Equipping a Family for a Successful School Year

Marcus* and Sam*, 9 and 11-year-old brothers in foster care, were living with their Grandma Ellen* as their mother completed court-ordered services and worked to create a safe home.

CASA volunteer Ana Selves received an email from CASA of Galveston County about an opportunity called “Computers for CASA”—a program that provides youth in foster care with free, refurbished laptop computers from the state’s surplus supply.

When Ana reached out to Grandma Ellen about getting laptops for the boys in preparation for the next school year, Grandma Ellen honestly thought they wouldn’t need them. After all, this was pre-pandemic—the boys were sharing her computer and it was going fine, and she assumed they’d be going back to school in-person in August like any other year.

Even so, Ana explained that she’d like to leave them on the list, knowing 11-year-old Sam would be starting middle school and his homework would start getting more complicated.

“Two boys, one going into middle school… If they have to share a computer, that’s gonna be really hard on you guys,” Ana recalled explaining to Grandma Ellen, encouraging her to take more time to think about it. “I’ve got a middle-schooler, and she’s always on her computer!”

In the meantime, Marcus and Sam’s mother, Becca*, had been working hard to complete her court-ordered services so that her boys could come back home. They had initially been removed from home because Becca was being victimized by a perpetrator of domestic violence. Becca worked hard to change her circumstances, and when she proved that the home was a safe, stable environment without a perpetrator present, the judge on their case sent the boys back home on a monitored return.

This was mid-March—right when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Texas. Marcus and Sam were happily back home with their mom, but the family was faced with challenges no one could have anticipated—physical distancing, stay-at-home orders and online schooling.

Suddenly, that free laptop Ana had requested for the boys a few weeks back seemed pretty urgent after all.

CASA of Galveston County put the Computers for CASA order in at the end of March—20 computers to distribute to youth in need served by their program. It typically takes around 6-8 weeks for computers ordered through the program to arrive, and then once they do, the Galveston program gets them set up with an operating system, antivirus software, and Microsoft Office licenses.

So, Marcus and Sam finally received their computer in July. Becca and the boys were grateful, but even so, she realized that they would really need two laptops in the home to be able to devote their full attention to their online classes and homework. She reached out to Ana to see if it would be possible for them to get a second computer.

“I was really happy that she felt comfortable enough with me to reach out like that,” Ana said. “I know that they were struggling last year. They were sharing their Grandma’s computer to do schoolwork, so that was a real challenge for everybody.”

So often, for CASA volunteers like Ana, advocating for children’s best interest means advocating for the family as well—building trust with parents and relatives, keeping open lines of communication and making sure they understand that their CASA volunteer wants them to be successful.

“I think that relationship is really important, because sometimes, when parents think that you’re not on their side, they’re not going to share what they need. They’re not going share what’s important about what’s happening with the kids. There might be something happening that you don’t know about,” Ana said. “How can you help resolve something if you don’t know that it’s happening, or that it’s a need? Making a trusting relationship is completely important.”

After her conversation with Becca, Ana reached out to her supervisor, and the CASA of Galveston County program quickly dropped off a second laptop for the family.

“Becca was just so thrilled. She is so, so happy that we were able to help her with this. It just really makes a big difference, because if we think about it she would only be able to have one of the boys on the computer at a time, and it would take so much longer to get through the assignments,” Ana said. “I know my daughter has to be online for school all day—so that would’ve been a huge struggle for the family.”

The back-to-school season can be overwhelming, both for parents and kids. Layer on the COVID-19 pandemic, and families are dealing with a more stressful start to the school year than ever before. Children who are going back to school in person are coming back to a dramatically different environment, with physical distancing and other newly imposed safety measures. And families who are doing online schooling are having to make sure kids are equipped with a computer, internet access and supervision, often while working full-time.

For many of the families CASA serves who are involved in the child welfare system, this is a major challenge. Laptops, tablets and desktop computers are expensive, and so is reliable internet.

Thanks to Computers for CASA and their CASA volunteer Ana, Marcus, Sam and their mother Becca will be ready with the supplies and access they need, whatever the new school year holds. The family is also on track for a full reunification, and a closed case, by the holidays.

To learn more about the Computers for CASA program, CASA staff members can visit this resource page. CASA volunteers, ask your program if they participate in Computers for CASA yet!

*Names have been changed for privacy.