Josie (a psudonym) was nine when we met and I became her advocate through the Court Appointed Special Advocates of Los Angeles, a nonprofit that provides one-on-one help for foster children. My kids were grown, and I wanted to help someone—not with money, but with my time and energy. Josie had recently been taken away from her family and lived at a Catholic group home. Her mother, who had been living on the streets with Josie and her sister, was profoundly mentally ill and was devastated by the death of her son in a gang shooting. Her father was in prison, and the word was that he had horribly abused Josie, but no one knew how because she didn’t talk about it. The only outward sign was a cigarette burn on her arm. This was a world I couldn’t even imagine.
At my meeting with Josie, her therapist, her social worker, and the head of the home, Josie didn’t say much. She had big brown eyes and braided hair that clung close to her head. She seemed tired. It was hard to reconcile this little girl with the file that said she hit and kicked adults. We all talked for a while, and then Josie and I were escorted to a room to get acquainted. I explained to her that I was there to help make sure she had everything she needed. Then I realized that she was drooling—from all the meds she was on, I assumed. Her eyes rolled to the back of her head; she curled up in my lap and went to sleep. We were strangers.
I realized that she was so drugged she was almost nonfunctional, so my first order of business was to get her drug regimen under control. At nine, she was on four psychiatric medications, according to her file. It wasn’t easy. It took several visits with doctors and appearances at court, but I did it; I got her off all but one.
And so we began. That was eight years ago. Since then Josie has been in seven group homes and three foster homes, has gone through at least six psychiatric hospitalizations (post-traumatic stress disorder is her diagnosis) and seven social workers. She had a baby earlier this year at 17. At her last group home she would sneak out and meet the father at the park. He isn’t in the baby’s life, but Josie lives for her child (she finally has someone who loves her unconditionally). She is now in a “whole family” placement with a foster mother who takes care of her and her infant. Besides her two sisters (whom she rarely sees), I am one of the few people who has been steadily in her life. I have helped her get into schools that didn’t want to accept her, deal with social workers who weren’t doing their jobs, get clothes for her baby and grooming items for herself. We have been to dozens of movies, lots of dinners—Panda Express is her favorite—and I am the only person who has ever been to a back-to-school night for her.
Without me she would have been awash in a system that is supposed to care for her but often doesn’t. She wouldn’t have had that person to call when she lost her glasses or her phone and needed new ones. There would be no one making sure she wasn’t over-drugged again.
WHY IS CASA NECESSARY?
CASA exists because there is a real need for this one-on-one advocacy. Wende Nichols-Julien, the CEO of CASA who is also a mother of four—including one child whom she fostered and then adopted—and a CASA volunteer herself, says: “I have heard multiple people say that the benefit of CASAs [the name given to CASA volunteers] to the system is that they can get enraged and annoyed by things within the system that they should be enraged and annoyed about—and still help in some way. All the other players are too jaded to be enraged. This is about justice and breaking down injustices against our most vulnerable neighbors.”
There are more than 30,000 foster kids in Los Angeles County. Not only have they been traumatized, they also are more likely than the general population to have learning delays, to become mothers and fathers in their teens, and to be homeless or incarcerated as adults. Well-meaning people are supposed to be there to help—social workers, judges, lawyers, and therapists—but often they are overworked and unavailable. CASA is the antidote for that. There are 931 CASAs in L.A. who serve 1,124 children. While the CASA ranks are growing quickly (39 percent more kids were served this year than in 2016), there is a long way to go for every foster child in Los Angeles to have a CASA.
In addition to identifying the services available to their foster charges, CASAs gather information from teachers, doctors, foster parents, and others. And most important, they appear in court with a report on their findings. “The national CASA movement was started by a Seattle judge in 1977 when he realized he was making decisions about children’s lives in dependency court with very little real and unbiased information about their situations,” says Nichols-Julien. “CASA of Los Angeles was founded in 1978 to address the same issues. What makes L.A. unique is our enormous size and the huge caseloads that judges, attorneys, and social workers have here. Often there is no adult who has a relationship with the child.”
It’s clear what a child gets from a devoted advocate, but what about the volunteer? “I don’t think we talk enough about the benefits of volunteering for the volunteers themselves,” says Nichols-Julien. “There’s quite a bit of research about the health benefits—psychological and physical—of volunteering. And, as a CASA, you have the opportunity of knowing that you have made a tangible difference in a young person’s life. One CASA told me that what he likes about this work is that it is ‘aggressively not about me.’ I think in the current political climate people are searching for a way to really help others.”
HOW TO HELP
Volunteer: CASA training is 40 hours—mostly in person, some online. Donate: Any amount helps. And learn more about foster care: “It is our responsibility to make sure foster kids don’t get lost in this overwhelmed system,” says Wende Nichols-Julien. Go to casala.org or call 323-859-2888 to attend an informational meeting in your area.