Destrehan resident Jacqueline Awasthi knows the importance of having someone to speak on behalf of children in the foster care system.
Awasthi, a New Orleans native, became a foster child when she was 12 years old after her mother moved away with her ten siblings and left her behind.
"I came into the foster care system because I was actually abandoned by my mother. I was left in an empty apartment. She moved away and she didn’t take me with her," she said.
For two weeks, Awasthi stayed alone in the empty apartment before she was taken into protective custody. That began a six-year trek through the Louisiana foster care system that saw her placed in at least 15 homes before she was released at 18.
"You are on your own with nothing, no training, no one to have taught you how you deal with life as an adult and the different options you have," she said.
However, Awasthi said she was fortunate she had done well in school.
"I was lucky. Since things weren’t going so well at home, I turned to school and I was very into my school life," she said.
Throughout her stay with all of her different foster families, Awasthi made completing her basic education a priority.
"I actually made sure that I stayed in the same school. I made sure that no matter what else happened, how far I moved away, I memorized the bus route and I got to school," she said.
After graduating from McMain Magnet Secondary School in New Orleans, Awasthi received a full scholarship to attend a college preparatory boarding school program for one year.
"I got a full scholarship and then from there I got a scholarship to go to Columbia University in New York," she said.
Meanwhile, four of her younger siblings had also been placed in the foster care system.
"Eventually my other brothers and sisters, the younger ones, went into care as well because she eventually couldn’t deal with them and left them hanging around everywhere unsupervised," Awasthi said.
Three of her brothers ended up in a foster home in the Magnolia Housing Projects. One of her brothers was murdered while in foster care.
"Unfortunately I didn’t graduate because during my junior year (at Columbia) my youngest brother was murdered and I couldn’t deal with it at the time," she said. "I came back to New Orleans."
Another of Awasthi’s brothers was also murdered in the same housing project.
Now, 30 years after first becoming a foster child herself, Awasthi is a volunteer for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), a non-profit group that places community volunteers as advocates for children in the foster care system.
She said her family’s experience is a driving force behind her need to help children who are now in the foster care system, especially after seeing the type of atmosphere her brothers lived in while in foster care.
"If I could have been an advocate for a child living in that type of situation that is drug-ridden, nothing but violence going on, I would understand that you don’t take an at-risk child and put them in that kind of an environment," she said. "You are basically assuring that they are not going to make it out."
In her own case, she said having a buffer between her, the court and the foster families could have helped.
"It would have given me somebody to voice my concerns to and let them know what was going on and the problems I had. Maybe they could have helped me work things out. It would have been very helpful," she said.
Over the past three years, Awasthi has served as an advocate for four children in St. Charles Parish.
CASA advocates meet with the children they are assigned to once a month to provide support and ultimately to speak in court on behalf of the child.
"The main thing with a CASA advocate is to gather information," she said. "You want to get all of the information you need. The background of all the different people involved in the child’s life and the child’s perspective so that you can be well informed and can make a better decision as to what you would like to happen with a child."
Krisy McAdams, the River Parishes Region CASA recruiter, said foster children need outside support to protect their best interests, especially those children who are in foster care their entire lives.
"We have information that shows CASA volunteers cuts the child’s time in system in half," she said. "Without a volunteer they can linger in the system longer, but with a volunteer we’ve found that things move along more quickly and efficiently."
McAdams said the goal for any CASA volunteer is to make sure that the needs of foster children are met and that each case ends as well as it possibly can.
"Our end result is to make sure these children end up in a safe home. Whether they end up with their parents who have done what they need to do, gotten the proper education or made the right adjustments," she said. "Or if they get adopted by a foster parent or aunt or uncle who wants to give the child that safe environment."
CASA is currently seeking volunteers in the River Regions area. A meeting will be held at the CASA office located at 816 Paul Maillard Road in Luling on Thursday May 23 from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. for potential volunteers.
For more information you can visit their website at www.childadv.net or call McAdams at 225-647-2005.