Article by Tracy Fauver, Executive Director of Yolo County CASA
As I write this month's column, two mass shootings have again rocked our nation. Like everyone else, these events leave me saddened, shaken to my core, and in deep thought about our future.
After these types of events, in a quest for deeper understanding and comfort, two questions seem to arise.
1) What causes these events to happen?
2) How can we prevent this from happening again?
The answers to these questions are largely why I pursued a career in social work.
One of the most common, underlying characteristics of suspects in mass shootings is social withdrawal or isolation. Commonly, a mass shooter is described something like, "a loner", "withdrawn", "odd but harmless", and the list goes on. And the problem with these characteristics is that, once they manifest themselves, they tend to compound.
In other words, in the field of social work, we know that when an individual is feeling isolated, that person usually goes further into a withdrawn state rather than making the connections they need to come out of it. This is due to a broad range of underlying conditions like, depression, schizophrenia, social anxiety, and others.
By now you might be asking, what does this have to do with Yolo County CASA?
Foster youth are especially at risk for being isolated and withdrawn. On average, a child is moved three to four times within their first year in foster care. This means changing schools several times, making friends several times, and getting to know primary caretakers several times in the space of 365 days.
If you're reading this column quickly, I encourage you to stop for a moment and think about the implications of the last scenario in the list above. Imagine what it's like to get to know a new set of temporary parents for the fourth time in a year?!
Childhood can be tough under normal circumstances... add to those circumstances the things that a foster child endures, and it can become unimaginable. If you were a child in these circumstances, wouldn't you become anxious or depressed and withdraw? Chances are (and the statistics suggest) that you might.
Now, I'm not suggesting that all lonely and withdrawn children become mass shooters... not in the least. But I am suggesting a heightened awareness of this withdrawal, because it signals a deeper condition that often can be helped through the development of a consistent and stable relationship. If we form meaningful relationships with a child early enough in their foster care journey, we can give foster children the chance to be mentally and physically healthier for the rest of their lives by noticing and helping to reverse the underlying conditions that cause an individual to withdraw and become lonely.
In fact, relationships are so powerful, that they are the ONLY vehicle for our issues and problems to surface. I'll explain...
If someone lived alone in the dessert with no other person to relate to, that person would conceivably have no problems. In other words: Problems manifest themselves in the presence of a relationship. And when they do, the other person has an opportunity to simply say, "You're not alone. I'll help you." This simple act can change or save someone's life. We see it at Yolo County CASA every day because CASA volunteers have built up trust with their foster youth, so when vulnerable moments do come along, the CASA youth has the courage and trust to confide in someone else, rather than becoming withdrawn and alone.
To further illuminate this, before I became the Executive Director of Yolo County CASA, I worked with homeless individuals. It was my job to visit them and form a relationship with them, which would allow me to connect them with needed services to improve their lives. My relationship with them enabled me to be there during moments of clarity. For example, when someone is deeply addicted to drugs, they might have a moment of clarity where they know that if they don't get help, they are going to die. When they have that moment of clarity, having a relationship with someone they trust allows them to reach out and get help, rather than become withdrawn and die of an overdose. The RELATIONSHIP is what saves their lives.
As a social worker, I am admittedly biased, but I do believe that relationships are the most important medicine we have to help those in our community who are troubled and withdrawn. And while we've researched this for centuries in social psychology, science now backs it up. To learn more, research the ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study. For regular readers, you've heard me reference it often in this column.
Right now, we have over 700 children in Yolo County's dependency system and we have CASA volunteers for 191 of them. If you've ever been interested in becoming a CASA volunteer, I urge you to consider applying. Find more information at yolocasa.org.
In the meantime, if you know someone who has become lonely or withdrawn, reach out to them. You gesture of friendship could literally save his or her life.