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

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