Advocating for Children: An Opportunity for Retired Women

Advocating for Children: An Opportunity for Retired Women

By Erica and Karen

Barbara Edwards Delsman is a retired social services executive and volunteer advocate at Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), helping the courts manage cases involving about 13,000 foster children in the New York City judicial system last year. We talked to her about the work she does and why retired women professionals have been proven to make the most effective advocates.

Q: You’re not a lawyer, but you have been a volunteer advocate at CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) NYC for over three years. Can you tell us a little bit about what CASA is and what you do there?

A: We all know that New York City’s child welfare system is overburdened and extremely complex. On average, Family Court Judges have about 52 minutes to spend on each life altering case involving foster children and their future. This is where CASA-NYC (and almost 1000 other CASA programs around the country) comes in. We are the voice of the child, identifying needs and then helping to fill them.

Q. And what exactly do you do as a volunteer advocate?

A. Once we are assigned a foster care case by a Family Court Judge, first we speak to all relevant parties and resources--the child, birth parents, foster parents, relatives, attorneys, teachers, caseworkers and service providers. Everyone who has information and a perspective. We then work together to make an assessment of what a particular child needs and agree on how best to fill them.

We then monitor the process to ensure it is working. For example, we might attend educational meetings to ensure that a child gets an appropriate evaluation and services, or help a youth complete a supportive housing application or accompany a parent to an appointment to secure benefits. All of our activities are then detailed in fact-based reports to the Family Court Judge, giving the court the much-needed holistic picture of this child, this family, and what they need from the foster care system.

Q. What do you love about this work?

A: Eight years ago, I retired from my full-time career in social services where I worked with adults living in extreme poverty, many of whom had lost their children to the foster care system. As I thought about what I wanted to do in this next chapter in my life, I joined a few boards and helped launch two nonprofits. While this work was satisfying, it wasn’t enough. I longed to provide direct services to underserved individuals and help them navigate through the systems that were governing their lives. When I heard about CASA-NYC’s work with foster children, I knew that I wanted to be part of this effort where I could view foster care and the child welfare system through the eyes of the children.

And, importantly, our model works. Foster kids assigned to us don’t fall through the cracks and have significantly better outcomes than those without our services. They spend an average of eight months less in foster care, do better in school, are far less likely to be abused and overall, are more likely to find safe, permanent homes.

Q. You have told us that retired women make the most successful advocates. Why is that?

A. Well, let’s start with the skills. Foster kids need to have a person in their lives who will advocate for their well-being, who will not give up on them or the system, and who will stay with them until they are safe and happy. There are times when our work is challenging and frustrating, and advocates need to know how to deal with and overcome that frustration. Those organizing and advocacy skills, knowing how to deal with large institutions and organizations and get what you need is something that retired women learned and are experts (or good) at. And there’s more than that. As retired women, we know our value. We’re not easily intimidated. Our life experiences give us the confidence to navigate complex bureaucracies, effectively interacting with people from all walks of life. We can be charming, assertive or aggressive – whatever it takes to ensure that foster kids move into loving, permanent homes. We are also solid, calm, unruffable. That’s important too.

Q. You have a background in social services. Is that a requirement to be a volunteer at CASA-NYC?

A: Not at all. To apply, you have to complete a written application and oral interview, passing reference and criminal background checks and obtaining clearance from the NYS Central Register for Child Abuse and Maltreatment. And, if you’re accepted, you do get 30 hours of initial training and then more throughout the year, and are supervised by a licensed social worker or attorney.

Q: If someone who is reading this wants to learn more about CASA-NYC, what should they do?

A: You can complete the volunteer application online or contact the Volunteer Coordinator at or 212-918-4753.

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