Volunteers go to bat for foster youth through Voices for Children
When the “random lady” showed up at Ashlee’s group home, the teenage girl was leery of trusting her.
“I was afraid of her leaving, coming in and being with me and then leaving,” said Ashlee, a former foster youth who was taken away from her parents at age 10, along with her 3-year-old sister, because of abuse and neglect.
Ashlee was speaking of her “CASA,” a volunteer advocate from a nonprofit group called Voices for Children, which screens and trains adults to work with foster children. Although it was difficult for Ashlee to trust anyone, over time she grew close to her CASA and now thinks of her as her best friend.
Ashlee was one of three current and former foster youths who spoke at a panel discussion on Thursday, Aug. 7, at the Encinitas Library, an event organized by Voices for Children and hosted by Third District County Supervisor Dave Roberts, who has adopted five foster children with his partner.
The event was intended to raise awareness of Voices for Children and its work, and attract new volunteers from throughout San Diego County to serve as CASAs, which stands for “court-appointed special advocate.” Volunteers go through a screening process, then 35 hours of online and classroom training before being assigned to one or more foster children.
As CASAs, they attend juvenile court hearings on behalf of their foster children, write reports that provide crucial information to the court, and in general look out for the welfare and best interests of their charges. Typically, volunteers spend 10 to 15 hours per month on their CASA duties, including outings and visits with their foster children.
Currently, Voices for Children has a waiting list of 165 foster children who need CASAs, said Sharon Lawrence, the group’s president and CEO. The group especially needs males and bilingual Spanish speakers to volunteer, she said.
Ashlee, 17, Hayden, 17, and Rosie, 22, described for the audience some of their experiences with their CASAs, talked about what it was like to be in the foster system and living in group homes, and shared some of the painful experiences they had been through as foster youths. Their last names were kept confidential to protect their privacy.
All three youths spoke of being on their own, and lacking a consistent, loving presence in their lives. For example, Rosie said that during holidays, well-meaning donors would generously provide gifts for children in the foster system, but those presents didn’t fill their need for relationships.
“If you really want to make an impact on a child’s life, be in that child’s life,” she said.
The three young people also spoke about how their CASAs had helped them, from arranging for medical and dental treatment, to making sure they were able to attend good schools. Hayden credited his CASA with helping him get away from a school in a bad neighborhood, and into a better situation.
The foster youth-CASA relationship also provides huge rewards for the adult volunteers, said Amy Roost, an Encinitas resident who attended Thursday’s presentation. Roost, who works as an administrator at a Solana Beach-based nonprofit, has volunteered as a CASA for the past 18 months.
She decided to get involved after her own two sons graduated from high school and went off to college.
“I want to be there for my (foster) child in a way that, one, he feels he can trust me; two, he knows I’m not going anywhere and three; I will not judge him,” said Roost.
One of the boys she has worked with told her that his mother said it was his fault she had abandoned him, Roost said.
Recently, she fought to get school district officials to do psychological testing on her foster child, leading to additional resources and flexibility in school to help him deal with learning disabilities, Roost said.
Roost said she has gotten “so much back,” from her work as a CASA.
“What greater purpose is there than to be a guiding light for someone who is lost, to be by their side and help them figure things out?” she said.
Anyone interested in volunteering as a CASA, or supporting Voices for Children, can visit the group’s website at Speakupnow.org, or call 858-569-2019. The group holds regular information sessions for potential volunteers, and several sessions are scheduled for August and September.