San Diego volunteer gives foster youth care and consistency as special advocate
Kate Gibson is a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for foster youth in San Diego through Voices for Children, a nonprofit that trains and supports volunteers in ensuring that the needs of local foster youth are being met, and that the children have a consistent and caring adult relationship while navigating the foster care system
It was the look of terror that Kate Gibson saw on her 9-year-old neighbor’s face that started a shift in how she thought about people who’d been victimized in life and how that trauma could affect the rest of their lives.
“I got to see, firsthand, some of the issues that children face, and that doesn’t leave you,” she says, referring to her next-door neighbors who were foster parents at the time. “It’s something that always stayed in my head and my heart. That population of children have some incredibly special needs that are just too easily overlooked by others. That’s how I found Voices for Children.”
Voices for Children is a nonprofit that does outreach, training and provides support for Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteers in San Diego and Riverside counties. These volunteers are matched with a child upon completing an application process, interviews, background check and other requirements. They get to know the child and meet with attorneys, social workers and others involved in that child’s case to ensure that the child’s needs are being met and serve as a consistent and caring adult presence in their life. Voices for Children estimates that 3,500 San Diego children will spend time in foster care this year after having been on the receiving end of abuse or neglect.
Gibson, who previously worked in special education as an instructional aide, began volunteering as a CASA in 2018 and took some time to talk about her experience, her initial concerns and the lessons she’s learned about how to effectively advocate for children in vulnerable circumstances. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For a longer version of this conversation, visit sandiegouniontribune.com/sdut-lisa-deaderick-staff.html.)
Q: What are some ways that the CASA program supports children in foster care in San Diego?
A: I think education is probably one of the main ways that CASAs can really dive in and be instrumental in their advocacy. Most of our kids don’t stay in one school for very long because they’re changing placements. The court tries to keep them in their school of origin, but sometimes that can be a 30- to 40-minute drive from where they’ve been placed. That educational piece is so important for any child, but especially the kids that we deal with because that gives them their freedom. If they can feel confident in their education, they might find some success. For the majority of our children, education is probably the greatest thing that a CASA can become involved in, right up there with working with their emotional development. There are so many emotional issues, so much trauma that many of the kids have suffered. Years and years of emotional trauma, so I think that individual therapy is really important. It’s not always what the kids want, so it can be a long process sometimes. Then, they start therapy, but may not really connect with their therapist. So, it’s not the easiest thing to do. As a CASA, though, I think it’s important that we advocate for them and make sure that they get therapeutic services that they may not think they want or need.
Q: What have you learned about how best to advocate for youth who are in foster care?
A: First, manage expectations because no matter what it is, it’s going to move slowly. It’s also so much about relationships. That’s the one thing that I’ve really tried to do, is not only build a relationship with the children, but with the professionals involved in their cases, so that we have good communication back and forth.
You also have to accept that things aren’t going to happen quickly. My younger case child was in a wheelchair and the van that the foster family had, which had the wheelchair mechanism built into it, was stolen from their driveway before Christmas a couple of years ago. I jumped in to get this addressed and it took six months. When my older case child was leaving San Pasqual Academy (a residential education location for foster youth, located in Escondido), I sat in a meeting with her where she was told about all of the things that they were going to help her with upon her leaving: furniture, a computer, Internet access, those kinds of things. Through no fault of the academy, once she left, she was assigned a new social worker and none of the things that were talked about in that meeting happened. It’s taken us two years to get it straightened out. Even with a CASA, it’s taken that long. So, managing expectations, being willing to listen to all of the different professionals so that you have a good overview, and accepting that things will take time; those are the things I’ve learned about good advocacy for those kids.
Q: To circle back to your story about the foster child your neighbors were taking care of, what did you do to get him to unlock the closet and come out?
A: We just sat and talked to him for 30 minutes, through the door. It was just being there and listening. At one point, we said, “Look, if it doesn’t work today, you can stay home, but we need you to come out and we need to talk about it.” His circumstances, whatever they were, at the young age of 9, those shouldn’t be the things that define him for the rest of his life. I guess that’s what I go back to all of the time with the kids, is that I have the opportunity to work with kids who are unique, bright, creative, and they deserve to not have their past circumstances define and even squash some of the dreams they have. In the case of my older case child, I tell her all the time that she’s amazing. I’m just amazed by her because she has grown up in so much dysfunction, and it would be so easy for her to follow that. Instead, she’ll say, “I’m going to get a job,” and she gets a job. She really works at it, instead of saying, “Oh, poor me.” I do think it’s because there are people in her life who believe in her, who care about her beyond the report that they have to write, and that’s what it takes.
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