Stepping into the cold, bureaucratic confines of a courtroom to participate in legal proceedings is a daunting task for almost any adult. With few exceptions, court is not a place one wants to be, especially when the business of that court involves them.
For children, that experience is magnified exponentially, which is where the volunteers at CASA of San Luis Obispo County step in.
Known as Court Appointed Special Advocates, those volunteers are part of a national nonprofit organization that trains adults to represent the needs of abused and neglected children in court. The SLO County CASA currently has about 105 volunteer advocates who take on the tough but rewarding task.
CASA volunteers undergo 30 hours of in-depth training before they are assigned a child and their case. Even after the training, the organization provides supervision, support, and resources for advocates. The work they do is varied; it can be everything from making recommendations about the child’s welfare to the court, to making sure they get the services they need, such as support for those with learning or physical disabilities.
“Most of these children have been removed from their homes and are in the foster care system,” said Susan Graves, SLO County CASA’s grants manager. “Our volunteers are who we really take pride in, because they are there to solely represent the needs of those children.”
The opportunity to work as an advocate draws volunteers like Martha Hack, a NICU nurse who decided to begin training last spring.
“I saw that there was a need in the community,” Hack said. “Especially for the population of younger kids.”
Volunteering with CASA is a definite commitment. In addition to the training, advocates are required to meet with their assigned children on a regular weekly basis, and commit to working with one child for at least 12 months or until a permanent plan for their care has been implemented. It can be a lot of work, and it isn’t always easy, but for Hack, the job is rewarding.
“You come in and you see their faces light up, because they know you are there for them,” she said.
In fact, Hack felt the work was so important that she now is an employee of SLO County CASA in addition to her volunteer work. And while her efforts, and those of the other volunteers, have helped the county’s most vulnerable children, there remains a need for more volunteers. According to Graves, there are an estimated 350 children currently on the waiting list for a CASA volunteer in SLO County.
In addition to the CASA program, which serves children ages 3 and above, the organization also runs two advocacy programs for age groups above and below those criteria.
One of those programs caters to the needs of infants and toddlers. That very young age group makes up roughly 22 percent of the children in the SLO County system, according to the CASA website. The program is aimed at serving the needs of those children, and having a more positive impact on their future health and well-being.
“Research shows that when an infant or toddler experiences abuse or neglect at this crucial time in their brain development, it can lead to damage that left untreated can result in brain damage, growth delays, learning disabilities, negative behaviors, and mental issues,” CASA’s website states.
On the other side of the age spectrum, the organization also has a mentoring program for 18- to 21-year-olds looking to transition out of the foster care system. Providing support for those transitioning out of the system is critical, as statistics show that 65 percent of 18-year-olds leaving the California foster care system have no place to live, and an estimated 40 percent will be homeless within 18 months. The mentoring program, a product of state legislation passed in 2012, not only helps those youth transition and find a place to live but also assists them with other needs such as job placement.
This year, Graves said CASA of San Luis Obispo County is celebrating National Mentor Month to raise awareness for this program.
Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @CWMcGuinness.