By Aaron Blevins
For several of the 700 children who receive individual advocacy from CASA of Los Angeles, the volunteers who visit and check on their welfare are the closest semblance the children have to parents or guardians.
CASA of Los Angeles executive director Dilys Garcia stands with the William Workman High School Jazz Band, who performed at CASA's "Evening of Dreams" gala on May 1 in Beverly Hills. (photo by Denise Malone)
That is one reason that CASA, , which stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates, and other entities are recognizing National Foster Care Month -- in hopes of drawing attention and support for the program that strives to aid the 27,000 children under the jurisdiction of the Los Angels County Dependency Court.
"You kind of see the reflection of social ills," executive director Dilys Garcia said of the program, which strives to hold the court system accountable to the children it serves.
She said children enter the court system in a variety of ways, generally from abuse and/or neglect. Half of their parents struggle with substance abuse problems -- sometimes to the point the child is removed from their care at birth, Garcia said.
After being removed from a harmful or potentially harmful environment, children can encounter "equally horrifying" situations in foster care, which is why CASA dispatches volunteers to check on their welfare and ensure their needs are being addressed, she said.
However, more help is needed, as the workload far outweighs CASA's manpower and resources, Garcia said. So, throughout the month of May, she and other CASA officials have been making a call for more volunteers and donations.
"To be of that kind of assistance to another human being, particularly a child, is a very moving experience," Garcia said.
Assigned to specific children, CASA volunteers are officers of the court. They are charged with investigating the circumstances of a child while he or she is in the court's care, Garcia said. This involves ensuring that the child's residence, medical services and school accommodations are suitable, she said. That information is then relayed to the judge, who can order services if necessary.
CASA asks volunteers to get to know the children, support them and serve as mentors to the children. Garcia said volunteers generally conduct a lot of follow-up on the phone and through e-mail.
"That's the biggest distinction between a mentor and an advocate," she added. "We're kind of mentors on steroids."
The idea is to get the child through the system more quickly than the two or three year average for such cases. She said the court aims to reunify families -- with the issues resolved -- or place children with new families and ultimately get them adopted.
"In both cases, you're trying to get the child back to a loving, caring home," Garcia said.
CASA of Los Angeles requires that volunteers receive 30 hours of training, half of which is done online. Garcia said the organization trains people in pods of about 20 at a time.
"We try to get people oriented to the system and the situations of these children so they're equipped to be able to help them," she added. "If we had more volunteers, we would certainly be able to assign them."
This year, CASA has 428 volunteers, but the organization wants to ramp up its efforts. Bill Jones, CASA's development and communications consultant, said officials want to begin providing services to 1,000 children by next year. He said CASA realizes the vast number of children in the system, and that the organization could do more.
"It's a challenge, but we're having success so far," Jones said.
Generally, volunteers offer about 20 hours of their time per month, Garcia said. Some of that time is spent with the child, and those visits can be arranged on weekends. Garcia said she is amazed how many working people manage to find time for the effort throughout the week.
"You hear over and over again that [volunteers] get more out of it than they think the children even do," she added.
As well as individual advocacy, CASA provides services to children during their day in court. Garcia said CASA will staff an area of a courthouse to give orientation to children who are in court for the first time.
CASA, which is referred to cases that are "particularly complex," is a national program offered in approximately 1,000 counties nationwide, Garcia said. The program has received praise from U.S. Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.).
"Having worked on foster care issues for many years, I'm often asked what is it that foster youth need the most and my answer is always the same, which is that they need all the love and support you would give to any other child. No organization better understands this then CASA of Los Angeles," Bass said. "It's easy for foster youth to experience feelings of abandonment and alienation, so being able to have a compassionate and caring adult in their lives can make all the difference as they navigate the sometimes turbulent waters of the foster care system. CASA helps to bridge that gap for so many foster youth in Los Angeles, and we all should commend their work and the commitment of their volunteers for stepping up to the plate and supporting our most vulnerable youth."