Dustin Bradsher attended seven different high schools, three in his senior year, while he was in foster care. From the time he was 5, he bounced from one Baltimore-area foster home to another, with no responsible, caring adult that he could turn to for guidance and support.
"There were so many foster homes, but no one seemed to really watch over me," said Bradsher, now 25.
Little changed until he was housed in a hospital for the mentally ill and Anne Feehley entered his life. She was his court-appointed special advocate, or CASA, in a program designed to provide children in foster care a mentor.
Feehley helped the teenager focus on his education. He is now one semester away from his bachelor's degree and thinking about graduate school and a career in social work.
Statewide, CASA programs provided 1,523 children with advocates last year. But with 7,700 Maryland children in foster care as of January, thousands more are not being served, said Ed Kilcullen, director of the Maryland CASA Association. His organization offers training and supervision to more than 1,200 volunteer advocates.
Caseworkers, schools and placements can change with a disruptive frequency for a child in foster care, but a CASA is constant, he said. Several former foster children and their advocates came together at a recent Baltimore County fundraiser to help recruit and train more volunteers.
"There is a critical need for volunteers," Kilcullen said. "An array of professionals, all with growing caseloads, works with a child in crisis. But an advocate has the luxury of focusing on one child. The advocate gets to see the child more often and can delve deeper into that child's wants and needs. This volunteer is an extra set of eyes and ears on this one child."
Volunteers say they've often found that they are the most reliable adult in the life of a child in crisis. The program provides volunteers 30 hours of training, much of it on how to access resources for children. Advocates work closely with a supervisor who can advise them on where to find help, how to prepare for a court hearing and when to intervene in school or at home. The task can be as a simple as finding a tutor or as difficult as pulling a child from an unsuitable placement.
Baltimore County is home to more than 600 foster children, many of whom need an adult who can speak for them in the courts, at schools and in their home placements. The county's CASA program, in 11 years of existence, has trained 130 volunteers who are working with 225 children this year.
The statewide goal is one CASA for every foster child by 2020.
Joan F. Little, chief attorney in the Baltimore City child advocacy unit for Maryland Legal Aid, said CASAs can lead to better outcomes and help children exit the system more quickly.
"It really adds extra value to a child's life," she said.
Feehley started visiting Bradsher at the hospital every week. She would arrive with his favorite fast-food meal and a few board games and then stay for hours.
"Mainly, I listened," she said. "Nobody ever listened to Dustin."
Ultimately, Feehley convinced the courts to place Bradsher in a foster program for older teens. It still meant different group homes and schools but, he said, "with Anne's help, I adjusted just fine."
"Anne helped me through a lot of bad situations," he said.
Advocates have often met resistance from the children they are trying to help.
"They get broken children, who are hurt and don't know what will happen to them next," said Monique Johnson, a former foster child. "And, no matter what, they stay."
Johnson, 24, born to a teenage mother, lived in numerous foster homes. She connected with CASA Loretta Simon.
"I felt like a paycheck to so many people," she said. "It took my advocate to say that my situation was not OK. She broke the cycle of anger, abuse and neglect in my life."
She has graduated from college, works as a counselor to young mothers and is raising a 2-year-old son. When Johnson was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a few years ago, one of her first calls for advice and consolation was to Simon.
Ashley Ruddlesden said she was "plagued with abandonment issues" in foster care. Neglect and abuse made her a frequent runaway, she said. Finally, she bonded with Kelly Buedel, a CASA whom she still considers her confidante.
"I had so many abandonment issues, until I met her," said Ruddlesden, 24. "I could trust Kelly. She let me figure things out on my own, even when I was a little girl. She respects me and shows me that I have choices."
Ruddlesden, an Owings Mills resident, expects to enroll in a vocational training program in January.
Buedel and Ruddlesden get together at least monthly and talk on the phone frequently. "We have had a lot of good times, everything from getting our nails done to selecting new glasses," Buedel said.
Bradsher, who lives in Woodlawn, still checks in with Feehley about once a week, and they often talk about his sons, Dustin Jr., 4, and 3-year-old Keyshawn. He works part-time as a residential counselor at a group home, where, he said, "I can be very understanding of the kids' situation, because I have been there."
He seeks Feehley's counsel as he handles two lively toddlers, wraps up his college courses and, typically, works a 32-hour week at the group home.
On a sunny autumn morning, Bradsher, a single father who shares custody with his sons' mother, watched the little boys as they climbed trees and a jungle gym, pretended to fish in a shallow creek and ran through falling leaves.
"Anne still encourages me," he said. "Without her, I don't think I would have finished high school, much less go to college. But she always let me decide. She showed me my options, and I chose the path."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun