There are about 28,000 foster kids in the Los Angeles area and 80 percent of them go without the support they need. They might go without a guide through the court process, or without an advocate overseeing their education, or without an adult taking interest in their lives, even for a moment, to build self-esteem.
Those who work in the system aim to do good work. Judges, foster parents, lawyers, social workers — they all do what they can, when they can as best they can, but the numbers don’t favor the children, as each professional may be handling hundreds of cases at any given time.
For a lucky few children in the system, a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteer is there to make a difference in their lives. There are just 400 CASA volunteers for all foster youth, and anyone interested in helping can attend an information event on Tuesday, April 28, from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Community Church, 1260 18th St.
CASA volunteers help in different ways. Some work at the court, guiding children through the mechanics of appearing before a judge. Some work with individual youths at different ages and with different needs.
CASA volunteers trained to work with youth aging out of the system might ensure that exit planning is complete; mentor the young adult through the process of accessing available aid, completing their education, securing housing, transportation, job training and employment; and, perhaps most importantly, help these young adults gain confidence and obtain self-sufficiency.
Volunteers working on a student’s education might coordinate with the local school districts to ensure that an Individualized Education Program is arranged for a child when necessary; find placement for the child in an alternative school if necessary; advocate that a parent’s educational rights be transferred to a guardian who has the capability to address the child’s educational struggles; and help the young person apply for college or vocational training.
Volunteers might go through early childhood training to learn to recognize developmental red flags such as loss of speech, lack of facial expressions and/or social skills that young children may exhibit as a result of trauma. They also learn about ways to strengthen families and incorporate this knowledge in discussions with all the adults in the child’s life, including teachers and school administrators, and is reflected in recommendations made to the judge and in all of their advocacy on behalf of the child.
Santa Monica resident Marjorie Annapav has worked with two youth in her time as a volunteer and also helps run CASA programs at the courthouse. She said the program is vital to the children who need it.
“It’s something you’re doing with your time that will actually influence a child’s life,” she said. “They are always amazed when they find out you’re a volunteer because everyone in their lives are paid to be there, and here’s a normal adult taking time to be there with them and see that something in their life works better.
Annapav said working with foster youth doesn’t come with a made-for-TV ending and that CASA advocates are not foster or adoptive parents. Their role is different and she said it’s more about opening a window for the youth and showing them there’s a world that includes caring individuals that want them to succeed.
“When you’re with these children, you want to give them a sense there is normalcy out there,” she said.
Annapav said it can be the smallest of moments that make a remarkable difference in a child’s life. Whether it comes from a volunteer, judge, lawyer or mentor, all that matters is that people take the time to show the youth they are important, that someone values them.
“Our one role is to give them some self-esteem for the day,” she said.
The work can be stressful, but Annapav, 64, said the CASA community helps volunteers.
“I have, over my lifetime, volunteered other places, but I have never met such a fine group of people. I mean that sincerely,” she said. “They are the most selfless, wonderful people. It’s a joy to be around them, to come out of a meeting feeling the world is a better place.”
Visit www.casala.org for more information.