The staff and volunteer advocates on the Family Connections team at Court Appointed Special Advocates Orange County (CASA OC) are a blend of private investigator, forensic analyst and “tiger parent.” The team is led by Manager Sylvia Novakoff, who has a long tenure with CASA, where she began working as an advocate in 2006. In 2013, Sylvia started volunteering with the Family Connections program and was hired on as staff six years ago. With a bachelor’s degree in Journalism and a master’s in Communications, she says this work is a “perfect fit” since she loves the investigative and writing elements of the job. Sylvia works closely with Kari Becker, who joined the team earlier this year as a case supervisor.
*Mirabel was 11 years old when she entered dependency care. She had been removed from a home with her biological mother and stepfather in the wake of abuse and neglect. She was separated from her younger siblings and bounced around from placement to placement. Mirabel had never known the identity of her biological father and expressed a desire to find him. She had a CASA who shared her request with a case supervisor, who passed it along to the Family Connections team.
Mirabel’s request to try to find her father landed on Sylvia’s desk in January 2020. A Family Connections advocate, Gail Frommer, was assigned to the case. It was to be the beginning of a long journey complicated by the unfolding pandemic and subsequent lockdowns as well as by multiple leads that resulted in dead-ends. No one had any good information connecting Mirabel to her biological dad.
Referrals come to Family Connections through a variety of sources, including social workers, CASAs, case supervisors or the court. Another source of referrals is the Youth Connection Survey, administered by social workers, which measures the quantity and quality of financial, social, and emotional support in a child’s life. When responses indicate there is little or no available support, the Family Connections team goes to work.
While reunification with family can be a positive outcome, that is not the primary objective. The goal is to locate, engage with and connect committed, healthy and appropriate family or non-family members with CASA youth. According to Sylvia, “Studies show that if young people in dependency have at least one supportive lifelong connection, they do better in school and have an enhanced sense of hopefulness and optimism about their lives.”
Research often begins on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram which provide a treasure trove of leads. LexisNexis is a fee-based powerful database which plays a critical part in family-finding. And genealogy research and DNA testing, available through Ancestry.com and laboratory testing, are all elements of the complex search for lost family members. Additional tools may include the Department of Justice Inmate Locator and FindAGrave.com. The Family Connections team also works closely with the Mexican Consulate to secure passports and birth certificates for children and to assist with language barriers and family visits at the border.
To move forward with the search for Mirabel’s father, Sylvia worked to secure permission from the court to conduct an Ancestry DNA search using the youth’s DNA, without identifying information to protect her privacy. After navigating the checks and balances in place to protect youth in dependency care, the court allowed Mirabel to submit a DNA sample to help her find her father or other family members. The results came back weeks later with several matches. This is where the real detective work began.
In addition to Sylvia and Kari, Family Connections has a team of about twenty eight specially-trained CASAs who complete a one-hour Information Session which provides an overview of the program. Those who wish to move on must complete an additional two-tiered training program of two to four hours. The first-tier teaches advocates how to conduct searches using the various tools available and how to create a contact list to provide to the youth. The next tier deals with the delicate task of making contact with the relatives and friends of the family who have been located. The Family Connections staff and volunteers who navigate this process work alongside traditional CASAs who are paired one to one with the youth they serve.
With Mirabel’s list of DNA matches, Gail began sending out emails to some of the individuals on the list. She got lucky when she found a connection who helped piece together a family tree and identified who the likely father might be. After some additional detective work, Sylvia called the man who was likely to be Mirabel’s father to share their findings. She cut to the chase and said, “There is a possibility you have a daughter who is now 14 years old,” and asked if he’d be willing to take a paternity test. “I gave him a moment and asked what he thought. He responded by saying he was, ‘a little bummed’ he missed the first 14 years of her life,” Sylvia reported.
After receiving additional approvals from the court to conduct paternity testing, both Mirabel and the man who was possibly her biological father, submitted their DNA samples. A few weeks later, paternity was confirmed and a visit was planned.
An initial phone call was scheduled between the two and Sylvia was relieved to hear Mirabel and her newly-discovered father bonding over their shared enthusiasm for sports. An in-person visit was set up next.
The CASA OC Family Connections program was established in 2007 and was the first CASA affiliate in the country to formalize the effort to blend family-finding with the traditional one-on-one role of a CASA. Since that time they have served 381 Orange County youth in foster care and made almost 6,000 connections to family members or friends of family.
The day finally arrived, shortly after Mirabel’s 15th birthday, for her first in-person meeting with her father. A dinner at her favorite restaurant was scheduled and she asked Sylvia to accompany her on this first visit. Dad showed up with a bouquet of birthday flowers and a package of Hostess Cupcakes. He told Mirabel the two cupcakes were a family tradition: the first represented her and the second her family. He told Mirabel this was meant to tell her, “you will never be alone again.” He wrote her a beautiful card saying he was grateful to have her in his life and looked forward to the father/daughter memories they were going to make.
Since that first meeting, the two have remained in contact and as time has passed, dad has been granted increased unsupervised visitation with Mirabel. There are still emotional and legal hurdles to clear in the months and years ahead but the reunification of the two is a huge step towards providing a meaningful lifelong connection between Mirabel and her newly found extended family.
Sylvia is still in the picture helping the family navigate the waters and hoping to connect Mirabel with additional extended family. Family Connections advocates are trained to be “family partners” and serve in a supporting role to all parties. “CASAs who do this work really need to understand how the system works and what levers to push and pull. Patience and persistence gets us where we need to be,” says Sylvia. She adds, “It’s my goal that we ultimately have the resources to provide every youth with a contact list of family members and friends of family who have been found.”
The first step towards achieving that goal is to match more youth with CASAs who can help them begin their journey towards family-finding. To learn how to become a CASA, visit www.casaoc.org/volunteer or to donate, visit www.casaoc.org/give
*Name changed to protect privacy