I’ve been living in Santa Monica, CA for three years, following 21 years in Brentwood, and most people would say I live a fairly typical life. I raised a family, was a librarian in a local public school, took care of my aging parents, have taken on babysitting my perfect grandson part-time, and try to swim an hour a day for my mental health. I am now also a CASA: a Court Appointed Special Advocate for children in the LA County foster care system.
Shawna was my first CASA assignment. When I first met Shawna, she was 4-years-old and had already been removed from her home twice. On the surface, it looked like she had a mother who couldn’t take care of her and no other relatives to step in to help. Headed toward possible termination of parental rights and adoption away from her mom, or a long process in the Child Dependency system, Shawna was assigned a CASA, me, to be her voice and her advocate.
Empowered by the court to advocate for Shawna in the courtroom and in the community, I was now responsible for getting to know all I could about Shawna. This included knowing her family, her foster family, her teachers, therapists, case managers and anything or anyone else that was a part of Shawna’s life. As a volunteer focusing on one child, I had more time to do this than any caseworker or attorney ever could.
From day one, it was obvious that Shawna loved her mom and wanted to be home. Shawna couldn’t wait to tell me about how her mom took care of her and how much she loved her. I met Shawna’s mother, and could see she was a tough cookie. A foster child herself at a younger age, this teenaged mother was a single parent with little means and less support. She didn’t appreciate me at first. She didn’t know who I was or what I was doing visiting with her daughter. She made it clear that she didn’t like me or the system that had appointed me. But I could see beneath the hard exterior brought on by the stress of life and the seemingly endless, confounding court system, a determined mother who loved her daughter very much.
While getting to know Shawna and the people around her, I learned that she had a maternal grandfather who wanted very much to take care of her. As Shawna’s CASA, I had the opportunity to visit him and learn more about him. I told the attorneys on Shawna’s case about him, and ultimately recommended to the court that he be given legal guardianship. I also recommended that Shawna’s mother be allowed monitored, but unlimited visitation. I had discovered that she was an interested, loving and capable parent who just needed time and support to mature and grow up herself. She and I became friends and still communicate.
Today, Shawna is a 6-year-old girl who does well in school and sings every afternoon in a local children’s chorus, while also learning violin. I was able to make that happen just because I had the time to notice. I heard Shawna’s voice one day at a visit (gorgeous!) and discovered that she loves to sing. I found a free after-school choral program within walking distance of her home – a home Shawna now shares with her grandfather and her mother. With counseling and other support services in place, this family is hopefully set up for the best kind of family success.
I’m still in contact with Shawna and her family. I will be a guest at Shawna’s birthday party this month: a festive affair beautifully organized by her mother. What a privilege it has been to be her CASA and see a loving family reunited!
I was an attorney early in my marriage, and thought that would be my career. Once I had my two exquisite daughters though, I decided I wanted to spend most of my time being their mom. (Luckily my husband’s career and his unconditional support afforded me that luxury.) One of my daughters, who grew up to be an attorney herself, works with children in the foster care system on a daily basis. She told me that anytime a CASA is assigned, the case is so organized and things seem to go so well. She encouraged me to take the steps toward being a volunteer CASA.
There are 30,000 children in the LA County foster care system, and any one of them would benefit from having a CASA appointed to their case. I am one of 500 volunteer advocates. We all have different stories about who we are and where we’re from. What unites us is that we are men and women who are committed, caring adults who believe that we have a role to play in making sure the children in our community have a fair chance at a successful future.
CASA of Los Angeles is a non-profit organization that recruits, trains, and supports volunteers like me. CASA’s expert staff were with me every step of the way as I advocated for Shawna. There are many children still waiting for a CASA, someone to help them find their voice and give them an opportunity to escape the statistics that say they are likely to grow up to be homeless or incarcerated.
CASA is coming to Santa Monica! This event is one component of our endeavor to grow our presence in Santa Monica and increase the number of volunteers advocating on behalf of abused and neglected children.
Our next information session is at the Montana Branch Library in Santa Monica on Oct. 17, 2015 from 11:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. (1704 Montana Ave.). To sign up, or learn more about CASA, visit www.casala.org/volunteer or contact Nahtahna Cabanes at (323) 859-2888 x 6303.