Upper Darby resident and CASA volunteer Mary Fran Torpey has been advocating for a 16-year-old transgender girl since July 2018.
CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) Youth Advocates, Inc. is a national volunteer-based organization that provides a support system for youth who experience abuse or neglect, with chapters serving Delaware and Chester counties in Pennsylvania.
“The child welfare system is super complex, and the CASA’s role is to bring all the threads of a child’s story together,” Torpey said. “The CASA visits with the kid in whatever place that they’re in, but they also have this super powerful court order that lets them get all the background information about the child with their family and speak to teachers, social workers, foster parents… anybody involved in the child’s life.”
The organization works with many youth who identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community, said CASA Development Director Jacquona Blackwell who is a member of the LGBTQ community. But knowing to what extent is difficult because it “depends on where they’re at in their life, if they’re ready to come out, if they feel safe in their placement setting or at home to really give that information,” said Blackwell.
“LGBTQ youth are overrepresented in the foster care system,” Torpey said. “Those kids come to the foster care system for the same reasons that anybody else does — abuse, neglect,” but she added, “There’s that added potential for more trauma related to family rejection, or other homophobia or incidents that could take place once the kid is in care. I feel like there’s just a whole extra layer of stuff to keep track of, and the child welfare system is not super well-equipped to meet the needs of these kids. [They] have an added layer of vulnerability.”
While data on LGBTQ youth in child welfare systems is limited, a 2019 study in the American Academy of Pediatrics journal found that 30.4% of youth in foster care identify as LGBTQ.
“As a society, we want people to fit in these boxes — like female, male,” said Blackwell. “Children in this community don’t fit nicely into those boxes. The system hasn’t caught up with the times to treat every kid as an individual and to service the person holistically, so I feel like that’s where we come in. We’re doing what’s in the best interest of the child and sometimes that’s going against the grain — we’re advocating for hormone therapy, or [requesting that the youth be] placed with the gender that they identify more with. We’re able to step outside the box and meet the needs of the child.”
CASA also serves as the educational decision-maker for the teenage girl for whom Torpey advocates, Blackwell said. “There’s a number of cases where we serve that role for whatever reason the parent cannot do that –— either they’re not in the picture or they’re incarcerated or maybe their mental capacity doesn’t allow for them to do that effectively,” Blackwell said.
Torpey said that for the time being, she has been having virtual check-ins with the teen for whom she’s advocating, and continues to meet with the necessary people from different aspects of the teen’s life. “I just feel really lucky that this child is in a stable, affirming, safe foster placement right now,” she said. “I don’t have to worry about that, but it’s a weird situation right now with COVID-19.”
The CASA volunteer remains with the young person for as long as possible throughout housing placement and social worker changes, ideally until the youth “has some kind of permanent resource,” Torpey said. While CASA receives a lot of referrals for youth who need advocacy, all young people with whom the organization works must be receiving services from their local child welfare agency, and the court system has to order CASA to take each case, Blackwell added.
Torpey was initially inspired to volunteer for CASA after she had a child eight years ago, she told PGN. “That experience of having my own child made me think a lot more about all the kids in the world who don’t have support, resources or people who are able to care for them and keep them healthy and safe.”
CASA sends descriptions of youth cases to its volunteers, so when Torpey saw this case, she felt like she needed to take it on, she said. “I have enough understanding — not that I’m an expert at all — but I get gender identity and how that might be in the mix for a kid in foster care.”
CASA Youth Advocates will virtually host its next volunteer training series for new advocates on May 4.
More information about volunteering for CASA Youth Advocates can be found at https://delcocasa.org/