin. A report from Wells Fargo describes the industry as existing within a “pay paradigm.” Child care is one of the leading household expenses for parents, yet the pay for child care workers and early educators is substandard. On average, child care costs around $11,000 per year, or about 14% of the median household income for a family with a child under 6 years of age. With the expense already eating up so much of a family’s budget, it is hard for a child care center to raise its price and keep its clientele, even though the actual costs of the program can run much higher (think: supplies, snacks, equipment, etc.).
So as child care providers are forced to shut down or limit enrollment to accommodate less staff, it is the parents and the children who suffer, primarily lower income parents. Even more specifically, women. Currently, women with young children have a labor force participation rate that is 28% below that of men with similar age children. Paradoxically, the child care industry has the greatest share of women employees – they account for almost 96% of the workers.
The same Wells Fargo report notes that, “Access to childcare has been shown time and again to boost labor force participation among mothers. For employers struggling to find workers now and facing a future of labor supply growth, improving childcare options for parents means a larger and more experienced workforce to draw upon.”
So what is the solution? Unlike public schools, child care centers are not funded by taxpayer dollars, but rather rely primarily on their tuition charge to parents. Some do get public assistance, but the amount received varies across states and jurisdictions. Additional federal funding to expand subsidized child care, the child tax credits, and to raise the base pay of child care workers to a minimum of $15/hour was proposed in President Biden’s recent Build Back Better bill. Unfortunately, that iteration of the bill was blocked by Republicans in Congress, with additional resistance coming from Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. The final bill passed by Congress removed those investments.
A report by UCal Berkeley is particularly poignant. It summarizes that, "We are not going to solve this problem without public intervention and public funding. . . It really is the equivalent of trying to fund a public school system through parent fees." Currently though, the issue is up to each individual state to figure out, and it is at that level where change must occur. While Montana and Iowa have responded by relaxing their state child care regulations, increasing the number of children one care worker can supervise at a time, and even allowing 16-year-olds to care for up to 15 children, those measures have met with stiff opposition – notably by child development experts who worry about safety and the decrease in quality care.
While parents struggle to provide for their families, they find themselves squeezed as child care options either disappear or else are at a significantly higher cost – such as a private nanny. If family members are unable to provide care, parents are then forced to stay out of the labor market altogether. As the Berkeley report concludes, "If we can't figure out how to have reform of our early childhood education system that is driven by public dollars, we're not going to recover from this crisis."
Higher Education for Foster Care Youth? Yes!
Imagine the future for an 18-year-old who has existed within the foster care system, but is now aging out. Mind you, this is a teenager who has not been adopted, reunited with a parent, nor secure in a permanent home. He is also without the social services and supports he had while in the foster care system. As a frame of reference, more than 220,000 youth nationwide left foster care as a result of aging out of the system in 2020. In Virginia, picture the roughly 2,600 youth who exited foster care that same year as a result of aging out – at just 18 years old.
Statistically, these youths are found to have more behavioral, mental, and physical health issues than their non-foster care peers. Roughly 50% of emancipated youth are unemployed by age 24, 46% are in prison by age 26, 20% become homeless, 70% of women are pregnant by age 21 (32% before 18), and 92% are without any sort of post-secondary degree or training.
While higher education can be a life-changing experience for all young people, teens in foster care are far less likely to enroll in a two- or four-year college than their peers – predominately due to the lack of resources, including the support system that kids need to guide them through the process. Surveys show that at least 80% of foster youth want to go to college, but few enroll. Ironically, many colleges have specific grants and funding dedicated to foster youth to help cover the cost of higher education; the challenge lies in the preparation and application process.
To help reverse this course, the U.S. Department of Education recently elected to invest millions more dollars in aid to foster youth for the higher education process. In 2008, the Virginia Foundation for Community College Education developed a program – Great Expectations – designed to help foster care youth gain access to a community college education and transition into adulthood. In essence, the program pairs foster youth with adult mentors who provide guidance and assistance for tuition costs, housing, and other basic needs. Since its inception, Great Expectations has helped over 3,500 foster care youth enroll in college.
Boosted by the aid money from the DOE, the Virginia General Assembly just announced a new $1 million grant to expand Great Expectations so that it can reach every community college in the Commonwealth by the fall of 2022. It is a two-year spending plan, with Great Expectations to receive $500,000 per fiscal year over the state’s two-year budget period beginning July 1, 2022.
The success of Great Expectation shows in the graduation rate among its students – three times the national average for those who have experienced foster care. Per its own data, 42% of the students in the program graduate with either a community college degree, a diploma, a vocational trade certificate, or a transfer to a four-year college or university. Over 1,253 degrees, diplomas, or certificates have been awarded since the program’s inception.
“Great Expectations serves to provide wrap-around support services to these students to aid in their success while enrolled at the community college level and beyond. Students have expressed that without these support services — more frequent check-ins with an advisor, access to emergency financial assistance/scholarship funds, and connection to community resources — they would not have the ability or the knowledge on how to be a successful college student,” concludes one Great Expectation coach. Now this is a life-changing experience.
Into the Unknown . . . Back to a New School Year
A new school year has begun. New school supplies, new classes, new teachers, maybe even new friends. But will a new school year also include new behaviors?
Let’s review where we were. Based on survey responses received from over 800 public schools at the close of the 2021-2022 school year, the National Center for Education Statistics found that more than 80% of the reporting schools noted that “the pandemic has taken a toll on student behavior and social-emotional development.” More than 70% “saw increases in chronic student absenteeism,” and half reported an increase in disrespect and abuse toward school staff. More mental health support for students was the overwhelming ask. Clearly, the pandemic had a significant adverse effect on our school-age kids, with those in disadvantaged areas being the hardest hit.
For months, numerous studies have concluded that students were experiencing increased levels of stress and depression as a result of the pandemic and the ensuing isolation due to mandated remote learning. Add to this the current racial tensions, school shootings, war in the Ukraine, and a deeply divided country, and it is no wonder our kids are unraveling. In fact, the U.S. Surgeon General has deemed the nationwide increase in adolescent depression an “urgent public health crisis.”
Some form of suicide prevention training has been a requirement in schools for years, but the pandemic has necessitated the broadening of that training to include mental health awareness. One example is “Youth Mental Health First Aid,” a course made available to teachers and school staff in California. It focuses on how to spot the warning signs that a child is at risk, and how to prevent any further escalation.
Schools shout that they are in desperate need of more school counselors and psychologists to help take care of their kids. A report published by a coalition of national mental health organizations, The Hopeful Futures Campaign, noted that a majority of states are struggling with mental health support in their schools. “Only Idaho and the District of Columbia exceed the nationally recommended ratio of one psychologist per 500 students. . . Similarly, few states meet the goal of one counselor per 250 students.”
By the end of the 2021-2022 school year, many schools reported that their students’ ability to cope with stress had changed. They described an increase in overall student disrespect, school violence, and substance abuse – accompanied by a concerning increase in student apathy, with a corresponding decrease in compassion. Clearly, the kids are not all right.
The rise in disrespect and abuse, coupled with their own pandemic-related stressors, are also contributing to the current nationwide teacher shortage. In April, the National Education Association union leader called it “a five alarm crisis.” An Education Week Survey conducted in July, polling school administrators and district leaders, revealed that just under 75% of the respondents said that the number of their applicants was not enough to fill open teacher positions – to say nothing of teacher aides, substitutes, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and custodial staff. Looking toward the future, the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education has noted that enrollment in teacher prep courses has decreased dramatically as well – down 33% between 2010-2020.
When school staff shortages occur, both the students and the teachers suffer. Schools across the country are trying to combat the current shortages with a variety of efforts – bonuses, increased wages, a four-day school week, and, unfortunately, increasing class sizes and the relaxing of teaching credential requirements. Even locally, it has been reported that our schools are scrambling to fill teaching and bus driver positions.
Among Richmond, Chesterfield, and Henrico school districts, there were close to a thousand school staff vacancies last July. Prior to the start of this new school year, Albemarle County was still trying to hire 20 more new teachers. Low salary rates seem to be another contributing factor. Given the current rate of inflation and the cost of living in Albemarle County, teachers in this school system are earning roughly the same as they were in 1996.
The Commonwealth’s latest two-year budget included an overall 10% salary increase for teachers – 5% per year – but it is unclear whether this will be enough to recruit and retain. The Virginia Beach school district went a step further and approved a 6% raise for all new employees and a $1,000 retention bonus. It also went back to retired employees for help in filling the gaps. In an attempt to drum up more applicants, the school district conducted an advertising campaign, using both radio ads and local TV stations. Where has the money come from for these expenditures? Federal pandemic aid – an interesting cycle.
The increase in competition for available teachers has only intensified the gap between the high- and the low-income school districts, making it even harder for struggling kids to learn. Larger class sizes correlate to less individual attention. The lag in trying to catch-up leads to an overall frustration with the school system which, in turn, creates more pressure, and ultimately leads to the school behaviors we are experiencing among both students and teachers.
So here we are, beginning the 2022-2023 school year with this shadow in the background. What can be done to help our kids navigate this “back to in-person” transition and to recover from the academic setbacks of the last two years? To start, the Safer Communities Act, the gun safety legislation passed as a result of the horror in Uvalde, Texas, includes $1.7 billion in mental health support. The Departments of Education and Health and Human Services are tasked with releasing $300 million of this money to help schools recruit and hire additional counselors, psychologists, and school nurses, as well as to retain current staff and incentivize others to work in the neediest schools.
The relaxing of COVID restrictions, eliminating virtual learning, and the return of social activities for the kids – whether this be school dances, drama productions, sports, clubs, etc. – should help with the chronic absenteeism and the depression caused by the isolation. Teachers and school administrators know that not all students are going to come back at the same learning level. Parents are going to have to realize this too, and let-up on the pressure on their kid and his teacher. Hopefully a slow but steady beginning, allowing time for teachers and kids to acclimate, learn the routines, and learn what the expectations are, will go a long way in helping to forge new behaviors and to promote learning.
Get to Know . . . Leah Cole, our New Program Director
Here are some fun facts about Leah Cole, past Bridges to Success Coach and our new Program Director.
Tell us about yourself:
I was born and raised near Edinboro, PA, a small town right in the snow belt by Lake Erie. We lived in the country, so I spent my summers with my younger sister exploring the woods, wading in the creeks, riding four-wheelers, and caring for any critters that showed up at our “farm.” There were always new litters of kittens to find in the hay, horses in need of carrots, and sometimes a few baby cows ready for their bottle.
Around the age of twelve, I became a weekend sitter for a family of three children. This was the start of my passion for working with youth which continued into my career as an educator. My dad worked as an electrician at Edinboro University, so the plan had always been for me to stay local. That’s where I earned my Elementary/Special Education degree and English minor. After graduating, I worked in a range of school levels and program types for about ten years in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia. I found the value in shared experiences with youth of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities.
Currently, I live in the country just outside Charlottesville with Ryan, two cats, two mice, and our new addition this summer, a young Border Collie mix.
When did you begin working at Piedmont CASA and why?
A little over five years ago, I began my role as a Bridges to Success Coach for older youth in foster care. I found my teaching role to be rewarding, but I had always felt pulled to do more at the individual level – to help with life-skills and more personal needs. The Coach position provided that ability. Being able to work one-on-one with youth to help them reach their own goals and overcome systematic barriers has been both emotional and challenging at times. However, I truly valued the time to build relationships, see their growth, and walk with them through all the ups and downs on the path to adulthood. I stayed because I see the worth in helping youth have their voices heard and feel valued in the midst of the foster care process.
Do you have any hobbies?
I enjoy books and music of all kinds. Getting outdoors to hike or be near water is important for me to recharge. Writing and creating art have always been outlets for me. Attending live music and comedy shows has been great to get back into this year as well.
What are you reading right now? Do you have a favorite book?
Reading has always been my way to escape or to continue learning. I’ll read pretty much any genre. Currently, I’m reading The Leadership Challenge for my Center for Nonprofit Excellence group. Before that, I read the NCASA book club books, including Maid. I also read National Geographic and Discover magazines. Where the Red Fern Grows and A Wrinkle in Time were a few of my favorites as a kid.
How about a favorite movie?
This is a tough one. My family loved going to drive-ins and renting VHS tapes, so I’ve seen quite a few. Same with books, I like a little bit of all kinds rather than sticking with one genre. I like historical fiction movies like Dances with Wolves. My sister and I watched Matilda and Home Alone more times than I can count.
What TV show would you recommend?
Lately, I’ve been watching Only Murders in the Building which has been a good lighthearted mix of comedy and mystery.
Where is the best vacation spot you have been to?
During college, I went on a study abroad trip to Paris, France, which was my first flight and my first time out of the country. It was a pretty eye-opening experience to be out of my small town and to learn about other cultures. The gardens, architecture, breads, and gelato were hard to leave, but I was actually not really impressed with the Mona Lisa and the Eiffel Tower.
Any place with a body of water nearby is a good place to me.
Are you a dog or a cat person?
I’m a critter person. I love all kinds of animals. Cats are definitely easier to take care of, but dogs’ love of life is pretty contagious.
How about a favorite food?
Peanut butter and jelly toast with a cheese omelet any time. Also, veggie burritos from Enigma Jalisco.
Can you recall the best piece of advice someone gave you?
My mom gave me a wooden sign with a good reminder: “Until further notice, celebrate everything.” Life can be difficult at times, but we have to remember all the good moments and the little things.
The Food Scarcity Crisis – How do We Feed our Kids?
Does this statistic surprise you? Per the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization: “it is estimated that between 720-811 million people in the world faced hunger in 2020.” After remaining relatively static between 2014-2019, the prevalence of food scarcity in the world climbed to approximately 9.9% of the world’s population in 2020, up from 8.4% in 2019. The causes are myriad, but world conflicts, climate extremes, the global economy, and, of course, the COVID pandemic have contributed mightily – and continue to do so.
As a measurable variable, how is food insecurity defined? In the U.S., the Department of Agriculture introduced new language in 2006 to describe the ranges of food insecurity in terms of its severity. This is what it determined:
- High food security - no reported indications of food-access problems.
- Marginal food security - one or two reported indications, typically anxiety over food sufficiency or shortage of food in the house. Little or no indication of changes in diets or food intake.
- Low food security - reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet. Little or no indication of reduced food intake.
- Very low food security - reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.
In short, food security means access by all people, at all times, to enough food for a healthy life. Food insecurity is the opposite.
Nationwide, 10.5% of U.S. households (or 13.8 million people), were food insecure at some time during 2020. Among U.S. households with children under the age of 18, 7.6% or 2.9 million households, were food insecure.
The USDA further determined that food insecurity was higher than the national average for households with children (14.8%); households with children headed by a single parent – either a woman (27.7%) or a man (16.3%); households with Black non-Hispanic (21.7%) and Hispanic persons (17.2%); and households with incomes below the poverty threshold (28.6%) – the Federal poverty line was $26,246 for a family of four in 2020. Concerning for those of us who work so closely with children is that overall, households with children have a substantially higher rate of food insecurity than those without.
How do we fare in Virginia? According to Feeding America, a non-profit organization working to ensure equitable access to nutritious food for all, the average cost of one meal in Virginia in 2020 was $3.30 cents. Doesn’t seem like much, does it? Nevertheless, 658,470 people in our state were food insecure – that equates to 7.7% of our population. When you focus on children in our state, 182,170 children – those under the age of 18 – were food insecure. An increase to roughly 9.7% of the estimated total number of children in our state. No child should be without food.
The Virginia Department of Social Services paints a gloomier picture. The agency estimates that Virginia's food insecurity rose to 22.5% (or more than one in five people) just during the April-May, 2020 timeframe. The Virginia SNAP-Ed Food Security Survey found that “58% of households reported they did not have money to buy enough food, and children in 29% of households were not eating enough as a result.” Again, how are we to feed all our kids?
In October, 2020, Governor Ralph Northam released the ‘Roadmap to End Hunger,’ a “comprehensive agenda to alleviate food insecurity in the Commonwealth.” This proposal endorsed these overall objectives: to maximize federal nutrition program participation and access, to invest in a strong regional food system, and to empower local communities to help. To accomplish these goals, ten specific aspirational items were listed with the intention to reduce food insecurity in Virginia by 2025.
One year later, were there any successes? According to a Food Insecurity Study conducted by Virginia Tech, as of December, 2020, “81.2% of adults receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits reported being food insecure, as compared to 59.3% in April, 2020." Feeding America estimated that the economy and the pandemic resulted in 150,000 more food-insecure people in Virginia – up from 799,600 in 2019, and this total includes 214,200 children. During 2021, food bank distributions in the Commonwealth increased by 30%.
Still, several legislative efforts directed at the crisis were passed by the Virginia House in 2021. One bill required all eligible schools in the state to participate in the At-Risk Afterschool Child and Adult Care Food Program which is intended to expand access to afterschool meals. Another bill established the Virginia Agriculture Food Assistance Program and Fund to allow Virginia farmers to directly donate or sell their fool to food banks and thereby increase the availability of fresh produce. Still another created the Virginia Food Access Investment Program and Fund to invest in healthy food projects and businesses, particularly in historically marginalized communities. These are some incremental but important steps, yet more work needs to be done.
The need to address this global emergency is at an inflection point. Due to the lasting effects of the pandemic and other humanitarian crises, the United Nations estimates that approximately 660 million people may still face hunger in 2030 – 30 million more than had the pandemic not occurred. In effect, if not addressed, by 2030 the number of people facing hunger in our world will be close to double the current population of the U.S. An alarming thought.
Let’s get to work. Reach out to your local food bank and volunteer your time or money. Help prepare and serve a meal at your local homeless shelter. Support local farmers. Find a way to help feed our kids.
Let’s Try a Little Kindness
The phrase “self-care” conjures a myriad of meanings, some practical, others not so much. We may, or may not, pay much attention to it, deeming life way too busy. No longer. In fact, for many the practice of self-care is a life-saver. Or, at least, a sanity-saver.
Let’s face it. We are having a mental health crisis in this country. According to an annual survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, 44% of respondents’ reported that their stress levels have increased over the past five years. Money, work, and the economy top the list of the most frequently cited sources of stress in the most recent survey. These worries, on top of the continuous anxiety-provoking COVID-19 pandemic, are pushing stress levels to an alarming high.
Even our kids are stressed. Almost a third of the children surveyed reported that within the past year, they had experienced a physical health symptom often associated with stress, such as headaches, stomach aches, or trouble falling or staying asleep.
In trying to manage our stress, it seems as though our coping mechanisms have been pushed to the brink. Almost 50% of the adults surveyed reported an increase in eating and alcohol use. Before we become a nation of overweight, anxious alcoholics, what can we do to help ourselves? Self-care.
Practicing self-care is not easy. Some of the associated phrases can cause us to squirm, and taking time for ourselves often feels selfish, or worse, weak. But maintaining our mental and physical health is actually the opposite – it helps you become more resilient, helping you to better handle the zingers life throws your way.
So what are some simple, easy ways we can all practice self-care without any guilt or, well, . . . stress? We know that we should regularly exercise, eat healthy meals, and get enough sleep. Easier said than done. Plus, research indicates that it is usually a lack of willpower that is the largest stumbling block to our healthy initiatives. What we need to do is to find what works best for each of us, because if self-care turns out to be another angst-producing task in our lives, we will stop before we even begin.
How about trying some of these suggestions for a start?
- Try an intentional relaxation activity using a wellness app that includes meditation or deep breathing exercises. Try yoga – there are dozens of free videos on YouTube to guide you.
- Practice gratitude by looking for things to be grateful for every day. Even small things like a hug from a friend, a bright red cardinal, or a beautiful flower. Use a journal and jot down three things at the end of each day to remind you of your joy.
- Stay connected with friends and family – preferably over the phone or in person, rather than via a quick text. Have an actual conversation, even if it is only a minute long. It is wonderful to hear a loved one’s voice or to see her in person. If you can’t do that, write a letter and mail it. Who doesn’t love to receive something other than a bill in the mail?
- To that end, do something nice for someone else. Something simple like bringing in their garbage can, picking up their mail, or just stopping to say hello will do. Or go big and volunteer. The local food pantry, SPCA, or whatever charity moves you would love your help. We sure love our volunteers at Piedmont CASA. Thinking of someone else often takes the focus off ourselves and our woes.
- Go for a walk. Just being outside does wonders for your mental health. It reduces stress, lessens fatigue, and lowers your blood pressure.
- Try getting organized. A small change like keeping a calendar or planner handy to write down appointments or tasks eases the pressure to remember everything. Even better is crossing items off your list to see how much you have accomplished.
If you still insist that you have no time, that these activities are ridiculous, and that your stress is so much more than can be resolved with such simple suggestions, remember this advice from therapist, Amanda Dodson, LCSW:
- You are not special. Regardless of what you tell yourself or how you feel, you are just a person like the rest of us, neither especially bad nor especially good. Your issues are not unique. Give yourself (and us) a break and learn to be kind to yourself. Stop the negative thoughts when they begin and reframe them in a more positive light.
- It is not all about you. Human beings are incredibly self-absorbed; they are too busy focusing on themselves to focus on you. So look up. Look around. No one is watching you or condemning you, and even if he is, does his opinion even matter?
- Life truly can be unfair. Whether you believe it or not, bad stuff happens to everyone. You may think that you are on the receiving end of more than your fair share of stress, but know that the suffering of the world is not your fault. Bad things just happen. Learn to accept that life can be unkind, and try some compassion. Perhaps the ugliness of the world will help to highlight the beauty of it.
Every day, make it a practice to look for some small ways to be kind to yourself – to bring a smile to your face or a lift to your spirits. When you do, you will find yourself to be more resilient, healthy, and happy. Your body, your family, your friends, and your co-workers will thank you.
Once in a while, we would like to introduce you to a book or movie that might be of interest. For this inaugural Piedmont CASA Voices review, I present the short, award-winning, documentary Heroin(e).
This sad, poignant, yet hopeful film falls squarely within the theme of resilience. The location is Huntington, West Virginia, known as the “Overdose Capital of the Nation.” In this small town, in a relatively small state, the overdose rate is ten times that of the national average.
Setting the stage for the rest of the documentary, the film begins with a siren blaring and the 911 radio blasting details about an overdose in the bathroom of a local restaurant.
Against this backdrop, Heroin(e) follows three strong women working amid this devastation. Jan Rader, Deputy Chief (now the full Chief), Huntington Fire Department, is driving the car on route to the restaurant. As she is handling that call, additional drug-related calls are coming in over the radio. She is a calm woman with a direct, professional, caring demeanor. Unfortunately, she is too late to help the person; he dies on the scene.
Later, while driving through the town, she points at houses saying, “It’s sad when you can drive around a city and say ‘somebody died there, somebody died there,’ but that’s the reality in this area.” Rader explains that Huntington is an industrial town of hard-working people, and as such, they often suffer work-related injuries. The injured person becomes hooked on pain pills while trying to recover, and then moves on to heroin when the pain pills become unavailable. “I fear that we’ve lost a couple generations, not just one,” she sighs.
Judge Patricia Keller, Cabell County Drug Court, sits behind her bench working through a loaded docket. She speaks to each defendant as though the two are in a conversation. There is no condemnation in her words, but rather firm compassion, while she provides guidance, direction, and a list of the possible repercussions should the defendant fail. Even when imposing a sentence, Keller presents it as if it were in the individual’s best interest, not as an action meant to punish.
Necia Freeman is the third of the women featured. She explains that she started the “Brown Bag Ministry” in response to an article she read about the death of a prostitute – a local Huntington girl. In her Ministry, Freeman envisioned herself driving around certain areas of Huntington handing out brown-bag lunches and a biblical tract to the prostitutes she encountered. She imagined herself and the women sitting down, having a conversation, and all would be restored. She chuckles at her naiveté, realizing how simple she thought the solution would be.
She continues to drive around Huntington at night, greeting each woman she recognizes by name, offering food, support, and assistance. She refers to one as “one of the girls,” saying, “I love her.” She no longer expects healing.
Freeman tries to find a bed for one of the women, cajoling her into taking it, calling her “Honey,” and telling her “I love ya.” She asks another to explain what is so powerful about heroine that would lead her to this end. The response? “The only way I can explain it to you is what it would feel like for you to kiss Jesus.”
Rader notes that 20 years ago, overdoses in Huntington were few and far between. Now, “we have five, six, seven daily.” “It is a moral obligation for me,” she answers, trying to explain why she cares so deeply. She views the heroin epidemic as a national problem, one with the potential to bankrupt the country. In 2015, Rader says, Cabell County alone spent roughly $100 million for health care resulting from drug use. And “that’s one small county in one small state.”
Back to Judge Keller. She asks one defendant what his plan is; “what are we going to do with you?” urging him to engage in his own recovery. On the other hand, she rejoices with those who become clean, hugging each graduate of the Drug Court program.
The film shifts to the body of a young woman lying across the counter at a Sheetz gas station. Patrons continue about their business while EMTs work to revive her. One paramedic says it “doesn’t shock me anymore.” Jan Rader worries about the psychological effect the increase in drug-related deaths is having on the younger firefighters and EMTs. She also worries about the more powerful drugs she sees coming.
Each of these women works amid this horrifying, intractable issue with a deep-seated personal concern and unflinching hope. The film is as much a profile in their courage as it is a glimpse into the overwhelming opioid epidemic ravaging this country. Rader concludes, “We stand together proving anything is possible. . . We will not be defined by this problem.” A true portrait of compassion and caring in the face of an ugly, hurting crisis.
My earliest memory of my father is standing on a Kansas train station platform watching him board as he began his journey to Viet Nam. I had no awareness of the magnitude of his trip, nor how long he would be gone, only that my mother and I were handing out doughnuts to the GIs who were also leaving, and that I probably ate more than I gave. I also remember being at an airport as we waited for him to deplane on his return. I was unsure which man he was by that time, but as my older brothers took off running to greet him, I ran after them. Most of my memories of my father are tied to his military career – where we lived, how he looked in his uniform, watching him polish his shoes and his brass each morning, the honor with which he lived his life. To this day, I can still hear his laugh. I wouldn’t trade these memories for the world.
Other than dating myself, what is my point? First, let me say that wonderful families and wonderful parents come in all shapes and sizes, and we are thankful for them all. But since June is the month in which we traditionally celebrate fathers, that is my aim here. So then, what is my point in telling you about my father? It is that my memories of him are good ones, and that he was an important part of my life.
Fathers should be an important, positive part of every child’s life. Unfortunately, according to 2021 U.S. Census data, there are 18.4 million children in our country growing up without a biological, step, or adoptive father in their life.
When raised in a father-less home, research shows that children have a greater risk of living in poverty; are more likely to have behavioral problems; are more likely to get involved in the criminal justice system; and are two times more likely to become obese. The role of an engaged, caring father in the emotional and physical development life of a child cannot be overstated.
Children raised with a compassionate, concerned father figure tend to have a greater level of social competence and better relationships with their peers. They are often better at regulating their emotions, and tend to do better in school. As for physical development, an involved father often leads to less infant mortality, higher infant birth weights, and less tendency to engage in alcohol and substance abuse when older.
Caring fathers are good for mothers, too. When fathers are positively involved during pregnancy and child-rearing, mothers are more likely to receive prenatal care, are less likely to smoke during pregnancy, and are at lower risk for post-partum stress and depression.
Families function best as a cohesive system rather than just a one-parent-to-child relationship. Paid paternal leave is one of the best ways to encourage and facilitate an involved father. Unfortunately, this has yet to become a national norm. All too often, mothers are the sole focus of family support. It is necessary to recognize the positive effect of a father and work to promote that effort.
Within our world, the child welfare system needs to carefully design interventions to remove any barriers to father-involvement in programming efforts. The barriers our CASA fathers face are myriad and imposing, and include everything from work schedules to military deployment, incarceration, tension with the child’s mother, addiction, and possibly, the lack of seeing any personal benefit to being involved.
Studies have focused on finding strategies that work to involve and engage fathers in social services programming. Several have proven successful and are relatively straightforward, such as:
- Adjusting program schedules to meet fathers’ needs;
- Developing and then offering materials created just for fathers;
- Determine the individual needs of each father and work to meet those needs;
- Clear, direct, and positive communication with the father; and
- Resources and providers who will guide and support parenting skills.
An agency that honors the individual gifts of each father and what he offers to the child and to the family as a whole, helps to create a positive relationship with the father which, in turn, helps the child. Working to ensure the father feels respected as an equal in the parenting process reinforces his role as an important part of his child’s life.
Recall and celebrate the positive memories you have of your father during this time in June. If you did not have an engaged father, perhaps there was a grandfather, uncle, coach, teacher, or other male mentor who helped you to grow. Let’s celebrate these men and be grateful they chose to be a supportive part of our life.
“Any fool can have a child. That doesn’t make you a father. It’s the courage to raise a child that makes you a father.” – Barack Obama
“Every father should remember one day his [child] will follow his example, not his advice.” – Charles Kettering
Tech Safety? The Kids Online Safety Act
Ignited by the revelations of Instagram whistleblower Frances Haugen, a bipartisan bill – The Kids Online Safety Act – was introduced by Senators Richard Blumenthal and Marsha Blackburn in February. Haugen, as you may recall, made the headlines by leaking internal research on the effect Instagram (owned by Facebook) is having on teens' mental health – effects that Facebook executives knew about but declined to disclose.
For example, Haugen leaked one Facebook study which found that 13.5% of teenage girls surveyed in the United Kingdom said that their suicidal thoughts became more frequent after starting on Instagram. Another leaked study found that 17% of teen girls reported that their eating disorders became worse after using Instagram.
As a result of these and other revelations, the Kids Online Safety Act was written from the perspective that the big tech companies running the more kid-popular apps are not doing enough to protect their teen users, or, in the alternative, are simply ignoring the correlation effects altogether.
The bill puts an affirmative duty on these companies to act in the best interests of their teen users – specifically those 16 and younger, and to help prevent or mitigate the risk of potentially harmful behaviors, including suicide, eating disorders, substance abuse, and more.
Specifically, tech companies within the purview of the bill will be required to provide parents and users 16 years and under, the choice to opt out of algorithmic recommendations – those annoying pop-ups that could lead to even more harmful sites. As a default setting, the affirmative choice further prevents third parties from seeing a minor’s online usage data, as well as limit the time kids spend online. It prevents such features like autoplay, which works to extend online time.
If passed, the bill will have a massive effect on the design of most of the platforms so popular with kids: Facebook, Snap, Google, and TikTok. Any required redesign will, in turn, lead to a huge financial cost for those companies.
Additional interesting features of the Act are that:
- The covered platforms would be required to release annual public reports from independent audits of the risks of harm to minors using their site.
- They would need to provide their data to qualified researchers who have applied through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
- There is no specified “minimum number of users” threshold in terms of liability – in essence, the number of teens at risk of harm is not a standard. One could suffice – it is the harm which is the focus.
- A council of parents, experts, tech representatives, youth, and others is to be convened by the Secretary of Commerce to provide advice on the bill’s implementation.
Some of the criticism of the new law – other than that raised by the affected tech companies – is, why stop at just ages 16 and under? Why shouldn’t these protections extend to all users regardless of age?
Also, how will the ages of the users be verified? In the U.S., self-declaration is the typical way to verify age on a website. Just go to any bar, brewery, or winery site and you will see the pop-up question: “You must be 21 years of age to enter this site. Are you 21?” All a kid need do is say “yes” and off they go. Requiring a more stringent method of age verification has come down to an argument of privacy rights which, in essence, makes the age verification process a quagmire.
Finally, the bill targets any online service that is deemed “reasonably likely to be used” by kids under 16. This is a broad sweep which, it is argued, could also include video games and streaming services.
Haugen’s disclosures have put the spotlight on tech companies and on what their actual responsibility is to their users. How the Kids Online Safety Act plays out will be a source of much debate among privacy advocates, parents, tech companies, and free speech proponents. If it is signed into law, the effects could be far-reaching. How compliance is achieved – and to what extent – will be interesting to watch.
A Word About Resilience and Mental Health
Did you know that the week of May 1-7, 2022 was Resilience Week Virginia? It was the third annual celebration of a week designed to call attention to self and community care. It is also part of a larger movement designating the month of May as Mental Health Awareness Month.
Initiated by Virginia’s Trauma-Informed Community Networks, Resilience Week Virginia encourages all forms of caring – for oneself, together with family and friends, or within your local community. It is a time to celebrate emerging from a crisis in a healing, self-affirming way.
Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin issued an official proclamation recognizing May as Mental Health Awareness Month, noting that “mental health is essential to everyone’s overall health and well-being.”
So what is resilience? It is certainly a word in the fore-front of the trauma-informed care movement these days. In a nutshell, “resilience” is the ability to cope with an emotional or mental crisis. How you recover from a traumatic event – whether personal, local, or national. It is not “mental toughness,” or the avoidance of pain, but rather, it entails an intentional, thoughtful, and learned approach to recovery. Given the news lately, this is a skill we can all benefit from.
Psychologists have identified some of the factors that seem to help develop resilience: a positive attitude, optimism, learning to regulate your emotions, and the ability to reframe the traumatic event in more positive terms – or at least to develop a realistic plan of action post-event. To actively endure a trauma is not one of these factors, but the ability to overcome one does, indeed, build resilience. Resilience is a personal and complex set of skills, and there are no easy steps to follow to become a fully “resilient person.”
Nevertheless, in order to land on the more positive side of the resilience scale, it is helpful to work on reducing your general stress level. Simple healthy habits can help with that – getting enough sleep; eating well; sunshine; exercise; etc. A support network to depend upon for help and emotional care is also important. Having a purpose or a moral compass has been shown to be beneficial, as well as determining and then positively acting on those things within your control.
Everyone is going to experience some form of trauma in their lives – the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, illness, or even a catastrophic national event. It is never an easy occurrence, and likely involves physical or emotional pain. But after the immediacy of managing the event, how you then move on after is key. Is this the end, or can you find a way to use your strengths to see your way through? The answer to that question is tied to your resilience.
Find some ways to chart your own resilience journey and help to promote mental health today and every day by taking a look at this JamBoard. You can also check out this page created by the Greater Richmond SCAN.
From the same team who created the movie, Paper Tigers, is the movie Resilience – available to buy or rent on YouTube.
To promote your personal and community mental health, check out this activities calendar created by the Community Mental Health and Wellness Coalition. The Shine Guide presented by Friends of UVA Children’s Hospital includes fun suggestions for kids and teens. And finally, the National Alliance on Mental Illness/Virginia lists some ways to promote and honor mental health awareness.
"The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall." — Nelson Mandela
Get to Know . . . Randy Nolt, Program Director, Piedmont CASA
One of the recurring posts for this blog is the introduction of some of the wonderful and amazing Piedmont CASA staff, volunteers, and others who are involved with our world. It is a wonderful way to learn more about the people we value and rely on.
Even though he will soon be leaving us, before he goes, here are some fun facts about our Program Director, Randy Nolt.
Give us a brief bio:
I grew up in rural Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Growing up, I enjoyed traveling with my family and involvement in sports – soccer, cross country, track, and basketball. My family enjoyed camping and traveling and I continue to enjoy both today with my own family.
I attended Penn State University (WE ARE…) and majored in Economics. After Penn State, I accepted a position here in Central Virginia at the Wilderness School – a place for teens who have experienced challenges in their lives. I was drawn to the position because of my love of the outdoors. At the Wilderness School we would spend week-long trips hiking on the Appalachian Trail and canoeing on the James River. Originally, I planned for that positon to be a year-long gap before returning to law school or a graduate program. However, I found my passion working with youth and their families, and ended up staying at the program for 11 years.
Today, I live in Scottsville with my wife, Paige, and son, Garrett. We enjoy spending time outdoors, going to UVA sporting events, and staying active in our local community.
This spring I will earn a Master of Social Work degree from Virginia Commonwealth University.
When did you start working for PCASA?
I learned about CASA from working at the Wilderness program. I had regular contact with CASA volunteers while serving as the Director of the program. I transitioned into my role as Program Director at Piedmont CASA in 2014.
Do you have any hobbies?
In my free time I enjoy traveling, going to see live music (bluegrass is a family favorite), and spending time with my family.
What are you reading right now? Do you have a favorite book?
I’m currently reading Internal Family Systems Therapy by Richard Schwartz.
My favorite books are The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey.
How about a favorite movie?
Not really a movie guy, but I have always loved The Goonies.
Any favorite TV shows?
I do not watch a whole lot of television shows. If I am sitting down to watch some TV, it is most definitely sports – PSU, Philadelphia Eagles, Phillies, and 76ers.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I have not had a lot of free time in past two years while completing my Master’s program, working full time at Piedmont CASA, and doing a clinical field placement at South Central Counseling Group for 20 hours a week.
Where is the best vacation spot you have been to?
We have a “rustic” cabin in North Central Pennsylvania. I say “rustic,” but my wife says “primitive.” My grandfather built it in the 1940’s, and it has stayed in the family since. There is no indoor plumbing or running water. My father, son, and I go up every summer for a “man trip,” and I have built many memories there.
Are you a dog or cat person?
I have a 145-pound 14-month-old Newfoundland puppy named Auggie.
Do you have a favorite food?
. . . whatever someone else cooks for us. My current favorite restaurants are Conmole, Tavola, Siren, and The Batteau.
Why did you decide to join Piedmont CASA?
While I was Program Director at the Wilderness program, I had the opportunity to interact with CASA volunteers who were there to visit. I saw the value of the organization and its’ mission. When Piedmont CASA had an opening, I was excited to advance my career here.
I love working along like-minded individuals here at CASA, but more importantly, I love being surrounded by our amazing, dedicated, and committed volunteers. I am someone who needs to believe in the mission of the work, and CASA has provided this opportunity.
Now what are your plans post-PCASA?
We are planning a family road trip to see 18 National Parks over the course of the summer. The trip will take about half the summer, and will cover 10,000 miles.
Once I return, I will begin my journey to becoming a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. I want to continue with my passion for working with children and families here in Charlottesville.
Talking About the Hard Things
We are all, children included, exposed to a glut of information, provided at a more rapid rate than ever. While adults have the capacity to discern what they see or hear, what children may see on the network news, hear in their schools, or view on social media, can be alarming at best and terrifying at worst – depending upon the age of the child. Sensationalism reigns supreme in the news, so it is almost guaranteed that the worst possible depiction of any event will be shown again and again, dissected from every angle.
So What Do We Do?
How can adults best talk to kids about disturbing events in the world without causing more fear and anxiety? As a parent, my practice was to avoid discussing difficult topics altogether, preferring to “shield” my kids from the unfriendly world around them. Not the best method. This became glaringly obvious with 9-11. The news was on in my kids’ school – they saw the events unfold – so I had to address the topic, babbling my way through. Fast forward to now
What are Some Guidelines?
What are some guidelines to help responsible adults address difficult events with kids? Even with their teens, who may be able to process what is happening, but who may also need help sifting through which sources of an event to believe.
First, we need to gauge our own reactions to the event. Kids of all ages take their cues from the adult they trust, so we need to process the event ourselves before trying to explain it to a child.
Second, asking questions and listening to what the child may have already heard or seen will help to guide the conversation. Find out what his/her biggest worry is and start there. Let her know that it is ok to have her all feelings – don’t try to minimize them by assuring that “everything’s ok.” Older kids especially, will see this as an empty promise.
Always tell the truth about the event as you know it. And if you don’t know the answer to their questions, saying “I don’t know” is ok. I truly don’t know why some events happen or why people do awful things, but I can reassure my child that he or she is safe and loved.
During or after the news event, try to maintain normal routines – school, meal-times, extra-curricular activities, etc. And while at home, leaving the television on 24/7 may not be ideal. We all need a break from information overload, so consider turning the TV off.
With a teen, it is wise to check in with him/her from time-to-time to see how he or she is feeling about what happened. He may not want to discuss it, and that is fine too, just reassure him that you are available should the desire arise. If she does talk, this will give you a clue as to her insights, and may also indicate where her news is coming from. If you disagree with the source, explain why – in concrete ways, not by simply dismissing it as “that is totally unreliable!” Point him to other sources to help balance the information.
Given these suggestions, let’s take the current war in the Ukraine.
Again, take your cues from what the child says about the event; what questions they ask. Look for signs of anxiety, such as worry, trouble sleeping, overly quiet, overly irritable. Let him or her know you are available to talk without pushing it. Don’t discount her feelings. It’s ok for her to feel all the feelings she may have, but also reassure her of her safety and your presence.
Channel any possible anxiety into thinking of some positive ways to help the people in the Ukraine. Focus on some organizations are giving aid, and see if one appeals to the child. This can provide a positive outlet while also instilling compassion.
Monitor how much exposure the war is having in your home. Most of the images are pretty graphic and heart-breaking, so particularly with younger children, turn the TV off. Give yourself and the child some safe space from the event.
Keeping an open dialogue and an open ear is key. Calmness and assurance, while not minimizing concerns, will go a long way to helping the child process the war – or even to process any hard event.