FOSTERING HOPE

FOSTERING HOPE

OUTWARD BOUND

FOSTERING HOPE

The real-life story of 8-year-old Jaydyn Hitchens has the twists and turns of a suspense novel — and Worcester Youth & Family Counseling Services played a key role in its happy ending

Written By: Jonathan Westman | Photographer: GRANT L. GURSKY

“She’s a beautiful soul,” Tina Hitchens said of her 8-year-old daughter, Jaydyn, as she watched her ride her bike down a side street outside of their Bishopville home. The Hitchens family has a story, and it reads like the all-American novel: Its main characters, Tina and Keith, are loving, hardworking, churchgoing parents who are raising their talented children, Nicholas, 10, and Jaydyn, in a rural, middle-class section of Worcester County. There’s even Bella, a 3-year-old rescue dog, who faithfully watches over them — Jaydyn especially. 

This idyllic setting takes place at the conclusion of their book — a happy ending that continues to play out each day. A turn of the pages in reverse, however, takes the family back in time to a scenario that could have changed the dynamic of their existence, and young Jaydyn’s life, forever.    

“I told Jayden her story just this morning,” Tina said. “Jaydyn knows she was in foster care and knows she was adopted, but she’s still too young to know the details of her circumstances.” 

Jaydyn’s story, unfortunately, is not an uncommon one locally. Her biological mother was just 17 when she had her, and both of Jaydyn’s biological parents were drug addicts. Officials with Maryland’s Department of Social Services immediately placed her in foster care.

Back then, Tina was working as a substitute teacher at local elementary schools and volunteering with Worcester Youth & Family Counseling Services (WYFCS) as a CASA — a Court Appointed Special Advocate. Her responsibilities included a monthly visit to the home of the foster child she was assigned by the judge or magistrate, an assessment of the child’s surroundings and wellbeing, and to report back to WYFCS. 

Jayden, even as an infant, had her own CASA, too, a woman named Lou Spock — a caring and dedicated volunteer with years of experience and training. About that same time, Keith and Tina were interested in adding another child to their family. Unable to have children of their own and without the resources to afford the substantial price of private adoption, as they had previously incurred with Nicholas, Tina contacted WYFCS about adopting a child in need of a good home. To be considered, she had to forgo being a CASA, and the couple had to become foster parents.

Five months later, beautiful baby Jaydyn was placed in their care. Tina and Keith had the daughter they always wanted, and Nicholas quickly became attached to his younger sister. Spock made regular visits to their home and consistently found the family and Jaydyn to be an ideal fit. But foster families with their hearts set on adoption are often leery of the potential for reunification with one or both of the child’s biological parents — which is the obligation of social services and the court, barring mitigating circumstances. After two years of raising Jaydyn, those fears became very real for the Hitchens family, as Jaydyn’s biological father wanted her back. He was even enrolled in a substance-abuse prevention program, and state officials ordered her returned to his custody following the completion of treatment.

“It was a situation we always knew in the back of our minds could take place,” Tina said. “That didn’t make it any easier. I was her mother; Keith was her father, and Nicholas was her big brother. We spent two years raising her.”

As the transition grew closer, now within a matter of weeks, Spock was still serving diligently as Jaydyn’s CASA, and she knew something wasn’t right. Through her investigation, Spock discovered that Jaydyn’s biological father was still using illegal drugs, despite the court order and the appearance of sobriety. Her subsequent court reports stated that being placed in his care was not in Jaydyn’s best interests. 

“Jaydyn’s CASA volunteer literally changed the direction of where her case was heading,” Tina said. “Her CASA saved her. Lou advocated for Jaydyn, and she literally saved her. 

“Social services is so inundated with cases, and their job is to reunite the child and the parents in the home. I get that. My job is to care,” Tina continued. “Judges are human; social-services employees are human; we all make mistakes. God stepped in, and here we are.” 

When Tina and Keith officially signed their adoption agreement to become Jaydyn’s parents, they included a clause that provided visitation rights (one week twice a year and one weekend a month) with one set of biological grandparents. They had always played an active role her in life and continue to do so to this day.  

“They were unable to care for her full-time and always said, ‘You’re her mom and dad, but we still want to be her grandparents.’ It’s an amazing relationship, and Nicholas is very close with them, too. It’s worked beautifully for all of us,” Tina said.

Today, Jaydyn is a thriving second-grade student at Showell Elementary who loves music and singing. Nicholas does, too, and the siblings play in the Mini Rockers band at the Academy of Musical Performance (AMP) in Salisbury under the direction Gino and Susan Bailey. And so begins the next chapter in the book of the Hitchens family.


IN NEED OF SUPPORT

“Imagine what it would be like to lose your parents, not because of something you did, but because they can’t — or won’t — take care of you,” said Worcester Youth & Family Counseling Services CASA program director Brigitte Southworth. “In an overburdened social-welfare system, abused and neglected children often slip through the cracks. Into these vulnerable children’s lives come dozens of strangers: police, foster parents, therapists, social workers, judges, lawyers and more. Hopefully, one of these strangers is a CASA volunteer, because they provide that one constant person that a child needs in order to thrive.”

Janet Balbo has been a CASA in Worcester County for 10 years. After retiring from the federal government in 2003, Janet relocated to the Shore, and while she was very active socially, something was missing in her life. She wanted to connect with her community and truly make a difference. Over the past decade, Janet has been actively involved as a CASA volunteer and achieved credits from educational training programs focused on alcohol-and-drug abuse and suicide. Her desire to help children is further fueled by her grandson’s addiction to drugs.

Janet’s most recent case lasted more than six years. She was the CASA for a young girl who was abused by her father and brother. Placed in foster care by social services, she recalled the unimaginable circumstances faced by a child so young in life.

“This poor child ran the gamut of issues,” Janet recalled. “She hoarded and hid food because she didn’t know when her next meal would come, and she had all sorts of behavioral problems. We had so many family interventions with her, and she spent time in two different treatment facilities — but I was there for her. Even late at night, if there was a problem, I did whatever I could to be there.”

Janet’s journeys with the child have covered thousands of miles across Maryland -— from Berlin to St. Vincent’s Villa Therapeutic Group Home in Timonium, Sheppard Pratt Health System in Baltimore and placement in an adoptive foster home in Anne Arundel County, which ultimately did not work out.

“This particular child has had several different foster parents, different therapists, different caseworkers with social services, but one CASA, in Janet, and that is so important,” Brigitte said. “The child knew that beyond all of the changes in her life, there was one element that was going to be a constant — and that was her CASA.”

The child, who turned 15 in May, was successfully adopted last December and is doing well in high school.

“I fully expect this child to continue her education at the next level,” Janet said. “It’s very gratifying to see where she is today. I have made an impact, and I truly believe that, but we’re a team. There are a number of people on our team who didn’t give up on her.”

More than 1,500 children are served by Maryland CASA each year — approximately 50 of them in Worcester County. Currently, there are 40 CASA volunteers, 35 of whom are assigned to active cases, so the need for additional support is real. Should the number of cases exceed the number of CASAs, the child is placed on a waiting list until a volunteer is available. 

“Our goal is simple: to speak up for every child’s right to a safe and permanent home,” Brigitte said. “CASAs passionately advocate for abused and neglected children who are caught up in the court-and-child-welfare maze because they are unable to live safely at home. We’ll do whatever we can to be there for them.”

 

PIRATE PARTY!

On Friday, May 19, Worcester Youth & Family Counseling Services will host its 9th annual Pirate Party on the docks at Sunset Grille in West Ocean City, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Co-chaired by Joe Kendall of Kendall Furniture and Buddy Trala of Sunset Grille, the event will feature live music, a buffet-style dinner, happy-hour drink prices and gift auctions.

Local residents volunteer to serve as “pirates” and seek donations (a minimum of $500 each) from the community. A host of local businesses also sponsor the event, as well. Attendees are encouraged to come dressed in their best pirate garb and celebrate their efforts to “keeping children afloat.” 

“There are many great causes in Worcester County, but this is one that especially touches my heart,” said Kendall. “I’m asking the residents of our community, and beyond, to join us at this year’s party, to support Worcester Youth & Family Counseling Services and its CASA program. There are children in our very own backyards who need us, and we need to come together to help them.”

All proceeds benefit Worcester Youth & Family Counseling Services’ CASA and youth programs.

For additional information or to become a CASA volunteer or Pirate Party sponsor, call Brigitte Southworth, at 410-641-4598 or email her at bsouthworth@gowoyo.org.

 


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