08/03/2011 05:18AM ● Published by Style
Photo by Dante Fontana
One of life’s impossible truths is that thousands of abused and neglected children in this country – hundreds from our community – have been extracted from their homes, removed from their families and are part of an overburdened dependency and delinquency system.
They live in limbo and bounce from foster home to foster home, while equally strained courts try to determine their best interests. Is reunification of the family possible, and if not, under whose custody will these children live until they “age out” of the system?
Wading these unpredictable waters is Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA). Formed nationally in 1977 to provide court-appointed volunteer advocacy to abused and/or neglected children of all ages (and, in doing so, help secure them permanent placement), CASA now operates a network of more than 1,050 community offices nationwide, including a local chapter in Placer County. Like its national counterparts, CASA of Placer County, established in 2004, recruits, trains and supports volunteers to provide quality advocacy and consistency for children in the system – and a voice for them in court.
For CASA of Placer County’s Program Director Kathryn Hart, rewards overshadow the obvious challenges. “Yesterday, in court, a youth told the judge, ‘The only person who I trust is my CASA,’” she relays. But, while noting the complexities that come with CASA advocacy, Hart honors its compensatory victories. “It is difficult to read sad stories of hurt children in our community,” she admits. “But a caring volunteer can love unconditionally and be the difference.”
CASA of Placer County volunteers – 197 of who are currently serving 143 children whose cases have been assigned to the organization by the courts – are linchpins of the operation. They meet with social workers, teachers, family members, physicians, mental health professionals, law enforcement and the children to provide a judge with recommendations and a comprehensive accounting of the case. Without the involvement of a CASA, the opposite is often true and research judges receive is frequently limited – the product of an overstrained, inexcusably under-funded system.
CASA of Placer County also advocates for the best interests of the community by engendering understanding among residents. “I always ask volunteers, ‘How many calls came in last year reporting child abuse for Placer County?’” Hart says. “Everyone is shocked to learn the number is over 3,500.” The picture becomes more sobering when you factor in the other realities: Children with a CASA are less likely to spend more than three years in foster care than those without advocates, and four times less likely to reenter the system after their cases have been closed. CASA advocacy also saves the county and taxpayers approximately $15,000 in staffing, emergency shelter, and ancillary costs it requires every time a child is relocated to a new foster home.
Most importantly, CASAs help break a damaging cycle. “When foster children have a CASA, they have at least one consistent, reliable adult in their lives who truly cares about and steers them toward positive outcomes.”
CASA of Placer County currently needs bilingual and male volunteers. For more details about the organization, including its Casino De Paris fundraiser (October 15 at Rocklin Mercedes-Benz), or how to become a volunteer, visit casaplacer.org.