As a foster child, Elaine Johnson could have used an advocate. From ages 3 to 18, she was in eight foster homes and, in her words, “I saw it all.”
Elaine became a court-appointed special advocate – CASA – after she left foster care, graduated from college, got married and had her own children. She signed up after seeing an ad for CASA/Prince George’s County.
“I always wanted to do something like this,” Elaine says. “I could have used a CASA. A CASA, if nothing else, could have provided me the positive affirmation that all foster kids need.”
Elaine has been a CASA for two years. Her foster youth is a teenage single mom. Elaine is urging her not to emancipate out of foster care until she ages out when she turns 21 (youth in Maryland have the option of signing themselves out of foster care after they turn 18) so that she can have more time to prepare for independent living.
“She’s going to do what she wants to do,” Elaine says. “But I want her to become self-sufficient. I want her to know that she can do better. I want her to know that someone cares about her. I care about her.”
Johnson says having been a foster child helps her as a CASA.
“I came into this without rose-colored glasses,” she says. “I know foster kids are hard core. I know a lot is missing with foster kids in terms of being able to connect with other people because other people didn’t connect with them.”
Elaine became a foster child after being found on the streets as a “wondering 3-year-old.” She lived in seven different foster homes during her first four years in foster care.
At age 8, in her eighth foster home, she made herself indispensable by being the one who always cleaned the house. Her foster parents, both alcoholics, responded by letting her stay until she aged out at 18 and went off to college.
“I saw it all,” Elaine says. “I saw alcoholism. I saw sexual abuse, but it didn’t involve me. I remember one child had been beaten so badly that her back had belt buckle marks on it.”
Elaine urges CASAs to give their foster youth “unconditional love.”
“Unconditional love doesn’t mean ‘I’m a pushover,’” Elaine says. “Unconditional love is setting boundaries. Kids want limits. Unconditional love means, ‘I’m dependable.’ It means, ‘I don’t make promises I can’t keep.’ It means, ‘I’m there for you.’’”
Ann Marie Binsner, executive director of CASA/Prince George’s County, says, “Elaine brings a powerful perspective to being a CASA volunteer. We welcome her voice and counsel.”