Something you want; something you need; something warm; something to read

The title of this post has been the unofficial slogan of the Family Advocates backpack room for the past three years. And although I have not been in the backpack room since mid-March (due to the pandemic), I can still smell the aroma of delicate baby products, feel the squishy toys that cannot wait to be hugged, see the colorful art supplies and shelves of fun books, and hear the sounds of joy and laughter as children open backpacks filled to the brim with snuggly new items—all of which were picked out just for them.

Most importantly, though, I can feel hope when I think about this room; a warm and powerful feeling that surrounds each and every one of those backpacks. It’s a hope so vivid you can almost taste it.

Unfortunately, the circumstances that bring children into child protection (and into our backpack room) have many different descriptors – tragic, sad, abuse, welfare, dirty, exposure, ward, rights, hurt – and leaves most wondering why and how.

For the child, their removal happens quickly, and during this unfortunate interaction, children possess minimal time to gather their memories, their keepsakes, and their favorite toys. Too often, what is collected by the child (or police officer, or parent, or brother/sister, or social worker) is so scarce it won’t even fill a small plastic grocery sack. And yet it is with that small sack that the child will leave their home and begin their new life in the foster care system. It is also in that moment, that the trajectory of that child’s life is altered, and basic feelings of sad, angry, fearful, and bad enter the picture.

The fear that these children feel is often deeply rooted. Living in multiple homes for multiple years leaves many children with a seemingly irreparable terror. Continuously handed off to strangers, to sleep in unusual beds, to eat foods never seen or smelled before — to place a few possessions into a bag of any sort over and over and over again is exhausting and scary.

Last year (FY19) in Idaho, a total of 3,657 children were separated from their parents or ‘their people’ due to child abuse and neglect and placed in foster care. In our district, that number was 822, roughly 22% of Idaho’s total number. That’s why the backpack room is a cornerstone of Family Advocates and the 4th Judicial District CASA program. We do it for the kids. We do it so kids are seen. We do it so kids are heard. We do it because sometimes there is nothing else to do.

Unfortunately, due to high demand in the community, our resources have been significantly depleted and our CASA backpack room is short on supplies. What does this backpack room normally look like? Well, imagine a living room lined with shelves. And on those shelves are rows of perfectly placed stuffed animals (all of whom are sitting upright as if on display in FAO Schwartz, waiting to be chosen for their forever home); toys for all ages and stages; Legos (of every color and set); sports equipment; art supplies; books; games; blankets (every color and size); hygiene products; diapers (all sizes); wet wipes; crayons; socks; coats; shoes; and countless other items. It is not uncommon for a GAL to spend up to an hour trying to find the “right” items for their child, paying close attention to every detail. Is it the right color? Will it fit? Is it perfect?

Our CASA volunteers are everyday people who do extraordinary work by choosing to speak up for children in the foster care system. Specially trained and then appointed by judges, CASA volunteers serve one child or sibling group by looking after their physical, emotional and psychological well-being. Their job is to ensure that the child(ren) they serve has a voice in court for the duration of their time in child protection. These volunteers, also known as Guardians ad Litem (GAL), are encouraged to provide the children they are serving with a backpack full of items during various visits (like the GALs second visit with the child, or when the child(ren) are celebrating birthdays, or during the back-to-school rush, or when items are simply needed by the child or the child’s foster/host families). It’s a fun and rewarding part of their role.

This fiscal year (FY20), 25 of the children our CASA program has served have been considered ‘homeless’ meaning the child(ren) is without adequate shelter. For obvious reasons, the lack of such shelter or living facility poses a threat to the health, safety or well-being of the child(ren). When GALs are advocating for child(ren) in these instances, the GAL is encouraged to take essential items from the backpack room that correspond with their monthly visits with the child(ren)/family. These items include hygiene supplies (wet wipes, diapers, soap, hand sanitizer, etc.), clothing (shoes, socks, seasonal items, etc.), and, of course, something fun (toys, Pokémon cards, etc.). Again, these items are in short supply.

In my time with the CASA program, I have also noticed that while our backpacks symbolize a simple act of care (or some would say love), they also act as a secret source of empowerment for our GALs. As an adult, I think we can all acknowledge how hard it is to meet a new person. Now, for some perspective, imagine your favorite child. If you had to meet them for the first time amid a traumatic event how do you imagine that interaction going? Would they ask you a million questions? Be shy? Be angry? Be afraid? And what feelings would you have?  Would those feelings change if you were carrying a backpack full of necessities and goodies which can help you facilitate conversation or activity with that child? The bulk of our GALs would say yes to that last question, and I think so would the rest of us.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs also supports this idea. When basic needs are met, then people can begin to focus on improving themselves. By providing something as simple as a backpack, our GALs are not only working towards the building of a trusting relationship, they are also providing comfort. Ideally, it is within that comfort, that hope will take hold as well as a sense of peace so the children that we serve no longer have to hyper-focus on their physiological needs. They can relax, finally, seeing that a ‘big’ person is stepping up and taking that on for them.