There are more than 20,000 children in the foster care system in Los Angeles County—38% of the state’s total. Only about half will graduate high school, and only 3% will graduate college. Half will end up homeless or incarcerated.
There are many factors that contribute to these bleak statistics, and the overstretched foster care system is a major one. CASAs, or Court Appointed Special Advocates, are volunteers who step into this system to help. By working just one case at a time, these volunteers can make a difference in a child’s life.
“I’m a firm believer that in order to solve these difficult community problems, like children having to be removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect and the problems they’ll have throughout their lives as a result, there has to be a community-based approach,” said Wendelyn Nichols-Julien, CEO of CASA of Los Angeles.
Today, 700 CASAs serve in Los Angeles County. “A lot of our CASAs are folks who are retired and older people,” said Nichols-Julien. “Their children are grown, and they’re looking for a way to be supportive and change the world. Instead of working on some big, macro-level issue, they think ‘I’m going to serve the needs of one child.’ The impact of that is pretty enormous, both for the volunteer and for the child.”
CASAs produce short summaries of their cases to make court appearances more efficient. “It helps the judges get a sense of the case in a quick and efficient way,” said Kristen McGuiness, CASA of Los Angeles’ Corporate & Foundation Relations Manager. These summaries make sure the judge is aware of special circumstances or other key facts that could contribute to better outcomes for the child.
In fact, the CASA program was started by a judge who saw a need for one-on-one advocates for children in the foster care system. Today, judges swear CASAs in upon completing their training and assign them to cases. “Judges are our biggest allies and biggest advocates for CASA,” said Nichols-Julien.
Because CASAs usually focus on just one or two children at a time, they can advocate for these children in ways that social workers cannot. One CASA assigned to a child with a terminal illness sat by her bedside in the final months of her life, connecting her with siblings before she died. Another CASA fought to allow a 17-year-old to leave the state to attend college on a scholarship. Another working with a child who was not receiving court-mandated music lessons found an option and coordinated with a social worker to get the child signed up.
“It’s cutting through the red tape and fixing problems,” said Nichols-Julien, who is proud of the level of collaboration CASAs have with the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS). “Most of the work that CASAs do is basic-level stuff that any child should be able to expect in their life. The problem is that there are just too many kids, and DCFS and the social workers have too much to do.”
Luisa Latham, a retired educator, has volunteered as a CASA for about a year. “I knew little about the foster care system, but I did know that if anyone needed support, it was these kids,” she said.
Latham is working with three brothers and has built a bond with them, visiting them about twice a month. “I got library cards for them to encourage their reading. We go to the library regularly and to Baskin Robbins, to the movies and to try out different activities such as trampoline, ping pong and batting practice.”
“Often in the system, all sorts of physical needs are being met, but there’s a tremendous need for acceptance and affection. CASAs are able to give that to the kids in an appropriate way,” she said.
Latham has found the experience incredibly rewarding. “Each one of these CASAs is a repository of life experience, and they have more to give. This is a place where it’s needed and appreciated,” she said. “The children share their worldview with you, and you’re able to open up the world for them.”
Nichols-Julien has heard similar sentiments from other volunteers, particularly older volunteers. “They’ve told me how this experience has given them a purpose. It’s an opportunity to feel like they’re doing something really valuable,” she said.
It’s adjusting the volunteers’ worldview, too. “For many, it has helped them understand racism and oppression at a different level.”
These older CASAs are also valuable assets to the organization. “Older volunteers tend to stay longer,” Nichols-Julien said. “And with their wisdom and experience, they don’t have anything to prove. They can walk into a situation and not make it seem intimidating.”
Older CASAs build unique relationships with the children. “Most of these kids don’t have grandparents in their lives, so the idea of having a role model who’s like a grandparent is really cool—to have someone who will take you out for a burger or treat you in a way that makes you feel special, like you matter,” she said. “With older volunteers, it’s easier for kids to build trust and understand that this isn’t a person that’s being paid to care for them. It’s someone who’s there because they really want to be.”
Moving forward, CASA of Los Angeles wants to recruit more older volunteers to serve even more children in foster care. They’re determined to triple their capacity in the next several years, and will need hundreds more CASAs to make that happen. Nichols-Julien looks forward to seeing the program grow.
“It’s a beautiful process, empowering people to make a difference and empowering these young people to be successful.”Back to Eisner Journal Directory