Courts play a critical role in child safety

Dr. William C. Bell addressed New York’s Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) at the organization’s annual benefit and celebration in 2010.


It’s truly an honor to be recognized by an organization that for more than 30 years has worked toward making sure New York’s most vulnerable children – children in foster care – are well and thriving; that they have available to them the same opportunities as our own children to grow and mature safely into productive adult lives; and that it will one day be the norm rather than the exception to see them well-represented in the many professions and workplaces similar to those of us in this room tonight.

I feel a kindred spirit with CASA on this journey, sharing the vision that every child deserves a safe and loving home. And I thank you deeply for the honor you give me tonight.

Similar to CASA, I have been on this journey for nearly 30 years.

Over the course of that time, I have been moved by the caring, compassionate, and committed people that I have met.

I have been moved by the young people that I have met who have demonstrated through their resilience and perseverance that success is possible.

In a few minutes you will hear from someone who has experienced that which you and I can only speak about from the vantage point of those who we seek to help.

But this young man can speak from the vantage point of one who has rewritten his expected end.

Over the course of my adult life, I have not been very much of a moviegoer – in fact I have probably seen more than twice as many movies on DVD as I have seen in movie theaters.

However there is an aspect of cinematography that fascinates me. It is the concept of an alternate ending that is on many DVDs. With a click of a button if you don’t like the ending chosen by the filmmaker – you can choose a different one.

If you don’t want your character to die, you just click and he lives. If you want the bad guy to win, you click and he wins. It’s a fascinating concept.

I just wish it were that simple for children and youth in foster care. We just can’t click a button and suddenly find that more than three percent of foster care alumni will complete a four-year college degree, which is a must in today’s job market and a major factor impacting one’s earning ability and upward mobility.

We can’t just click a button and change the fact that:

  • Approximately 20 percent of youth who age out of foster care are unemployed a year after leaving care.
  • Or the fact that one-third of the alumni of foster care have household incomes at or below the poverty level. That’s three times the national poverty rate.

We just can’t click a button and change the fact that:

  • About 20 percent of foster care alumni 18 years and older experience homelessness.
  • Or that one-quarter suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, nearly double the rate of U.S. war veterans.
  • And, in 2001, the U.S. Department of Justice reported that 12 percent of the nation’s adult inmates had lived in a foster home or institution. That is nearly 300,000 adults.

These are very real challenges and while we can’t click a button and change them, that does not mean that we are powerless to make a difference, powerless to speak the truth; or powerless to be a voice to give hope.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

At Casey Family Programs, in 2006, we embarked on our 2020 Strategy for America’s Children, which commits us to work with jurisdictions across the country to decrease the number of children in foster care by 50 percent by the year 2020 and significantly increase outcomes for foster children in three critical areas: education, employment and mental health.

Nationally, we’ve seen a 9.3 percent reduction in the foster care population since we began our 2020 Strategy – going from just over 510,000 children to just over 463,000 in 2008.

This is the lowest number of children in foster care since 1993. New York City has seen a 13 percent decline – from nearly 19,000 in 2005 to about 16,500 in 2009. In 1996 when there were more than 40,000 children in foster care in New York City, I am not sure how many people could believe that this number was possible.

The reality is that there is hope.

Hope – healthy optimism and persistent encouragement. Healthy optimism in seeing that where we are can be different in the future. Persistent encouragement – none of us would be where we are today if it was not for at least one person in our past who mentored and encouraged us.

We all have benefited from the presence of at least one stable committed adult relationship.

Last year, 13 percent of the exits from the foster care system in New York City – more than 900 young adults – was because they “aged” out of the system. Not because they had a place to call home, but because they simply reached the age of legal adulthood at 18 when their government subsidized home was no longer available to them. Many have no adequate support network in place, no one to turn to, to guide and advise them as they transition to independent adult life.

We must change this!!! We must act on the hope that our past will not dictate our future.

Depending on how old you are, you may never have dreamed that one day that cell phones would not only fit in your pocket and be carried about, but would also allow you to send instant messages, read a book or newspaper, watch a movie, play a game and listen to music? All at the same time. And that’s really the point, isn’t it? Someone dreamed it, thought it, imagined it, and today it is. Every great thing that ever was and is started out that way. We must dream of a better reality for children in foster care and let that dream inspire us to act.

As I was preparing this speech, I asked myself what do most of us see when we look at foster youth? Because what we see will determine the judgments we make, and the judgments we make about somebody else’s child in this country will determine that child’s future.

Do we see the same loving child that we see when we look at our own children, nieces and nephews, or do we see something else?

In 2008, someone made a judgment about approximately 270,000 children. Their judgment was that their families couldn’t take care of them and they had to come into the foster care system. In New York City, that same year there were approximately 7,136 children who had this judgment made about them.

I wonder if that was the right judgment. Whether it was or not, 270,000 of our children came into the system. That means that everyday in the year 2008, approximately 740 children came into the out-of-home care system in this rich nation of ours, in this wonderful place where so many people want to come and be and exist.

That means that during the one hour that we gather here for this program, 31 children will enter the foster care system. Every single hour in 2008 someone made a judgment that changed the lives of 31 children. In the next hour across this country, 31 more children will have their lives changed.

If nothing changes by the year 2020 that judgment will be made for nearly 2.7 million more children in America and 71,360 of them right here in New York City.

We must not let that happen. Equip yourselves with a healthy dose of optimism, the belief that life for foster children can be better, and then become a source of persistent encouragement to a foster child, whether it is as a foster parent, a mentor, or a CASA advocate.

CASA advocates play a special role because of the critical role that the courts play. No child enters, moves through or exits the foster care system without going through the courts. Being an advocate for a child before the courts has an immeasurable impact on the life of a child. It could mean the difference between providing the family with in-home intervention services or keeping the child in foster care; the difference between that is a child being a high school dropout or a college graduate; the difference between that is a child living a life of incarceration or living a full adult life as a productive member of society.

Ask yourselves the question – what am I seeing? Am I seeing someone who needs to be in foster care or am I seeing someone who needs to be encouraged, to be loved and to be lifted up? Until we change how this country sees its children, (all of its children) we will continue to see hundreds of thousands of them enter foster care; too many of them never to find that place they can call home; and a significant number, who feel they have little or nothing to hope for, never fully or successfully transitioning to the kind of adult life that many of us enjoy, like many of our own children will enjoy.

Ask yourself, am I seeing what somebody saw in the young man who will follow me to the podium? Do I see hope and possibility or only failure and lost opportunity? I encourage you to speak the words and deliver the actions that will give life to hopes and dreams of our most vulnerable children. What do you see?

Thank you and God bless.