Families familiar with foster care will tell you the system is hard on children even in the best of times, but the challenges of COVID-19 have only made life harder for the 30,000 boys and girls in Los Angeles County who are in the system.

CASA of Los Angeles is a volunteer network that seeks to serve children in foster care, and leaders of the organization recently said the difficulties facing foster youth will only increase as the Westside heads further into the holiday season.

“Holidays are particularly challenging when you’re away from your family, and I think, this year, everyone can have a sense of what that means,” CASA’s CEO Wende Julien said. “It’s hard for me to imagine not spending Thanksgiving with my family but we’re all doing so because of health reasons this year so I think that gives us some sense of empathy as to what our kids are experiencing on a daily basis.”

Foster children are typically estranged from many loved ones since it’s rare for families to be able to foster or adopt siblings together. Visits and interactions between family members also aren’t easy to coordinate and COVID has only made the efforts more difficult because of health and travel restrictions, she said.

“I’ll also say a lot of our young people are struggling with mental health issues, and many of those mental health issues are directly related to the trauma, abuse and neglect that they’ve experienced,” Julien said, sharing most of the children and young adults in the system simply need to feel as if somebody cares about them and show them they’re not alone. “If you can imagine what it feels like to be 19 (years-old) with a baby and be living in a shelter and not know what the next steps are going to look like; that’s the situation for so many of our young people that are aging out of foster care, and really what they need is somebody to step up and be there for them.”

Santa Monica resident Kerry Grimes is one of the thousands of CASA volunteers nationwide who have sought to do just that.

“I first got involved because I had volunteered for years and years on many different organizations for events or long term, and I felt I wasn’t making a huge impact. So I felt CASA was the perfect solution for that, because it is a commitment and it is something that makes you feel like you are making an intense impact on a child’s life,” Grimes said.

After volunteering for almost four years, Grimes said she has been inspired to take her efforts a step further and look into becoming a foster mom to help transitional youth.

In her few years of experience, Grimes has come to be familiar with the number of responsibilities a CASA volunteer is tasked with.

“One of the main things we do with CASA is visit our kids and we check in. It’s a developing relationship where you’re making sure their needs are being met, and seeing if they’re too skinny, or if they need medicine, or if they’re not taking care of themselves,” Grimes said.

A Court Appointed Special Advocate is a very formal role in the sense that you write court reports and go to important meetings with social workers and make recommendations to the judge. They help make sure the kids have the access to education and special education that they need, but then there’s also this softer side — the personal connection side — that’s just as helpful,” Julien said, detailing how CASA has identified nearly 12,000 kids in Los Angeles County who are in immediate need of a CASA volunteer.

“The pandemic has presented some extraordinary problems related to the economy and the housing crisis where… there are no beds available, there are no transitional housing beds available,” Julien said. “So, we have had a couple of examples where we’ve had those teen parents and young adult parents on the street for a matter of days before we’re able to find a spot for them. And it is a crisis that absolutely has to be addressed. And one that COVID has just made significantly more difficult.”

Grimes said she can only describe the situation as crazy, “because, especially in L.A. and Santa Monica, we’re in such a bubble and we’re so cut off from what happens and what life looks like, even 10 miles away up the street.”

“We stay in this bubble; I ride my bike to the beach and I swim and it’s like that, but that’s not what their life looks like. And it’s not only their environment. I feel like the biggest thing they lack is just someone (caring),” Grimes added. “So for whatever reason, they ended up in this system. And they don’t trust anyone in the court system… All of those people are constantly changing, so they don’t have any consistency and they also tend to distrust anyone that’s associated with the court system because they’re the ones that took them away from their parents.”

What’s great about CASA though is the children and young adults know you are a volunteer. “They know you’re doing this, because you actually want to be there and not because you’re getting paid,” Grimes said. “So, I feel like that’s the other thing that CASA offers to these kids — a level of consistency.”

And while Grimes noted the pandemic has limited the ability to do any in-person activities, it’s also made it easier than ever to get involved and assist the thousands of local youth in need, Julien said.

“We have, as of March 15, pivoted to a completely online recruitment and training process, so you can now do it all from your couch,” Julien said, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an intense process. After all, being a CASA volunteer is a very serious commitment.

All of the pertinent information is available online at the website Casala.org. “It’s a total of 40 hours. Some of it is live on zoom and some of it is on your own. And then you get appointed to a child and become an officer of the court and you’re able to advocate,” Julien said.

“During the training, you’re taught worst case scenarios and there’s lots of questions that may come up… But I feel like growth begins outside of your comfort zone,” Grimes said. “Especially if we’re looking at my hometown of Santa Monica, we’re incredibly lucky so if we were to give even one-tenth of our energy and resources that we have and put it forward, it’d make a huge amount of difference.”

Brennon@smdp.com