CASA volunteer finds rewarding role in state's foster care system

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By Debra Talcott
Legal News

Just because an attorney is no longer practicing law does not mean she isn’t using her education and training to better the lives of others.

That is surely the case with Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteer Joyce Tesoriero, who devotes her skills and time to children in the foster care program in Washtenaw County.

“When our daughter was four, my husband Tony and I began to parent foster children, especially teens. Through this experience we realized just how difficult life can be for children in foster care. As soon as I learned about the role that a Court Appointed Special Advocate can play in a foster child’s life, I knew that was something I wanted to do,” says Tesoriero, a Saline resident.

A CASA, under court order, befriends and advocates for a child or sibling group and works with all the parties involved: social workers, therapists, attorneys, foster parents, and biological parents. Each time a foster child’s case is reviewed by the court, the CASA reports on the extent to which the child’s physical, emotional, and educational needs are being met, as well as making recommendations about permanency planning

“As a child moves from one foster home to another or from a foster home to a residential facility and the workers change, the CASA stays with the child and can be one of the few consistent people in the child’s life,” says Tesoriero.

Each CASA is assigned one or two cases at a time, unlike the professionals in the foster care system who often carry very heavy caseloads.

The training to become a CASA is extensive. Although no specific education or background is required, prospective volunteers complete an application/background check/interview process to determine whether they have the skills and time to be effective. Once a group is formed, county CASA coordinators begin a series of training classes, meeting over several weeks.

“During this time the new volunteers learn about the mechanics of the foster care system, the roles of the various people involved in the system, the goals of foster care, and the laws that apply to children in care,” Tesoriero says. “Volunteers learn about how and when children are removed from their families and placed in foster care...about Child Protective Services and how abuse and neglect are defined. ...[T]he volunteers then learn how children react to these forces and how to best work with the children—and everyone else—in order to do what is in the best interests of those children.”

CASA volunteers also learn how to effectively draft and present court reports. Tesoriero says each CASA receives support from program coordinators as well as from other CASAs so that even during a particularly challenging situation, the CASA has someone to turn to.

“CASAs have monthly training sessions..., and we may also have meetings and visits with children at the Washtenaw County Department of Social Services,” Tesoriero says. “Our role often takes us to the foster homes, to the family homes, or to the prospective adoptive homes of the children we represent. These homes can be located anywhere in or around the county.”

Tesoriero and the other CASAs appear in Washtenaw County Circuit Court, Family Division, where it is their responsibility to prepare a report prior to a child’s case review in the court. Reviews are usually quarterly, but special emergency earings may be held.

“CASAs go to these hearings and sit in the front of the courtroom with the professionals involved in the case... We are considered ‘the eyes and ears of the court since we have the time and resources to learn about the cases.”

Tesoriero calls upon her unique set of experiences as someone who has been a biological parent, a foster parent, and an adoptive parent as  she approaches each new case.
“My husband Tony and I had a difficult time conceiving ... As we did the soul searching that inevitably accompanies infertility, we realized that what was important to us was having a family and having children in our lives. We trained to become foster parents because we realized how many children there are who are maybe not babies anymore but still in dire need of parents and a loving home. Shortly after we completed our training..., we were surprised to find out that we were expecting a child, our daughter Jessica.”

Living in Maryland at the time, the Tesorieros welcomed foster children into their home for the first time as an emergency placement of what was supposed to be two siblings. “But when they appeared..., there were three,” she recalls. “The children’s mother had left them alone for several days, putting the 11-year-old in charge of his 5-year-old sister and 3-year-old brother.” These children eventually transitioned to a home closer to their biological family since the goal was to reunite them with their biological mother.

The Tesorieros’ next placement was a 15-year-old boy. “This boy remained with us throughout high school and is now in his mid-30s and still an important member of our family... He completed college and graduate school and has a wonderful job working in information technology. He had suffered from a very difficult family environment in his early years and had lived in many different homes with many different relatives, but he was still able to turn his life around. He says that living with us taught him the value of education and hard work,” says Tesoriero, who had done her own hard work back at the National Law Center at George Washington University in the early 1980s.

Over the years the Tesorieros have had several other teens living in their home, and they adopted a teen-age girl who had suffered severe abuse.“Then, 17 years ago we had twin baby boys placed with us. David and Daniel were supposed to be reunified with their birth parents, but when this couldn’t happen, we were able to adopt them,” Tesoriero says. Today those babies are handsome young men, now high school seniors, and the Tesorieros cannot imagine their lives or family without them.

“We are a blended family with our amazing adult birth daughter, our grown foster son, and our wonderful teenage boys,” says Tesoriero.

It was in Maryland that Joyce Tesoriero first learned about the CASA program; however, as a busy mother who was also serving on a foster care review board in those days, she knew her time to become a CASA would have to wait.

As she enjoys her third year with the CASA program and looks back, Tesoriero says, “Every child deserves to be loved and supported... Caring foster parents and CASA volunteers can help reshape the world for a child. There is no greater gift we can give than changing the course of a child’s life for the better.”