New law promises foster care reform
Within Santa Cruz County at any given time there are about 550 youths who are dependents of the local court system, also known as foster care kids.
One such 10-year-old boy was sent to Court Appointed Advocates of Santa Cruz County, or CASA for short, a few years ago. CASA pairs committed and trained adult volunteers with foster youth. The volunteers are officers of the court who are specially appointed by a judge to advocate for the youth during their time in foster care.
This particular boy, says CASA outreach coordinator Cita Rasul, had never been allowed to go to school. He and his sister were clinging to each other that first day. “[He] had no background in school and had a lot of catching up to do,” says Rasul. “Now he’s a teenager who is moody and interrupts and is exactly like a normal teenager.”
“And getting straight A’s,” volunteer Doug Fischer chimes in.
Fischer worked with the young boy, going above and beyond just advocating for him in court. Like many CASA volunteers, Fischer had worked to make sure the child had what he needed to catch up.
Many foster children are removed from their families due to abusive or neglectful situations. They range in ages from young children to high schoolers, and as they grow up, foster youth often find themselves on troubled paths. According to national statistics, half of female foster youth are pregnant by the age of 19. Former foster youth make up 74 percent of incarcerated individuals in the U.S. Half are in jail within two years of being emancipated from the system.
Advocates like those in CASA are appointed to foster youth only in the most extreme cases. Youth who go through the CASA program do better in school, find permanent homes faster and are less likely to be bounced between homes, according to a University of Houston study. While anyone in the child’s life can request an advocate for him or her, the judge makes the final call. Right now, they have a wait list of 21.
CASA has branches around the country, including in Santa Cruz County, with each volunteer advocate being assigned one youth. Despite their official-sounding title, much of the work the volunteers do is simply having fun with the kids. “My first child was an 8-year-old, and he just wanted to play,” says CASA volunteer Abel Sanchez. “He just wanted me to take him to the park because he had never had that.”
This one-on-one connection puts the advocates in a unique place to speak on behalf of that child in court, which they do every six months when their child’s case comes before a judge for review.
Fischer notes that in the court system, lawyers and social workers must divide their time and energy between a number of cases, “but as an advocate, you are just focused on that one child.”
In the last year, CASA assigned advocates to 228 youths and received one of five 2015 Be the Difference Awards from the Volunteer Center of Santa Cruz County in 2015. “It really is [the volunteer’s] award”, executive director Cynthia Druley says. “They are the ones writing court reports and going bowling and baking cookies with the kids.”
Foster care as a whole has come into the California spotlight recently through the passage of AB 403, which was sponsored by California State Assemblymember Mark Stone (D-Scotts Valley) and aims to fix many things that are ailing the state foster care system.
The new legislation increases scrutiny on group homes, the facilities where foster youth get placed while they are waiting for a permanent home. Although these homes are meant to be temporary, two thirds of youth in group homes have lived there over two years.
The bill, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law last month, says that group homes are only to be used as temporary solutions in emergency situations. If youth are held for more than six months, county agencies will have to report why the child is still there.
Jimmy Cook, program manager at CASA, says it’s a good thing legislators are taking a closer look at the system. “We shouldn’t call them group homes because really they are not a home for anybody to grow up [in],” says Cook, whose early social worker training involved two years working at group homes in Los Angeles.
Children in group homes are more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system and do poorly in school, and one reason group homes can be problematic is that they blend foster care youth with youth coming out of the juvenile justice system.
In addition to phasing out group homes, the new law will increase resources to both search for and retain foster families. On top of that, Assemblymember Stone says the state has to improve education for new parents. By creating healthier families, Stone hopes to keep more kids out of the child welfare system.
“Sometimes young parents just need to know how to be parents,” Stone explains. “They need to know [what’s] normal behavior. Some parents need to know ‘Well, you’ve just got to hug the kid, and read to him every night.’ They don’t know how to do that, because of their family history, pressures in the family, sometimes they’re working two or three jobs. This is not easy to do, but a little bit of coaching, a little bit of help, a little bit of those services along the way really helps.”
Druley, CASA’s executive director, says the legislation is an important step forward because its new time limit will create an impetus for agencies to find safe places for foster youth to live. “One of our roles is to keep youth on the track of finding permanent homes,” she says.
By meeting up weekly with their appointed kids, CASA advocates are able to watch them develop.
One asset of CASA of Santa Cruz is their CASA house in Watsonville. While the upstairs is used for offices, the downstairs is set up as a resource center for the volunteers and their youth. It has a living room with toys, computers, a library, and a garden where the CASA volunteers can take their youth. In the afternoon, the house is filled with volunteers and kids baking cookies, reading, and playing.
Sanchez met his first CASA kid, when the child was eight, and describes the boy as being shut down—he barely spoke. But simply by showing up consistently, Sanchez saw a transformation. “He blossomed. He opened up,” he says. “He isn’t afraid to interrupt, he isn’t afraid to say ‘No.’ Now he is opinionated.”
Sanchez and fellow volunteer Fischer are part of CASA’s 20-percent-male volunteer base. Sanchez says more male advocates are sorely needed, because there’s a huge need among foster kids for positive male role models. “Statistics show that if a boy sees his father abuse his mom he is more likely to abuse women too,” Sanchez explains. “So, it’s good to be that person in their life who says—if there is an argument—violence isn’t the answer.”
Neither CASA nor AB 403 can offer a silver bullet for the hardships associated with foster care, but they are both aiming to create something better.
“Just like every child who is growing up in a healthy home, the results aren’t guaranteed,” Rasul, says. “We’re increasing the likelihood that these children’s lives can be different than what their experiences have shown them.
Santa Cruz Gives
CASA is one of 30 nonprofits in GT’s Santa Cruz Gives holiday giving campaign, which runs through Dec. 31. To read about the project for which they are seeking funding from Santa Cruz Gives donors, “A Brighter Future for Youth in Foster Care,” go to santacruzgives.com. For more information on how to become a CASA volunteer, visit casaofsantacruz.org.
WARDROBE FUNCTION Carol Kitayama, a court advocate, celebrates Halloween at a CASA costume party with her appointed foster child.