April —Child Abuse Prevention Month and Volunteer Appreciation Month— arrives during what is heralded as the “year of the child.”  It’s an occasion both to enhance related systems and to recognize how fundamentally those systems are connected, with collaboration an element in their success.

In Connecticut and beyond, from the governor and legislators to the White House, there are proposals to boost youth mental health as the pandemic exposed and aggravated prior problems: for children (from babies to adolescents) and the adults in their lives.  Among the areas for action: schools and remote learning; affordable housing shortages; domestic violence and other trauma; the substance-use epidemic, worsened by fentanyl; and an ever-widening gulf between the prosperous and the precarious.  Barriers of race, language, and culture can intervene, too.

Josiah Brown

Lives that are secure or insecure, futures that are on track or impeded– these are the differences children and families experience, nowhere more starkly than in Connecticut.  To narrow disparities and improve children’s trajectories, much has to happen.  It is a matter of resources and how they are used— both individuals’ decisions and the options and support they receive.

Child tax credit and more

From an expanded federal child tax credit (which eased poverty in 2021 but has not been made permanent) to a bigger earned income tax credit proposed in our state, certain measures involve family income.  Higher wages, more predictable work schedules, increased benefits, affordable child care (with child-care professionals paid better) are all necessary.  Elected and business leaders are moving some of this forward.

Much else, from school counseling and health centers to clinical mental health resources to housing capacity, needs addressing.  A bipartisan consensus is emerging on some matters, such as mental health and early childhood.

Yet results for the neediest children and families could take many months, if not years.  Existing systems and professionals demand greater support and integration.

An example of agencies that together have made progress, while requiring further attention, is the constellation around child welfare.  The Department of Children and Families (DCF) is emerging from a decades-old consent decree that has seen staffing and conditions improve.  DCF is embracing the federal Family First Prevention Services Act with a plan that emphasizes preventative, less intrusive aid for families and youth where feasible.  While pandemic-related issues have likely been a factor in this reduction (fewer eyes on children with many school buildings closed for months), the number in foster care dropped 19 percent.  And the department is listening to “voices for children” as well as to youths’ own voices—e.g., through SUN Scholars.

The child welfare system comprises not just DCF but also the Judicial Branch, lawyers, and aspects of agencies from DMHAS and DDS to DSS, as well as schools, health clinics, therapists, and community organizations from early childhood to afterschool.  Many thousands of caring professionals are devoted to the work.

Professionals have heavy caseloads, and even in Connecticut —where the social safety net is relatively sturdy but living costs are high— families often struggle.  Challenges include: to stay in their homes, feed and clothe their children adequately, see to their medical and dental needs, ensure they attend and keep up in school, and enjoy anything remotely resembling the extracurricular and summer opportunities that many other families take for granted.  Substance use, intimate-partner violence, and mental illness heighten these challenges.

Neglect more common than abuse

Child neglect is far more common than outright abuse.  Preventing both is crucial to the healthy development of children and their prospects academically and socially/emotionally, as well as physically.

April is a time to focus on ways families —along with professionals from realms including law, education, and social services— can prevent harm to children year-round.  More positively, it’s a time to recognize the role volunteers play in supporting youth development.

The power of a caring adult

 Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteers are among those filling such complementary roles, including in Connecticut.  The CASA movement is gaining momentum, drawing dedicated men and women from their 20s to their 70s to advance the best interests of children who have experienced abuse or neglect.  Participating in Protective Supervision as well as Foster Care cases, CASA volunteers can reinforce prevention objectives and—as part of a team with DCF, attorneys, and others—rally resources for children and families, while informing judges’ decisions about best interests.

A proven approach

 The CASA approach is associated with greater stability and increased permanency for children, as those with CASA volunteers are only about half as likely to return to the foster care system, have one-third fewer placements, and spend 25% less time in the system.  There is a one-on-one connection to an adult and greater access to community services through the sustained, resourceful efforts of that caring adult.

The hope is to keep families together wherever safely possible, and if not, to reunify them in a timely way, if that is in the child’s best interest.  A stable guardianship—with kin if feasible—or adoption may prove necessary.  The aim: safe, permanent homes where children are more likely to thrive.

A child with a CASA volunteer, on average:

  • Will receive a significantly higher number of services.
  • Is more likely to perform better academically and behaviorally in school.
  • Will report significantly higher levels of hope associated with positive outcomes such as increases in self-control, and positive social relationships.

We thank the volunteers, in this movement and in countless other capacities —from tutoring and coaching to food banks and blood drives—who improve our communities and enhance prospects for young people.  Every day, such committed citizens make a meaningful difference.  Collectively, they change lives for the better.

That’s the CASA spirit.  Channeled through a movement —in the context of broader systems— such volunteers can help professionals, families, and children themselves to shape a better future.

Josiah H. Brown is Executive Director of Connecticut CASA, now on YouTube and part of the national CASA network.