By Megan S. Willman
It feels like just last week I had two baby boys in my house who needed constant care and attention. Somehow they are now 17 and 14, and I’m counting every moment I get with them as a gift. If you have children in your life, I know you appreciate how quickly time passes. Every child is a true treasure.
I’ve always enjoyed children, but as I’ve gotten older, I appreciate their innocence and potential even more. Recently, I learned about a volunteer opportunity that allows caring adults to give a voice to children who may not be able to advocate for themselves. In Kentucky, more than 7,000 children live in foster care, and each child’s case must be reviewed twice a year to ensure their needs are being met.
Kentucky statute mandates that every county have a Citizen Foster Care Review Board, a group of court-appointed volunteers who work together on behalf of the children with a goal of decreasing their stay in foster care and achieving a permanent home for them. I recently spoke with three individuals who taught me about board volunteers’ responsibilities and the training they receive. They are C.J. Howard, current chairperson for the Franklin County Citizen Foster Care Review Board; Beth Lucas, current chairperson for Frankfort and 25-year volunteer; and Dolores Smith, supervisor for the Department of Family and Juvenile Services.
As Beth commented early in our conversation, “Every child deserves a forever family where someone will remember their birthday, will ask questions and will be happy to have questions asked of them. Each child needs a place to go and call home.”
The need is great. In Jefferson County alone, there are more than 900 children in foster care. Numerous review boards, each with about three to six volunteers, meet once a month to oversee the children’s cases. Boards meet monthly on a regular schedule (i.e., every third Tuesday or every last Friday), and volunteers can choose to join the board that meshes best with their own schedule.
Each month, the board submits its findings and recommendations to the judge who will make a ruling about progress in the case. The goal is always to work toward returning the child to his/her birth parents. When that is not possible, the secondary goal is to work toward a permanent home for the child. The hope is to make the child’s stay in foster care as short as possible. “We are the eyes and ears for the judge, providing the info he/she needs to make an educated ruling on behalf of the child,” Beth says.
Yes, this is critical work, but one does not have to be a foster care professional in order to serve. Additionally, every volunteer undergoes a one-day training that covers the basics of the board’s responsibilities. Dolores has worked in the field for 20 years and trains volunteers in preparation to serve. I asked her what the board looks for in volunteers, and she replied, “The first thing we look for is someone who is interested in the general well-being of children. That’s a necessity. But if we have a diverse group of volunteers, each can bring different levels of knowledge and experience. We tend to see retired teachers, nurses, psychologists, attorneys, social workers, and university students. Adults who were previously in foster care can provide a unique insight as well.”
C.J. told me why she continues to serve as a volunteer: “It’s very satisfying. One of the most important things is ensuring the children are safe and their needs are being met. We look into the future and see these kids in a safe place, making sure they don’t fall through the cracks because this is our future.”
After meeting with these women, I was interested in helping out myself. I wondered if I could participate since I live in Indiana. As it turns out, volunteers can be from any county or neighboring state.
Dolores concluded our conversation with a summary of the need for volunteers and the tremendous difference those volunteers can make. “In the 20 years I’ve done this work, I’ve witnessed time and time again the positive impact these volunteers make on children in foster care,” she says. “The need is ongoing, and we never cease to see positive impact. Volunteers on the boards are truly the voice for these children. If you think about the lives of these children, the volunteers on our board may be the single point of continuity in their lives all the way through the system. It’s an opportunity to truly make a difference.”
Are you volunteering in the community? What issues are important to you?