Advocating for children in need
CASA/Prince George's County brings attention to Child Abuse Prevention Month
Brenda Ahearn/The Gazette
For social worker Eric Lulow, work is personal.
The 24-year-old Glenmont resident was abused as a child, spent his life bouncing around foster homes and was separated from his sisters.
But he overcame it all thanks to people who throughout his life volunteered and advocated for his needs. Lulow, inspired by their kindness and determination, became a social worker.
"It frightens me as to how I would have turned out" had he grown up with his abusive mother and stepfather, Lulow said.
April is Child Abuse Prevention Month and Lulow's experience of growing up in the system is not uncommon in Maryland, where 13,000 children live in foster homes.
Lulow belongs to the 3 percent of foster care children who age out of the system with college degrees. Children who age out are not permanently adopted. Lulow is now a case supervisor at Court Appointed Special Advocates/Prince George's County, the Hyattsville-based branch of the national CASA nonprofit organization that advocates for neglected and abused children.
Lulow said he entered the foster care system in Michigan at the age of 8 after suffering years of abuse and neglect by his mother and stepfather, and he didn't leave the system until he turned 18. He was separated from two sisters who he hasn't seen in at least 10 years.
Lulow said it was the people who took a vested interest in him and helped him throughout his journey, like his case manager and Court Appointed Special Advocate volunteer, who inspired him to pursue social work. He remembered when he encountered his stepfather as a 10-year-old while his case manager was with him.
"I knew she would fight to the death to protect me, and it was the first time I felt that," he said.
Lulow also said his CASA volunteer spent countless hours forging a relationship with him over fishing trips and rounds of catch while he bounced around five different foster homes.
"This man was the first positive male role model I had in my life," Lulow said. "Working in the system now, I see there are very few male volunteers."
CASA volunteers are charged with spending time with foster children, ensuring their needs are met and advocates for them in court to make sure they are placed in safe and loving homes. The volunteers provide judges with reports that help them make rulings.
Prince George's CASA Program Coordinator Kelly Franks said there is always a need for more volunteers, especially in Prince George's County, where 600 to 700 children are in foster care. Only one Maryland jurisdiction, Baltimore city, has more children in the system.
Franks also said she's seeing a rise in cases as the economy worsens and governments and nonprofits cut social service programs.
"Child abuse is caused by a lot of different things like stress, substance abuse problems, mental health problems," she said. "When the economy starts to struggle, services drop and we see a rise in cases."
Lulow said many people played vital roles in his life. His high school community in Tennessee, he said, pushed him to go to college. A former construction boss cosigned apartments and always found him work. And people in the system went beyond the bare minimum of what was expected of them to show they cared.
"It wasn't one person doing everything for me, but it was a collective effort of being active in my life that really helped me to succeed," Lulow said. "People talk about my resiliency, but I really had so little to do with it."
E-mail Elahe Izadi at email@example.com.
Court Appointed Special Advocates/Prince George's County volunteers have to complete 37 hours of pre-service training either through scheduled sessions or independent study. Call 301-209-0491 or visit www.pgcasa.org/news for dates of the latest training sessions.