Hurting Children Need Help
Monterey County's child-advocates program is suffering from a lack of volunteers.
Thursday, January 23, 2003
Photo by Randy Tunnell: Aejaie Sellers, executive director of Monterey County CASA, says staffers are covering for the program's shortage of volunteers.
In 1996, Monterey County launched a program designed for kids from seriously troubled families. The local chapter of a national group known as Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) is designed for children who have been neglected, abandoned or abused. The program is part of a movement that has grown rapidly over the past 25 years. But reality has taken a bite out of the local CASA chapter. Of the 86 children in the program, half sit waiting for a volunteer.
When parents abuse a child, the family often ends up in Monterey County''s dependency court. From there, it''s up to the court to determine permanent placement for the child--this often means a foster home or group home, or the child is sent back to the family home.
This puts a lot of pressure on judges. In the late seventies, David Soukup, a Seattle, Washington Superior Court judge, realized that he lacked the fundamental information he needed to decide a child''s life-long placement--everything he had to go on came from social workers and attorneys. Soukup envisioned a program where a specially-trained volunteer would focus on each child. The volunteer would get to know the child on a personal level: the games they played, the stories they told, their favorite foods, their schools, their doctors.
After a year or more of one-on-one contact, the volunteer would then submit a recommendation for permanent placement to the court. Out of Judge Soukup''s vision came CASA. To date, there are close to 700 CASA programs nationwide.
Monterey County CASA Executive Director Aejaie Sellers says her work involves a real balancing act.
"We do what we can, she says. "And until they each have their own CASA volunteer, they''re supervised by a staff member."
CASA''s board of directors chair, Dr. Michelle Brown, commends Sellers'' efforts. "Every child is covered as best as is possible until an individual CASA can be appointed," she says.
Sellers says the program is urgently needed, even though she doesn''t pretend for a moment that the current situation is ideal.
"Most of these kids have never had a healthy relationship with an adult. They''re being provided that, as well as a personal voice in the court process," she says.
Brown agrees. "We hear about kids falling through the cracks of great big cities with millions of children. We don''t have the huge numbers here, so it''s possible to do our share to make sure that this corner of the Earth is covered by loving these children and getting them through this difficult time in their lives."
Judge Robert Moody of the Monterey County Dependency Court says CASA plays a crucial role in the child welfare system.
"There have been cases that have turned on the recommendations of the CASA worker," Moody says. "Without the information the CASA was able to supply, we would have made decisions half-armed."
Volunteering with CASA involves a commitment like few others. The agency requires that volunteers sign up for at least an 18-month stint. Cases range anywhere from 12 to 24 months.
Prospective advocates first go through an intensive application process that includes an interview; checks with the FBI, Department of Justice and DMV; and fingerprinting. Thereafter, a six- to seven-week training course includes everything from national, state and local law to classes on diversity.
After completing the training course, the advocates are then sworn in by the Court, taking a vow of confidentiality, and promising to put the child''s best interests above all else.
Almost immediately, the advocate is matched with a child.
"The advocates have a say in that part," Sellers says. "We sit down with them and look at the skills of the CASA [volunteer] and attempt to match those with the needs of a child."
Children assigned to a CASA volunteer range in age from infancy to late teens. Kids younger than four or five are rare because of attachment issues that may come into play with an infant.
The advocate is then expected to see the child on a regular basis. Outings like trips to the park or the beach are the norm. The goal is to build a personal relationship with the child and get to know the child as well as possible. Only then can the advocate make an informed permanent-placement recommendation to the Court.
Recently, CASA has taken on the added responsibility of overseeing children in delinquency court. That''s likely to push the number of needed volunteers beyond the staggering figure that already exists.
Of course, kids who are taken from troubled families often wind up getting into trouble themselves. This link between dependency and delinquency, while avoidable, still exists. "In dependency, it''s the parents who have made really bad choices," Sellers says. "But if that cycle is not broken, there''s an opportunity for the bad decisions to be made by the children."
Local CASA volunteers span every educational, professional and economic walk of life. But there are far too few to meet the needs of children.
Judge Moody may have summed up CASA and its needs best: "It''s a chance for people to do something about our number-one problem, which is children being in situations that are destructive to them. It''s not just the child that winds up being harmed. Believe me, we all get the results down the road with antisocial and criminal behavior. If people want to help kids and society, there''s just no more direct way to do it than by getting personally involved with a child in dire straits, and that''s what CASA is all about."
To learn more about CASA of Monterey County, call Aejaie Sellers at 455-6800.