Leah Webb-Halpern: I See Them, I Love Them, None of This Is Their Fault

Closeup of Leah Webb-Halpern, smiling

This edition of Fostering Change highlights the perspectives of recent and long-serving Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA volunteers. These trained, talented and committed individuals are critical to the success of our CASA program.  

Leah became a court-appointed special advocate, or CASA, through Friends of Children in June 2023. She holds a Master’s degree, and has studied intergenerational and historical trauma. She spoke with Fostering Change to share her perspective as a new CASA. 

What drew you to become a CASA?

I was drawn to working with children in the child welfare system after having my first child while I was a graduate student in Madison, Wisconsin. While there, I began volunteering at a non-profit organization as a family interaction specialist supervising visitations. That organization also ran the local CASA program. I was impressed by the compassion staff and volunteers showed the families with whom they worked, and by their diligence in challenging their personal biases as well as biases within the child welfare system. Through my interactions with members of that CASA team, I could see that they really cared about the child-family unit and that they were very aware of the profound systemic and intergenerational challenges the families were up against. When my family moved to Massachusetts, I decided to eventually become a CASA volunteer.

What is the work of a CASA? 

The purpose of the CASA program is to act as an unbiased set of eyes on what is going on in a child’s life. We then report what we are seeing back to the court formally through report writing, or informally by answering questions in court proceedings. The turnover rate for other providers is really high, so CASAs are asked to make a longer commitment to the child as a way of providing continuity. We are the consistent voice that helps to move services along, especially educational services. We’re also able to build a meaningful relationship with the kids and teens we work with, letting them know that we hear them and see what they’re going through.

What have been the high points? The challenges?

I’ve had the benefit of working on two very different cases, so I’ve had a variety of experiences with the involved systems, and I’ve been able to wear a number of different hats in my advocacy work. I’ve been able to support the teens I work with to tell their stories, to give them a safe place to express their frustrations and sadness, and to validate how they’re feeling. The systems that they’re involved in can be difficult to work with, and these teens need to know that they aren’t alone in feeling frustrated and disheartened by the experiences. At the end of the day, the personal impact of the volunteer is immeasurable to the child they’re working with.

The most challenging thing is that for structural reasons, systems–DCF and school systems specifically–are so over-capacity that the workers don’t always have the time to get to know the teens to see what is really going on with them. Because of that disconnect, the children are sometimes blamed for what is going wrong in their lives. It seems that these systems require perfection from kids and families at every turn, while, at the same time, the children and families themselves are being failed. I have to remind myself that even in the face of systemic injustice, there is power in continuing to show up and view children and their families with unconditional positive regard. And, of course, I’m always looking to find the places where I can have a material effect. 

Any closing thoughts?

I have been amazed at the impact of small gestures–getting someone a backpack and basic school supplies, picking up fast food, providing gift cards for toiletries, offering a listening ear. Showing up in what feels like small ways is how I’ve been able to prove to kids that I care and those gestures have been the catalyst to bonding and building trust. Sometimes the ask is so small that I have to be careful about setting boundaries on what I can do today, and what can realistically be taken care of another time. These kids long for meaningful connections, for people who see them as they are and continue to show up without judgment. If there is one message that I could share with all of these kids, it’s that I see them, I love them, and that none of this is their fault. T