Healthy Goodbyes: Why We Leave

Mar 30 2016

Healthy Goodbyes: Why We Leave

By Steven Olender

At the end of a case, once it is clear that a child is in a safe and healthy permanent home, the CASA volunteer's appointment to the case ends and they say goodbye to the child. While it may seem counterintuitive for yet another supportive adult to leave a child's life, this healthy goodbye is actually the final way that a CASA volunteer acts in the child's best interest.

CASA steps in during what is almost certainly the worst time in a child's life. During this time, much is in flux and their lives are filled with change. Caretakers may change, schools may change, caseworkers may change, attorneys may change, but the CASA volunteers remain a consistent presence and a familiar face the whole time children need them. Once a case is over and children have safely reached permanency, however, the need for CASA ends. If a CASA volunteer remains in a child's life, they become a reminder and an anchor to that time of instability and confusion. Children need to be able to move on from that and experiencing this healthy goodbye allows them a chance to move forward.

And by the time a volunteer says goodbye, a child should be prepared to do so. At the point of case closure, if we have done our duty, the child's life should be set up so that they can thrive without outside involvement from the child welfare system. Saying goodbye sends the powerful message to children that they don't need us anymore, that they are no longer bound to the system that turned their world upside down and that they are free to live out their lives. In times of uncertainty, children look to their CASA volunteer for reassurance. Saying goodbye is a volunteer's way of saying that we believe the uncertain times are over and that they are safe and okay.

We tell our volunteers that saying goodbye should be a celebration for their CASA kids. It means that they have made it through this dark season in their lives and they get to move on to a new beginning. It's also an opportunity for volunteers to model what a healthy goodbye can be. For kids in CPS care, most of the goodbyes in their lives have been abrupt or damaging; removal from parents, changing homes and schools and teachers, and possibly the abandonment or loss of people they love. "Our kiddos have experienced so much unhealthy loss," says volunteer Gayla Thorpe. "We don't want to add to that confusion. We want them to experience loss in a healthy way and a more successful way so that they can take that experience and, if they encounter loss in the future, they have strategies. It's a model of a healthy goodbye."

It is a difficult thing to do, saying goodbye. Volunteers build a relationship with the kids for whom they advocate. They get used to advocating for the child and like being the solution to problems, but in the end, CASA volunteers know their job is to advocate for the best interest of the child and the relationship and the volunteer's feelings are secondary to that. "People will say to me, 'Isn't it hard? How do you keep from getting attached?' Well, I don't," explained Nancy Ellis, who has been volunteering with CASA for more than 15 years. "I get attached to these kids. Yes, it's hard, but not nearly as hard as seeing where they were at the beginning of the case."

Every goodbye looks different and Gayla Thorpe is quick to point out that it is important for volunteers to meet kids at their developmental level and give an explanation they can understand. For her most recent goodbye, she and the girl for whom she'd advocated did an art project together so the girl would have something to remember her by. Nancy Ellis has spent her goodbye visits with some of her kids making scrapbooks to help them stay connected to the biological families they wouldn't see anymore. For older kids the goodbyes can be easier than anticipated. Volunteer Elizabeth Guleke said goodbye to her to teenage siblings after they'd already begun to acclimate to their permanent placement. At the end of a fun final outing, she presented them with the friendship bracelets they'd talked about for months so that they could maintain a sense of connection, and the kids barely acknowledged them before running off. "For me it was so sad, but for them it was so evident that they had found this sense of security," she said. "It was pretty wonderful."

And ultimately, at the end of the case, it's time for a volunteer to move on and advocate for another child in need. After all, as CASA Child Advocacy Specialist Alejandro Victoria said, “Batman doesn't stick around after saving someone. There are other people in Gotham who need his help.”