From Jane Lyons, Executive Director

There is no time more important than now—stay in touch with children and youth whose well-being is at even more risk.

Friends of Children’s commitment to serve our most vulnerable children in the face of these unforeseen circumstances is now heightened, and we will not stop in our efforts to ensure that their best interests are being voiced and served. We will continue in our model that is designed to help us adapt to changing needs and circumstances for kids and their families. We will continue to collaborate closely with others to provide the services that help children heal and have opportunities to thrive. We have also been working diligently to find ways to engage with the children and youth we serve, and with their families when possible.

Our Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) Program is a shining example of taking these actions even in times of constraint due to Covid-19. Under the leadership of Debi Belkin, CASA Director, our CASA volunteers are reaching out in every practicable way to make sure needs are identified and met. The methods may have changed for now, but the heart and commitment of CASA volunteers who always met the challenge of this work feels stronger than ever. New volunteers are being trained remotely, preparing for the time when courts reopen and new cases are assigned. 

Ours is a community that multiplies its impact because of the deep commitments that we make with each other. By coming together to help each other we are able to do our best work and positively impact the lives of children. In this newsletter, I hope you see just how true this is.



Given the extreme isolation that some children are experiencing right now as a result of Covid-19, we are feeling more than ever the need to stay connected in any way we can. While Court sessions are not being held routinely during this pandemic, CASA volunteers are finding ways to continue to monitor the children they have been assigned. CASAs are calling children at least weekly, sending postcards, pictures, birthday cards and gifts to help uplift the spirits of these children in the court system. CASAs have engaged in video chats, but those are not always possible due to a lack of technology.
Psychologist Karen Zilberstein, member of the Friends of Children Board of Directors, offers this: " Researchers studying previous pandemics found that a majority of people experience distress during outbreaks and a quarter to a half of the population will continue to show heightened difficulties for months to years after the threat ends." As a result of stress and isolation, harsh parenting and domestic violence also tend to increase.
Outreach and early intervention to families can prevent severe problems from developing and increase wellbeing. The results of numerous studies show that resilience results from adequate material needs, social supports, positive parenting techniques, and the ability to manage self and emotions. The following resources and suggestions can help families better manage in each of those areas. 

When people face financial and material hardship, stress, anxiety, depression, and anger can increase. Helping families prioritize needs and find resources to alleviate or reduce hardship is important. Families benefit not just from referrals but also from help procuring and filling out forms. Researching what is available, contacting agencies, and applying for help can be time consuming and exhausting, especially for families already feeling stretched, hopeless, and worn out.”

We are reaching out to families, caregivers, and foster parents to ensure that basic needs are met. Some foster parents may have lost childcare. This poses a major concern that some placements could be disrupted as foster parents are forced to choose between work and continuing to foster children. Our staff and CASA volunteers are keeping parents and foster parents as informed as possible around available resources for financial assistance and support during this extremely difficult time in order to try and ensure placement stability for these vulnerable children.

The pandemic has exacerbated the fears of many CASA families who already live at or below poverty level and have struggled with resources. Many parents have worked at minimum wage jobs and some express worry about losing those jobs. CASA volunteers are checking in to let them know they are not forgotten and inquiring to see what help they might need. To support children who are living with their parents or have been reunified with their parents, CASA volunteers provide support and monitoring. Covid-19 requires that we create new ways to do that and to promote the safety of children.

Covid-19 has also exposed the lack of a safety net and made more apparent the economic inequities among families. CASA is doing everything we possibly can to help in this time of great need and we are hopeful that we will all get through this together!
Here Are Some Ways CASAs Have Directly Helped Children 

One of Friends of Children’s CASA volunteers has worked extensively with a young couple who lost custody of their infant child. It was through the efforts of their CASA volunteer, who advocated for the family, that they were able to rejoin more quickly. She was able to do this thanks to her extensive knowledge about child behavior and child bonding. She was able to demonstrate to the courts just how essential it was for this family to be reunited as quickly as possible.

A long-term volunteer has worked with one young man since he was 6 years of age. He is now 19 years old. Like many young people aging out of foster care, he has had a very difficult transition. He is leaving the foster care system without good supports, except for his CASA who he gets in touch with to this day. She is the one person he can count on, and he reaches out to her consistently for help on how to manage his life on a day to day basis. If he didn’t have her commitment, he would literally have no one.
CASA Provides Educational Advocacy To Children

One of the services CASA provides is educational advocacy. At this time, volunteers are being extra vigilant to ensure that children have remote access to education. When children have an advocate, schools pay attention. The majority of children involved with CASA receive special education services. Their very detailed educational plans often specify a low teacher to staff ratio for learning, the implementation of specific strategies and in-school counseling support. Even with remote learning, schools are required to provide these much needed services and interventions as best they can. CASA has increased phone contact with Special Education Directors and through email with teachers to ensure that the services our children are entitled to are provided remotely in order to prevent these children from falling further behind.

This past year, CASA has contracted with a dedicated educational advocate to consult with all CASA volunteers, and to take on particularly challenging cases and issues. Our specialist has provided a series of workshops about special education law, services and advocacy and repeats these workshops for all new volunteers. She occasionally accompanies volunteers to special education meetings when there is a need for more in person support. 

By enhancing the expertise in educational issues and advocacy, CASA volunteers have been able to share this knowledge with families. This effort helps to empower parents to speak up in meetings that can be intimidating and to more confidently advocate for their children directly.

How We Support Our CASA Volunteers During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Friends of Children is regularly communicating across all programs to share important resources for children and families as they become known. As a result of COVID-19, many agencies within health and human services are developing and updating in real time the resources most valuable to these families. We are sharing these resource lists with all CASA volunteers through a volunteer Facebook Page, emails, and during weekly supervision sessions. Volunteers regularly check in with parents, foster parents and other caregivers to identify needs, share resource lists, and advocate where we can for those needs to be met.

In this time of needing to rely more on technology and online platforms, we are providing all CASAs with updated lists of potential webinars applicable to our work with children and families involved in child welfare and the Juvenile Court systems. We are also adapting our four educational training sessions to an online format, so that all volunteers can remain apprised of how best to deliver educational advocacy to the children they work with. 

To our volunteers - We are extremely fortunate to have an incredibly dedicated, experienced and caring group of volunteers who devote countless hours to vociferously advocating on behalf of the children, youth and families that you work with. Your efforts to ensure that the state's most vulnerable children receive the care and sense of permanency they are entitled to is invaluable. Everyday, we are so grateful for the opportunity to work with each and every one of you!. We can't thank you enough for your generosity of time and thoughtfulness as a CASA volunteer!

Mass 211 is an easy to remember telephone number that connects callers to information about critical health and human services available in their community. It serves as a resource for finding government benefits and services, nonprofit organizations, support groups, volunteer opportunities, donation programs, and other local resources. Mass 211 is also currently sharing up to date Covid-19 information and guidance. These calls are always confidential. You can reach them here.

This time can be very difficult for anyone who is experiencing or is at risk of domestic violence. In this article , “When Staying Home Isn’t Safe,” in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Marianne Winters, Executive Director of Safe Passage in Northampton, shared about the risks while under Covid-19 lock down. She also shared some helpful

 It’s stressful to be stuck inside, especially if you are isolated alone. Families are challenged by children adapting to big changes in their lives. Essential workers also experience a lot of stress being out in the world while trying to stay safe.

In recognizing the need to reduce stress, we would like to introduce the Mindfulness Bell. On this site, you’ll find many wonderful and healing articles. They also have an app that you can download to your phone. Stop here, and check it out. We hope this idea for mindfulness and stress reduction are helpful to you. 

Please be in touch, should you need any support!