Advocating for Youth and Children in Foster Care
“CASA volunteers make a profound and positive impact on children in foster care as an advocate, mentor and adult role model. In court, they are the independent eyes and ears for the judge,” states Hon. Thomas M. Maddock, Supervising Judge of Contra Costa County Juvenile Court.
Since 1981, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Contra Costa County has served some of society’s most in need—children and youth in foster care. CASA is a 501(c)(3) community-benefit organization that recruits, trains and supports volunteers who advocate one-on-one for the best interests of abused, neglected and traumatized youth. As an officer of the court, advocates are a powerful voice for children and youth in foster care. They can, and do, make a difference now and for generations to come.
“Through my work as a CASA volunteer, I have a new understanding and empathy for children who end up in the juvenile dependency system by no fault of their own and for the complexity of issues that foster care addresses,” says Elizabeth Werhel, retired general civil litigation attorney. “The problems encountered are complicated, solutions are hard to find, and best intentions can sometimes result in unintended consequences. I like being someone who humanizes the system and tries to make it work as best as possible for the child.”
Through their advocating experiences, many volunteers gain firsthand knowledge of how strong their core beliefs are when put to the test. “Advocating for youth who have suffered abandonment, abuse, neglect and may have learning and/or behavior issues can seem overwhelming at best, even for a well-intentioned and well-trained CASA volunteer,” says Shari Santos, legal assistant at Miller Starr Regalia, “but you don’t give up, because everyone else in their family has, and no matter how hard it becomes to care about a child who doesn’t care about himself, you passionately advocate for the child in the courtroom and in the system. Because sometimes, your CASA youth defies the odds, graduates from high school, makes it to college, and has hopes and dreams for their life that you helped build. This type of deep-seated satisfaction is priceless!”
Advocates make a two-year minimum commitment to the program, volunteering 15-20 hours on average per month. At first glance, the CASA volunteer commitment may be a bit daunting. “It’s easy to think that you don’t have time to volunteer. Being a single mom, with a teenage son, a full-time job and other volunteer commitments, I was concerned that I didn’t have enough time to advocate for a child. Here I am—seven years later—on a journey to adulthood with not only my son, but with my CASA youth as well,” shares Santos.
One of the keys to advocating for at-risk youth is consistency. In fact, many times CASA volunteers find themselves the only consistent adult in the child’s life. This can be both meaningful yet bittersweet. “It’s a humbling experience to be involved with a youth who had and continues to experience life-changing obstacles without the support of their family,” reflected volunteer Portia Duncan, retired annuitant. “I’ve learned the importance of being a mindful listener without passing judgment. Most of all, I’ve realized how crucial it is to have a constant and caring person in one’s life.”
You do not need to be a juvenile law attorney to be a CASA volunteer. In fact, volunteers come from all walks of life. CASA screens all prospective volunteers carefully, and requires pre-service training prior to being assigned a first case. “Training is well thought out and organized. I continue to be impressed by the variety of professionals including social workers, psychologists, attorneys, school district personnel and judges among others who donate their time to ensure that trainees are well equipped and have the tools necessary to start advocating for a child,” commented Duncan. “In addition, CASA staff is involved in the training and is readily accessible whenever a need arises throughout an assignment.”
That said, those in the legal realm do find the role a natural fit and a way to serve children and youth, even if they are not practicing attorneys or do not specialize juvenile law. “It’s a great way to use my legal skills on behalf of society’s most vulnerable members,” says Santos. As part of their advocacy effort, CASA volunteers have helped children and youth legally change their name, provided understanding of contracts or court proceedings and the legal ramifications of becoming an adult.
Children are our future, and improving their outcome is critical to our growth as a society. CASA currently serves close to 15 percent of the children and youth in foster care in Contra Costa County. “Through their advocacy efforts, CASA volunteers make a difference one child at a time,” reflects Santos.
Learn more about becoming a CASA volunteer and sign up for an informational session held monthly at www.cccocasa.org.