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Using SPARKS to Inform the Work of Advocates for Children in Foster Care

Summary:

Children taken from homes in which they have been abused or neglected and placed in foster care tend to lose their identity and have their interests suppressed as more urgent issues are addressed by the courts.  Author Christine Beyer interviews CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) and the use of the concept of SPARKS with these youth to help them cope with all the changes.   

Topics Covered:

  • Role Models
  • Staff Development
  • Informal Mentoring
  • Engagement

Premium Content:

The Issue or Objective Being Addressed:

Children taken from homes in which they have been abused or neglected and placed in foster care tend to lose their identity and have their interests suppressed as more urgent issues are addressed by the courts.  SPARKS can inform the work of caregivers and others responsible for the children’s wellbeing, helping children maintain their identity, interests and hope for the future, giving them a better chance of thriving. 

Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for Children is a national network of 951 community-based programs that recruit, train, and support citizen-volunteers to advocate for the best interests of abused and neglected children in courtrooms and communities.

Volunteer advocates—empowered directly by the courts—offer judges the critical information they need to ensure that every child’s rights and needs are being attended to while in foster care.

Every day in this country, 1900 children become victims of abuse or neglect. By providing a personalized voice for abused and neglected children in court, CASA volunteers make a huge impact toward finding safe and permanent placement, which can protect them from future abuse or neglect. 

In addition, CASA volunteers recommend resources which can help caregivers nurture the children more effectively.

The Strategy Utilized:

On January 21, 2012 Bolster Collaborative trainer Chris Beyer presented information about the Developmental Assets® and Sparks at a volunteer and staff in-service for CASA of the Pikes Peak Region.  One of the volunteers in the audience, Bob, had what he calls an “aha moment” when he heard about the necessity and power of nurturing Sparks in young people. As a CASA volunteer, he saw immediate applicability to children with whom he was involved. 

He thought about Mary (name altered to protect her identity), who seemed self-absorbed and withdrawn as a result of abuse and neglect, being removed from familiar surroundings, and placed in foster care.  She was always doodling when they met, not making eye contact.  When Bob talked with her teachers, they mentioned that she was inattentive in class, and usually drawing instead of attending to classwork.

When Bob visited her, he asked if he could see her drawings.  She smiled, and brought a stack of paper scraps, pieces of brown paper bags, and napkins with her amazing artwork.  One piece was a self-portrait, perfectly capturing her beautiful features, but depicting a confident, happy young woman. 

Bob talked to her about Sparks, and she said she always liked to draw and wanted to be a graphic artist.  Bob discussed this with her case supervisor, and arranged to get her art supplies and a portfolio.  He shared this new insight with her teachers, and she was placed in an elective art class.

The art teacher recognized her talent, and asked her to help design and paint a mural in the school.  He arranged for her to display her art in a school display case, and introduced her to a friend who was a graphic artist.  She created art for the school literary magazine.

Mary’s attitude changed and she became more outgoing and self-confident, her schoolwork improved, and she set a goal for herself to do well so she could attend the local art institute after graduation. Her caseworker was amazed at the transformation, and her doodling became a source of interest and praise to the team, rather than an irritation, which had previously elicited comments that she needed to “quit drawing and pay attention.” 

“The work of nurturing Sparks is intuitive and obvious, yet based on research,” Bob said.  The direct applicability of Sparks and Developmental Assets to children in foster care became clear, and Bob committed to applying Sparks principles to his other CASA youth, became a Spark Champion, and encouraged others in the children’s lives to do the same.

Discovering and nurturing Sparks means that there is an awareness of that which excites and energizes a young person and gives them a sense of purpose and joy.  Being a Spark Champion means recognizing the Spark, encouraging its development, providing opportunities for its exercise, and eliminating barriers to its full expression.

Once Bob became aware of the Sparks concept, he observed that other adults working with their appointed youth were sometimes overlooking the children’s strong interests that Bob now recognized as Sparks.  By probing and listening to the youth, Bob could confirm his intuition about the children’s interests.

Bob expanded his influence as a Spark Champion when he became a peer coordinator for other CASA volunteers. This role gave him a unique opportunity to mentor his peers in the way of championing Sparks in their CASA youth.  He presented a class on Sparks and Developmental Assets  to other CASA volunteers.

Another striking example of the power of these insights is told in the story of Mark (not his real name), another foster child supported by a CASA volunteer.  Mark was an adolescent boy who was clearly bright, but, like Mary, was withdrawn.  When he sat at a meeting to discuss his academic progress, he constantly tapped his fingers on the table, a distracting and irritating disruption to his teachers. When he was in the car with Ruth, his court appointed advocate, he would find his favorite radio station, and sing along with the songs, tapping his fingers on the dashboard.

When questioned about what he liked and wanted, he said he wanted to play the piano, but that his parents said they could not afford a piano nor music lessons. He said he would be happy with drums, but this elicited a similar response. Then he begged for a guitar. They told him to quit asking for musical instruments, that the answer was “No!” He reacted with anger and became rebellious and disobedient. 

As his CASA volunteer, Ruth talked with the parents, who had other issues with parenting including harsh discipline that had led to Mark’s removal from the home.  They saw his insistence on getting a musical instrument as disrespectful. He could not have a radio in his room until his grades improved. He could not attend a local concert because he would just start begging for an instrument. Music had become such a distraction, that they denied themselves music and kept it out of the home to prevent it from becoming even more of an issue.

Ruth saw the negative effects of forbidding Mark from expressing his Spark. When Ruth talked to his school, the grade level counselor asked Mark if he wanted to join the school choral group. He did, and excelled, earning a solo part in the fall concert.  For the winter concert, Mark was allowed to play the triangle, a small but key part of the program.  His parents came and recognized he had talent.  He was allowed to enroll in marching band the next fall and marched with a school xylophone, which he quickly mastered.

As had happened with Mary, Mark’s attitude and academic performance improved and he began seeing a brighter future for himself and something to work toward, with hopes of going to a college offering choral and instrumental music after graduation.

Outcomes/Results:

As a volunteer and peer coordinator in his local CASA organization, Bob has worked to ensure that every adult working with foster youth seeks to discover the children’s Sparks and enter that information into their case files. CASA volunteers are encouraged to share this information with the caseworker and school personnel, with caregivers and extended family, and to seek Spark Champions and other resources to encourage and nurture the children’s interests. 

Bob and other CASA volunteers believe the language of Sparks is an effective way to communicate with the youth, parents, and foster parents in a non-threatening manner. Learning what is important to each child, discovering what motivates them, and giving them direction as they cope with being in out-of-home placement cultivates a truly positive approach to their development.

CASA volunteer Bob believes that children become what they think about, and has seen several children in out-of-home placement who benefit from having a Spark to focus on and help them cope with being removed from their home.  What better way to contribute to a positive outcome than discovering and encouraging that which gives a young person’s life meaning and hope for the future.

For additional information on Developmental Assets, visit: http://www.search-institute.org/research/developmental-assets.

For additional information on Sparks, visit:  http://www.search-institute.org/sparks

Author:

Chris Beyer, Senior Trainer for Bolster Collaborative, based on an interview with Robert, a volunteer child advocate and Peer Coordinator for CASA of the Pikes Peak Region, which gives a voice to children removed by the courts from their homes due to abuse or neglect.  The children and CASA volunteers described in these vignettes are fictional, but the examples are drawn from actual situations experienced by our child clients in out-of-home placement.

 

 

Developmental Assets and Search Institute are registered trademarks of Search Institute, Minneapolis, MN. No affiliation or endorsement is implied.

 

 

 

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