A candlelight vigil last week highlighted the needs of hundreds of local children in the foster care system—some of whom are in the care of families hours away from their homes in Athens.
Roughly 100 people walked from First Baptist Church to the Athens-Clarke County courthouse on Nov. 5 with candles in hand to represent each Athens-area child in the foster care system. Currently, 320 children from Clarke and Oconee counties are in foster care.
The first annual Foster Care Candlelight Vigil was hosted by Athens-Oconee CASA to bring light to the growing number of children in the local foster care system. “We are seeing more and more children coming into foster care, and now we’re struggling to serve them,” said Tasha Nicholson, advocacy coordinator for the CASA program.
CASA stands for court-appointed special advocates. The organization advocates for abused or neglected children and works to provide them a safe environment in permanent homes.
“[CASAs] are the ones going to visit them every day. They’re going to the child’s school. They’re going to the child’s therapist. They’re going to the dentist. They’re going to visit the child’s birth parents. They’re talking to the foster parents. They’re getting the whole picture and making sure nothing falls through the cracks,” said Arden Bakarich, a CASA advocacy coordinator.
Juvenile Court Judge Robin Shearer oversees these cases and ultimately decides if the child should be taken out of the home. Shearer said CASAs are typically the only people in the courtroom who don’t have multiple cases to oversee, making them a vital asset in the court’s decision.
Attendees were also given a card listing the gender of a foster child from Athens, the city they are placed in, how many days they have been in foster care and whether they have been assigned a CASA. Standing on the steps of the courthouse, foster care case manager Valerie Norwood asked participants whose cards had a city in Clarke or Oconee counties on it to turn off their lights. The candlelight vigil turned dim. That’s because 55 percent of local foster children are placed with families outside of Clarke and Oconee.
Norwood’s caseload includes 25 Clarke County foster children. Ten of the children are placed in Athens or nearby. The other 15 live as far away as Columbus.
“The hardest thing for me is placing our teenagers outside the county,” Norwood said. “When teenagers come into foster care, we disrupt their entire lives. We take them away from the family, their friends, oftentimes their school and everything they know. We place them in a different environment with restrictions that are not normal for teenagers and expect them to be on their very best behavior.”
There are only 50 foster families in Clarke and Oconee counties. “No one has stepped up in the community to help them,” Norwood said. “When these kids return back to this community, what impression will they have to a community that would not take care of them? We have to keep our kids here.”
Kelly Brooks said she stayed up at night thinking about how few foster families were in the Athens area in 2014. At the time, 150 kids were in foster care, and there were 20 local foster families. “I kept thinking, ‘What is happening to these children?’” Brooks said. Those numbers drew her to become a foster parent.
Robin Hampl was a child in the foster care system in the 1980s. She was brought to the U.S. from Lima, Peru. Between ages 10–16, she was in and out of six foster homes and was separated from her siblings along the way.
Her experience in the foster care system influenced her decision to support foster care today. She has been a foster parent and a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL), and now is forming a team to support foster families at Cornerstone Church in Athens. GALs, similar to CASAs, help move children out of the court system in a timely manner and into safe, permanent homes. “I’m here today to bring awareness to foster care and the need of it, whether it’s being a foster parent, a CASA or an advocate,” Hampl said.
After the vigil, participants gathered back at First Baptist Church to learn about local foster care agencies and organizations and how they can get involved and support foster children and children living in poverty. Agencies and organizations at the event included Children First programs, Bethany Christian Services, All God’s Children Incorporated, Uniting Hope 4 Children, Chosen for Life Ministries, Project Fostering Relationship and Economic Enrichment (Project F.R.E.E.), the Athens Area Diaper Bank and Creative Community Services.