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Empowering OC Youth: One Volunteer at a Time

This article originally appeared in the Orange County Bar Association's "OC Lawyer" April Magazine.

CASA: Empowering OC Youth, One Volunteer at a Time

Orange County Juvenile Court maintains jurisdiction over the nearly 3,000 youth who have been adjudged “dependent,” pursuant to Welfare and Institutions Code section 300. These are children who were removed from their homes for reasons relating to abuse and/or neglect resulting from a parent or guardian’s inability to adequately supervise or protect the child. The total number of affected youth are at varying stages of their dependency proceedings—some of whom may be actively reunifying with their parents while others have no involved family members, no known prospects for a permanent or “forever” family, and will likely emancipate from the system alone, and without any support, into our Orange County community. The bench officers, attorneys, and social workers working within our Juvenile Court system each oversee overwhelmingly large caseloads. Add to this fact the inherent deficiencies of a heavily bureaucratized foster care system, and the result is far too often that important, life-altering decisions are made based on insufficient information and with a lack of individualized attention to the specific needs of each youth. This often facilitates a vicious and ongoing cycle—in essence, dependency begets more dependency.

These have long been the struggles for the dependency court system. In 1977, and with these firsthand observations in mind, a Seattle Juvenile Court Judge, developed a program whereby citizen volunteers could be empowered to speak up for the best interests of dependent children in the courtroom: Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA). Ultimately, the value and utility of this program became undeniable, the role became a codified part of the dependency process, and there are now nearly 1,000 CASA programs in 49 states and the District of Columbia. CASA of Orange County, a predominantly privately funded non-profit organization, began in 1985, with tremendous support from Junior League. Since CASA OC’s origins, over 3,000 community volunteers have served over 6,000 youth within our foster care system; and the stories of change and transformation are as compelling as they are heartwarming. 

The primary duties of the CASA volunteer are outlined in Welfare and Institutions Code section 102, which are described as follows: (1) Provide independent, factual information to the court regarding the cases to which he or she is appointed; (2) Represent the best interests of the child involved, and consider the best interests of the family, in cases to which he or she is appointed; (3) At the request of the judge, monitor cases to which he or she has been appointed to ensure that the court’s orders have been fulfilled.

A CASA volunteer need not have any legal experience or understanding of the field of social work to apply—the criterion is primarily that a prospective advocate be an adult (21+) with an open heart, an open mind, and a desire and willingness to help. To prepare volunteers for their role and interactions with some of the most vulnerable children in our community, CASA provides a comprehensive thirty-hour initial training for prospective volunteers who must also clear a background check, screening, and an interview process before they are sworn in as an officer of the court.

The matching process is intended to create a CASA/youth pairing that is thoughtful and complimentary, resulting in a meaningful and consistent relationship, (many of which regularly outlast the youth’s dependency term), however CASA volunteers ultimately occupy a role that is far more comprehensive than that of a mentor or “buddy” to the youth with whom they are paired. When the court makes a referral for a CASA volunteer, there is typically a specific reason or need and the advocate is entrusted with the responsibility to be an extra set of eyes and ears for the court, and to report back with relevant and helpful information at legal proceedings. The youth’s identity, circumstances, and the dependency proceedings themselves are confidential, however the appointment order confers access to this highly protected information, and further grants the CASA a voice in the outcome.

The appointment order allows advocates to contact a youth’s family members, caretakers, social workers, therapists, and educators. CASA volunteers often participate in meetings that affect a youth’s placement or educational issues, and, on occasion, may be asked to hold educational rights on behalf of a youth who has no other involved person to approve educational decisions that affect the child. CASA provides regular and ongoing training opportunities for advocates so they may develop a more in-depth understanding of the unique issues they might face on a case.

Our juvenile court bench officers are very supportive and grateful for the service our CASA volunteers provide. Dependency Judge Gassia Apkarian notes, “On a daily basis, sitting as a dependency judge, I find myself charged with the awesome responsibility of making sure the children under my jurisdiction are safe . . . . For this, I rely mainly on social workers and minors’ attorneys to keep me apprised and aware of any changes that require my attention. However, I never have insight into how my kids are getting along on a daily basis, whether the services we are providing are helping them, whether there is a particular need a child has that no one has time to understand or tend to. Each child is unique, with a special set of circumstances, intellect, and emotions, and they each need individual attention. And for this, I turn to CASA. . . . The type of information I receive from each CASA volunteer is priceless with the insight they have into their children’s world, and their commitment to advocate on their behalf. When I see a CASA volunteer in my courtroom, I know the child they are assigned to is in better hands than the one who does not have an assigned CASA. I wish there were enough CASA volunteers so I could appoint one to each of my kids in dependency.”

Todd Smith, an attorney with Umberg Zipser LLP, has been a CASA volunteer since January 2015 and is matched with an 11-year-old boy. About his decision to become an advocate, Todd shared this, “Being an attorney in Orange County, I had heard a lot about CASA and had spoken with CASA representatives at various bar functions over the years. I had been wanting to get more involved in a community-based organization and, with my legal background, CASA seemed like a perfect fit. After learning about the enormous need for CASA volunteers (especially male volunteers) to serve the foster youth in Orange County and the lasting and meaningful impact that a CASA advocate/mentor could have in the life a foster youth, there was no turning back.”

David Nusz, a partner with Black and Rose LLP, is currently working with his second CASA youth and is one of our many volunteers who initially learned about CASA through an informational video that previously aired for many years at Orange County Superior Court to prospective jurors awaiting potential assignment in the jury duty room. As a recipient of services through the Big Brothers organization himself, David understood all too well the impact of such a role and how one person can truly change someone’s life; “My attraction to CASA was in part, based on the sad statistics for young adults who were foster youth in terms of employment, graduation, housing, and incarceration. I was intrigued by the opportunity to become not only a mentor for these youths, but also an advocate that would be actively involved in every aspect of their lives.”

State Senator Josh Newman, recently elected to represent California’s 29th Senate District, served as a CASA to a youth from Buena Park from 2014-2015. His initial exposure to CASA was through his wife Darcy’s employer’s community outreach efforts, where members of Pacific Life Insurance’s ‘Good Guys’ program volunteered to support a number of CASA of OC’s annual events. As a result of their volunteer experience, they attended an informational session and decided to serve as CASAs. “Serving as a CASA was one of the most rewarding personal experiences I’ve ever had,” said Newman. “Any reservations I might have initially had about the time commitment were immediately offset by the reward in being able to share time with my CASA child while playing a fundamental role in ensuring that his case received proper attention while he progressed through his program, all the way to his successful reunification with his parents last year. A wholly unintended benefit of my CASA experience is that now, as a member of the State Legislature, I hope to have the opportunity to apply the insights I gained as a CASA to help support and improve the foster care system in California, while educating others on the immense benefits that a robust, fully supported CASA program can bring to California’s foster youth.”

After the initial training, volunteers are told to anticipate a commitment of 10-15 hours per month over a minimum of two years. Attorney Amy Guldner, who has been a CASA for nearly ten years, admitted she was concerned about this initially, “The monthly time commitment was indeed something that made me question whether this was the right thing for me to do, especially as a mother of two young children myself, but even after a really busy volunteer month, I’ve never regretted my decision to be a CASA. I think balance is an elusive concept and I don’t think I maintain it any better than anyone else. What has worked well for me though is getting my family on board with my CASA obligations and helping them to appreciate that they too are serving/helping when they ‘share’ me with a foster youth. My kids will hopefully always know that they are loved beyond measure by their parents and so many other adults in their lives, and they are learning through my CASA volunteer work that all children are not so fortunate. I try to emphasize to them how amazing they are for ‘sharing’ me with those kids who don’t have anyone in their corner, and I think this has helped them be more supportive of the time I spend with CASA.”

Deborah Wesseln, an attorney with Sutton and Murphy, finds that her professional experience pairs nicely with this volunteer role. “As attorneys, we are trained to be advocates. We are trained to write and communicate clearly so the responsibility of communicating with the court is familiar. One of the primary duties of a CASA is to listen, be present and support the youth. When appropriate and necessary, we advocate for the best resources for our youth. While certainly, it is not the same as the relationship we have with our clients, as attorneys we are uniquely trained for the CASA role.”

For these children, whose young lives have been afflicted with trauma through no fault of their own, and who are then assigned a file number becoming a “case” for a variety of paid professionals to oversee, it’s not lost on them that a CASA volunteer is making a choice: they are choosing to be there, to care, and to try to make a difference in their life. That simple fact can be the single-most motivating factor for a youth to care about their own life. It truly only takes one person whose volunteerism is a clear demonstration of concern, compassion, and commitment which has a capability to instill a level of self-confidence and self-awareness that can turn this dependency cycle around.

Our agency only works due to the willingness of community volunteers stepping up to the plate and giving their time on behalf of a child in the foster care system, as well as the generous donors who assist our efforts in the recruitment, training, and supervision of the CASA volunteers. We ask for your help in spreading awareness for both of these needs to assist in our efforts to make Orange County a stronger community – one child at a time. The first step is to register for an upcoming Informational Session which can be done at www.casaoc.org

 

Regan Dean Phillips, Esq., M.S.W., is the Chief Program Officer for CASA OC and can be reached at rphillips@casaoc.org

Chefs in the Making

Since the holiday months, there has been a steady stream of advocates and their CASA youth cooking in

CASA’s kitchen. This has been a particularly pleasant experience for the case supervisors as the hunger

inducing aromas waft down the hall. It’s safe to say the smell of cookies, cupcakes, and other sweet

treats is an office favorite. Even better than the yummy aromas is witnessing these youth in the kitchen.

For many, this is the first time that they’ve cooked or baked regardless of age.

Depending on when you peek your head in, you’ll find the youth looking fiercely determined to carry out

their advocate’s instructions, or laughing and smiling as they decorate their treats or joke about

mistakes made. You’ll find the advocate patiently explaining things and praising their youth for their

effort and skills. These moments are greatly appreciated because as case supervisors, the opportunities

to see our advocates with their youth are few and far between. Whether the relationship is a new one

or the advocate has been on the case for several years, there’s an unmistakable joy to be together. As if

that isn’t heart-melting enough, seeing a youth’s pride in themselves when they get something right.

During one of these kitchen sessions in which at least 2 dozen cookies were being baked and decorated,

our Chief Program Officer, Regan Phillips popped her head in to say hello. I happened to be walking to

the kitchen to check in on my advocate and youth when I overheard the best thing I’d heard all day.

Claire*, my advocate had just finished explaining to Regan that this was 7-year- old Liz’s* first time

baking. Regan complimented Liz on how well she was doing, saying, “Wow. Well you must be a fast

learner if this is your first time!” To which Liz replied, “I am a fast learner because I’m really smart!”

Claire, Regan, and myself could only agree with that declaration. To see Liz’s excitement in baking and

decorating, was great a pleasure all on its own. But to hear Liz confidently exclaim her smarts took the

cake (pun intended)!

In the CASA kitchen, it seems everything else falls away. Here, they are determined, happy, and

undoubtedly getting amped up on the sugary decorations they think they are sneaking. These kiddos

likely face daily reminders of the fact that they are foster youth, whether it be classmates wondering

why different people pick them up from school on different days, or at a doctor appointment where a

staff person is writing their job title next to their signature when signing documents. One could say even

being in the CASA kitchen is a reminder, and they would be right. Yet for some reason, these visits are

full of nothing but joy. And though the aromas eventually fade, in what seems to be a new unspoken

rule, advocates and their youth leave lovely thank yous on our whiteboard.

Thus far, there hasn’t been a single time that the finished result wasn’t eagerly offered to be shared.

And who can turn away a child offering up cupcakes and cookies with at least 7 times the daily

recommendation of sugar. I know I couldn’t! I can confidently say that our entire office enjoys our

visiting sous chefs and advocates and returns are always encouraged.

If you’d like to reserve CASA’s kitchen please contact your case supervisor. We’ll see you soon!

February Swear-In

CASA of Orange County is thrilled to show off the graduates from our January Training Session. Twelve of our new fifteen CASA volunteers were sworn-in by Judge Maria Hernandez last week at our offices in Santa Ana. We are looking forward to matching up these new CASA advocates with children on our wait list. Congratulations to all!

December Swear-In

Congratulations to our 30 new advocates who were sworn-in last week by Judge Moorhead! We are excited to get all of these amazing new volunteers matched up with some of the 280+ kids that are currently on our wait list. Congratulations to you all and we are looking forward to seeing you all begin your journey of being matched with a child in our program!

Friends of CASA Holiday Luncheon

PRESS RELEASE

Contact:

Matthew Wadlinger

Director of Outreach

 (714) 619-5155

 

Friends of CASA Set Record-Breaking Net at Annual Holiday Luncheon & Fashion Show Supporting CASA of Orange County!

 

Santa Ana, Calif. (December 14, 2016) – Friends of CASA, a fundraising auxiliary of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), hosted its 2016 Holiday Luncheon on Wednesday, December 7, 2016, at The Monarch Beach Resort in Dana Point. The Luncheon and Fashion Show proved a hard ticket to come by as the event was sold out prior to invitations even hitting mailboxes. This year’s event netted more than $344,000 that will go directly to supporting CASA’s mission of recruiting, training, and supervising community volunteers who mentor and advocate for children in the foster care system. Top Tier Diamond Starfish Sponsors of this event included Barclay Butera Interiors and Lugano Diamonds.

 

The sophisticated yet modern event was co-chaired by Molly Jolly and Kimberly DeLamar Matties, who were assisted by a team of over 60 members from the Friends of CASA auxiliary group, which is led by Interim President and CASA CEO, Kathryn Seebold. This year’s event also had two Masters of Ceremonies, Barclay Butera and Ray Langhammer of Barclay Butera Interiors, who brought their unwavering passion of helping CASA forward throughout the event. Over 600 guests filled the halls outside of the ballroom to bid on 166 auction packages during the champagne reception. The 2016 Fashion Partner, Ted Baker London, presented by South Coast Plaza featured both women and men’s fashions. The runway show brought forth an irreverent sense of humor and unswerving attention to detail through the British brand’s known unconventional approach to fashion.

 

The guest speaker for the event was current CASA volunteer, Rhonda Beylik. Rhonda shared her story of coming to CASA four years ago and being matched with “a beautiful, petite, brown eyed, dimpled 14 year-old girl”. One of Rhonda’s first assignments as a CASA volunteer was to ask this young girl what she would like as a “Starfish Wish” – which are special gift items that guests of the Holiday Luncheon are able to pick off of the Starfish Trees and purchase for the kids that CASA services. Rhonda’s child asked for a camera one year, so that she could make memories, an opportunity to go YMCA Camp Fox in Catalina another year after years of being afraid of telling her peers what she did over the summer – as she never had opportunities to do anything fun or exciting, and this past year told her CASA that she had everything she needed – and didn’t have a wish “Have you ever in your life, ever heard a teenager say those words?”, Rhonda asked the crowd. Rhonda ended her story by sharing the good news that her CASA child is the first person in her family to graduate from high school and also attend college – a true success story with the help of her CASA volunteer.

 

An opportunity drawing donated by Lugano Diamonds featured a 5.49 Pear Shape Black Diamond pendant with .75cts Round Brilliant Collection VS Diamonds and an additional 5cts Black Diamonds set in 18k White Gold and valued at $25,000 was won by Tyler Matthew Olbres.

 

Friends of CASA are committed to raising funds for CASA of Orange County’s mentor-advocate program for abused and neglected children in the foster care system.  Through the annual Holiday Luncheon, the Friends of CASA raise awareness of the CASA program, recruiting volunteers and long-term donors to CASA.  Over the years, this dedicated group of women has been responsible for raising well over 2 million dollars that has gone directly to addressing the needs of some of our community’s most vulnerable children. This year’s Executive Committee of the Holiday Luncheon consisted of Stacie Capobianco, Elizabeth Carpino, Tiffanie Foster, Sandra Gee, Annette Helmich, Shawni Jackson, Lori Jackson, Patty Juarez, Sandi Marino, Colleen Masterson, Stefanie Stamires, Janine Wald, Jaynine Warner, Tracy Wiegand, Kristen Wilson and Marjie Zethraus.

 

About CASA of Orange County

Court Appointed Special Advocates of Orange County is a privately-funded non-profit organization that serves severely abused, neglected and abandoned children through the recruitment, training and continued support of volunteers who advocate and mentor these children, representing their best interest in the courtroom and other settings. Founded in 1985, with major support from the Junior League of Orange County, we serve annually approximately 750 of the children who move through our court system as a direct cause of abuse and neglect. We are able to serve these children through the generous support of those who donate to CASA as well as the immeasurable compassion and commitment of our CASA advocates. At CASA of Orange County, our mantra is I am for the Child. Learn more about the ways to give to CASA as a means to help us support and protect the rights of our county’s valued children and to give them the nurturing and stability that they deserve. Please visit www.casaoc.org to learn more.                                                               

CASA Holiday Party for Kids

Thank you to all of our wonderful community partners who helped make our Annual Holiday Party for the CASA Kids so successful! We couldn't have done it without YOU! 

ADT Security Services

Allergan

Atrium Irvine, LLC c/o Transwestern

Barnes & Noble

Burnham Benefits Insurance Services

Capital Group

Carrington Charitable Foundation

Children's Village Preschool of Orange,CA

Cindy Stephen

Deutsche Bank

Disney VoluntEARS - Disneyland Resort

Dynamex

Edwards Lifesciences

El Pollo Loco

First American Title

Gale Averill

Gelato Paradiso

Ginger Nelson

Granite Properties

Hein & Associates

Hyundai Capital America

Idea Hall

Indian Princess Tribe of Tustin

DJ Jarom Smith

Jeanne-Nicole Beyers

Kappa Alpha Theta South OC Alumni Chapter

Kilroy Realty Corporation

Laguna Woods Volunteers

Laura Lueke

Linda Siegel & Family

loanDepot

Marbella Montessori

Marilyn Horton

Mariners Church

Mariners Therapy Dogs

McCarthy Cook & Co.

Michael Baker International

National Charity League (Alumni Group)

NCL Irvine

NCL Newport/Mesa

Pacific Life

PADI

River Rock Real Estate Group

Rogue Creative Development LLC

Skyworks

Small Business Growth Alliance

TEKsystems

Tip Top Entertainment

UBS Financial Services

US Black Belt Academy

Wells Fargo Bank

Women in God's Spirit (WINGS)

Yvette Marquez

CASA on the Radio

Listen in to the podcast of The Financial Wake Up Show from this past weekend to hear from our very own Chief Program Officer, Regan Phillips! Thank you to Daniel Choi and the team at KCAA 1050 AM and 106.5 FM for the spotlight!

http://podcasts.kcaastreaming.com/choi/

September 2016 Training Class

CASA of Orange County is proud to show off 14 of our new 15 advocates who were sworn-in last week by Judge Arthur from our September Training Session. We look forward to seeing you all as you begin your journey of advocating and mentoring a child in the foster care system! Congratulations on your achievement!

Festival of Children

Festival of Children Foundation is kicking off their 15th annual celebration at South Coast Plaza and CASA-OC is so excited to be part of it again. Check out the link below to a great article from the LA Times that details some of the exciting things planned this year.

Photograph featured is from the kick-off event that happened earlier this week - from left to right, CASA Case Supervisors, Karyn Quick & Dorit Harrell, Festival of Children Foundation Founder, Sandy Segerstrom-Daniels, and CASA Family Connections Coordinator, Sylvia Novakoff

http://www.latimes.com/socal/daily-pilot/news/tn-dpt-me-0831-festival-of-children-advance-20160830-story.html

Goodwill Partnership

CASA of Orange County - Court Appointed Special Advocates is so excited for our new partnership with Goodwill of Orange County! Do you have stuff around your house that you aren't using anymore and have been meaning to donate? Now is the time! Please drop off your items to the Goodwill location at 1800 North Grand in Santa Ana, and let them know that you were referred by Court Appointed Special Advocates. CASA will receive credit for your donated items that we will be able to give back to our older CASA youth in the form of gift vouchers to go shopping and purchase stuff of their own. Your donated gift items will essentially go twice as far in helping others! 

Workplace Solutions

CASA of Orange County would like to extend a public notice of appreciation to the kind folks at Workplace Solutions. This wonderful company was able to assist our non-profit with a long overdue office beautification project. Our office has been updated with new chairs, desks, couches, artwork, and shelving units - and one of the best perks of all of this, was that they were able to take out our old furniture for us, and install all of the new stuff as well. Thank you so much!!!

New Web-Site

CASA of Orange County is very excited to show off our new web-site to all of you!

We have some amazing people to thank who helped make this thing possible: Matt Barnes, Stacy Barnes, Nicole Solis, Belinda Carter, Alex Pavone, Soni Lazor, Joel Stanton, Taylor Stark, Brad Claypool & the rest of the team from Rogue Creative Development.

All photographs on the web-site are courtesy of Classic Kids Photography. Special thanks and appreciation to founder and CEO Julie Floyd, Chief Operations and Marketing Officer Tera Landman, head photographer for the Newport Beach studio location Jenn Sturtevant and Austin Kuhn.

We'd also like to thank friends and family of the CASA staff who served as our models for the beautiful photoshoot.

July 2016 Training Class

Congratulations to our July 2016 Training Class which brought 27 newly sworn-in CASA's to our agency. We are so excited to have all these amazing volunteers joining our team to help children in the foster care system!

OC Parks Partnership

2nd Annual Shopping Extravaganza

Join CASA of Orange County at the 2nd Annual Shopping Extravaganza taking place at the Outlets of San Clemente!

Tickets to this special event are $35.00 and include exclusive discounts at more than 50 stores, a private catered lunch, live entertainment, VIP wine & craft beer trastings, and over $40,000 in prizes including gift cards to some of the fabulous stores. The best part - $25.00 from your $35.00 ticket price will be donated directly to CASA-OC!

This year's event will be taking place on Saturday, October 8, 2016 from 10am-8pm

Tickets can be purchased on-line at www.shopOSC.com/Tickets

Hispanic Advisory Council Cinco de Mayo Event

Over 75 guests showed up at The Village on 17th Street for the first annual CASA Hispanic Advisory Council Cinco de Mayo Meet & Greet. Guests enjoyed tacos and margaritas while listening to Keynote Speaker, Stephanie Serrano share her story of life in the foster care system and the difference that her CASA made in it. There was a Congressional Recognition Ceremony to Judge Aguirre for his devotion to our community over the years and his support of CASA and the need for more Hispanic/Latino volunteers.

CASA Cup 2016

Court Appointed Special Advocates netted over $25,000 at the Second Annual CASA Cup fundraiser. Seventeen teams of 10 dressed in lavish costumes boarded decorated Duffy boats and headed into the Newport Peninsula on a scavenger hunt that included stops at Pizza Nova, where teams had to order a special drink to get a point and also to the Balboa Bay Club where teams had to build a sand castle. Trivia questions regarding the non-profit and Newport Peninsula were also part of the fun scavenger hunt.

Following the scavenger hunt, over 160 guests were invited to a barbecue at the Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach, that featured summer staples like hamburgers, hot dogs, and cold beer. CASA-OC CEO, Kathryn Seebold took the stage to announce the winner of the CASA Cup and also the team with Most Spirit, IdeaHall, led by Rebecca and Randy Hall.

About Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA)

Court Appointed Special Advocates of Orange County is a privately-funded non-profit organization that serves severely abused, neglected and abandoned children through the recruitment, training and continued support of volunteers who advocate and mentor these children, representing their best interest in the courtroom and other settings. Founded in 1985, with major support from the Junior League of Orange County, we serve annually approximately 1,000 of the children who move through our court system as a direct cause of abuse and neglect. We are able to serve these children through the generous support of those who donate to CASA as well as the immeasurable compassion and commitment of our CASA advocates. At CASA of Orange County, our mantra is I am for the Child. Learn more about the ways to give to CASA as a means to help us support and protect the rights of our county’s valued children and to give them the nurturing and stability that they deserve. Please visit www.casaoc.org to learn more.                                                              

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LIFT UP A CHILD'S VOICE. A CHILD'S LIFE.