What If All Adults Took Responsibility For All Children, No Matter Who Gave Birth To Them?

In New Orleans, this life-changing goal is aided by a unique social context.

A s I was ferried through the city for the first time in September, I could see what Solange Knowles meant when she said New Orleans is magical. The city’s pride in its cultural mix and resilience shines as bright as the midday sun. More than one cab driver tells me that, despite all the city’s recent tribulations — the deaths caused by Hurricane Katrina, the razing of neighborhoods in the aftermath, the drop in incomes, and the rise in housing prices — they would never leave “N’awlins.” Home is made fiercely here. And that sense of community extends to the ways in which the city helps its children.

I’m taking a cab across town to meet Joy Bruce, executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children (CASA), an organization that advocates for children and young people in foster care. As it turns out, my driver is currently going through the process, with her partner, to become foster parents. “We’re a front stoop culture here, ma’am,” she tells me as we glide over the Claiborne Bridge. “Me and my husband, we want to take responsibility for kids who don’t have anyone.” I can’t help but think about the site of a home that I walked past in the Lower Ninth Ward the day before, where the front stoop was all that was left, weathered down to a stump of wood and slate.

Home is made fiercely in New Orleans. And that sense of community extends to the ways in which the city helps its children.

Over coffee, Bruce confirms my driver’s assertions about New Orleans’ distinct culture of care for children. “There’s a long history of looking after other people’s children here. The original Home for Jewish Widows and Orphans [established in 1856, and the first of its kind in the United States] was actually on Jackson Avenue, in the Irish Channel. We had a wonderful concentration there of community welfare minded citizens, including also Irish, French, and German immigrants, both Catholic and Protestant.”

Other organizations took care of the city’s orphaned, in addition to the Home for Jewish Widows and Orphans, now known as the New Orleans Jewish Home, which had been created to house destitute women and their children after a series of yellow fever epidemics in the mid-18th century. Irish immigrants also established orphanages that looked after children from poor families, often even when one parent was still living. In 1885, it was noted by James S. Zacharie in the New Orleans Guide that, “there is perhaps no other city in the United States where there are more establishments of the kind and where such institutions enlist as much popular sympathy.” Today, Louisiana has the third largest percentage of grandparents raising grandchildren in the U.S.

The concept of “fictive kin” is also essential to understanding home and community life in New Orleans, Bruce tells me. An anthropological term that describes bonds of care and security formed between adults and children who are not biologically related, fictive kinship also functions as a survival strategy in the face of racism and poverty. Education professor Daniella Ann Cook has noted the importance of fictive kin for the city’s African-American majority, describing relationships of “collaboration, solidarity and co-operation” that “[enable] members of the community to survive and, in many instances, thrive in a social context filled with obstacles and impediments to success.”

This uniquely long history of community members supporting and caring for their neighbors’ children has certainly aided the work of CASA, a nationwide organization with chapters in 49 states. Its specific mission is to ensure that children and young people in foster care have the support of caring adults, properly trained to advocate for them, in what is often a complex and alienating state-run system. CASA New Orleans, in particular, works with young people at what Melissa Chadburn, writing for The Establishment earlier this year, calls “the time of the readiness.” This is the age at which young people who have spent their lives living apart from their birth families, often in multiple foster homes, shelters, residential, or justice facilities, are arbitrarily (or, as Chadburn suggests, “magically”) supposed to live in the world as independent, skilled adults.

In the foster care system, it’s referred to as “ageing out,” and it marks the point where young people who have been in care lose all administrative and financial support from the state. This can be an exciting time, as Chadburn notes — but if a young person is not prepared to survive without the ballast of basic financial support and a roof over their heads, they are highly likely to experience further precarity and danger. That problem is acute in New Orleans. As Bruce writes along with Judge Ernestine S. Gray in an opinion piece for NOLA.com:

National statistics show that, without support, these children are almost 50 percent less likely to obtain their high school diploma by 19, and only 3 percent have earned college degrees by 25 (compared to 28 percent of everybody else). Within a year of exiting care, one in five is homeless. Within two years, one in four is incarcerated. And the rate of post-traumatic stress disorder is 21.5 percent — five times higher than average, higher even than that of American war veterans. About half are unemployed.
Those are national statistics. The numbers in New Orleans are worse.

I wanted to meet Bruce after Tina, a colleague from my own time working in refuges for women and children, tipped me off about CASA. Tina was really interested in how CASA coordinates “wraparound” support for young people in foster care as they approach adulthood and ensures that critical decisions made about young people’s lives in a courtroom are made in their best interests and with their full participation.

To do this, CASA gets adults in the community to commit to supporting young people well past the time that they age out of the system. Within this, representatives from CASA train these adult volunteers in the ornery ways of the legal system in order to ensure they can provide this support to the young people where it counts — in the decisions made about them at law, such as where they will live and whether they go to college. CASA places each adult with a young person who needs support, and the organization also works with the local judges who make these final decisions. As such, the organization and the volunteers broker and maintain essential relationships for young people who are navigating the adult world without the benefit of biological homes.

CASA gets adults in the community to commit to supporting young people well past the time that they age out of the system.

When Tina and I worked as care workers with young women between the ages of 15 and 18 in Sydney, Australia, we faced many similar issues of finding continuous care and always sought to identify the chosen adults in the young women’s lives who showed strength and staying power, enough so they might stick around after the government-funded support and advocacy services we were offering stopped. Often, this person eluded us. A church elder withdrew support when the young woman stopped attending services; an aunt moved states after her own immediate family broke down; an old neighbor lost her job and couldn’t afford to drive to coffee dates any more.

“This is exactly why CASA follows kids past 18,” says Bruce when I tell her about this dilemma. “Our commitment is, you don’t lose your advocate.” The importance of this for young people who have experienced significant loss and trauma early in life is more than just a hunch. Research, such as that of adoption and fostering guru Karyn B. Purvis, shows that relational trauma can only be healed by healthy relationships, which generates particular protective factors. (Notably, New Orleans was recently selected as the first site outside of Texas to replicate the work of Purvis’s institute in that state’s child welfare system.)

Having that one person you know you can count on is everything. “For me it was my grandma,” explains Bruce, whose heritage is French, Cajun, and Irish. “I knew that no matter what she loved me and that she was in my corner. I could come to her with anything. That’s powerful! Even though she wasn’t able to provide financial support as I was transitioning into adulthood, just knowing that she was there and that she cared so deeply about me gave me the push I needed to persevere and be successful.”

“The research supports that idea,” Bruce emphasizes. “It says that meaningful connections to caring and competent adults are critical to the resiliency of our youth.” As such, “We fight for the rights of children by training the community to advocate for their best interests.”

CASA is modeling a community where all adults take responsibility for all children, no matter who gave birth to them.

Through CASA, advocates make a “permanency pact” with the young person and commit to doing what the young person says they need to reach important goals for adult fulfillment, such as completing college or acquiring permanent housing. In the words of CASA-supported young person Kayana in a promotional video posted on the organization’s YouTube channel, “A CASA volunteer is basically a person who takes time out of their life to make your life more easy for you.” Of Caitlin, the advocate who works with her, Kayana says, “She gave me this confidence I have about myself.” Caitlin says she volunteers in this way because, “It’s important that our children become good citizens, and for me a good citizen is someone who is happy, able to work, sees an abundance in life.”

Bruce emphatically agrees with this framing for the role of adults in the lives of children. “So often I hear adults complaining about poor public services — like potholes in the roads or slow mail delivery — and saying it’s not fair because, ‘I pay my taxes.’ We rarely use this logic to talk about how kids are being failed by public systems. Instead we’re more likely to say they’re just bad kids. So it ends up being like we care about potholes more than we care about children.”

CASA is modeling a community where all adults take responsibility for all children, no matter who gave birth to them. This goal is apparently aided by a unique social context in New Orleans.

CASA is modeling a community where all adults take responsibility for all children, no matter who gave birth to them. This goal is apparently aided by a unique social context in New Orleans, which already has a long history of a community with open doors. But CASA formalizes those agreements, by committing to supporting young people after the time of the readiness, CASA is also speaking back to the refusal of the state to back young people after the time of readiness, and it is working against the weird reality that being cared for by the welfare system is an indicator that your welfare will be poorer than that of others across your life.

The number of children who have lost, or who never had, the committed care of their parents or other adults around the world is only increasing. Meanwhile, the systems that have been in place to care for these children, from church-based institutions to government programs, have failed widely. Perhaps this suggests that adult society is approaching its own “time of the readiness” to reconsider how we make sure kids are taken care of even if they aren’t “our own.”