About a year ago, I felt a strong conviction to use more of my time and energy to help and advocate for children in foster care. As I Googled ways that I could volunteer, I discovered the Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) Program. This is a volunteer position that exists across the entire U.S. The goal of the CASA Program is to ensure every child in the dependency court system (foster care) has a caring and stable adult in their life to mitigate the effects of having experienced abuse, neglect, and/or abandonment. CASA's are matched with a child/children and meet with them regularly to do fun activities and ensure that they are getting the support they need.
The non-profit in my county that offers the CASA Program is Child Advocates of Silicon Valley. To be honest, I didn't sign up to be a CASA volunteer right away. The time commitment is large and the possible emotional toll it could take scared me away. But a few weeks later, I decided my concerns were so small compared to the need for people like me to care about and do something for these children. So I signed up to go to a general information meeting.
I assumed there would be a small handful of other interested individuals at the info meeting. But to my surprise, the room was full with about 30 people. It was so reassuring to see that lots of other people felt as strongly as I did about this issue. The meeting was brief but gave the basic details of what being a CASA was like, what the requirements are, and addressed the attendees concerns. At the end of the meeting, you have the option to sign up for an interview day and time.
The interview is no joke. I thought the questions would be about me as an adult, my husband, and why I wanted to volunteer. But the vast majority of questions were about my childhood, my family, how I was disciplined, and if I had any childhood trauma. It is uncomfortable to have your life pried apart by a stranger, but they are trying to make sure you will be a good fit in the tough role of a CASA and they're trying to protect the kids. They also do thorough background checks and require references.
Once I passed my interview, I was required to do 30 hours of in-person training, including a full-day with a dependency court judge and a day of sitting in on court hearings. I LOVED this training and learned so much. I actually think all adults should have to learn the materials presented at this training. I learned that neglect and abuse experienced as a young child can effect physical and emotional development dramatically. I heard from parents who had lost their kids for a period of time and I gained a large amount of empathy for them and their struggles to get their own lives on track. I sat through a court hearing and saw the process of a family falling apart.
I would often come home from these trainings and just cry. The thought that I continuously have about foster care and the dependency system is that it's just so unfair! It's unfair that these kids did nothing wrong, and will be affected by their parents' choices for the rest of their lives. I feel like any bit of discomfort I feel about being involved in the dependency system, with all of its problems, is so minuscule compared to the trauma these kids will face.
I finished my training feeling inspired and ready to do what I can to help advocate for my CASA child. So the next step was actually choosing my CASA child. I decided I wanted to work with a child 3-5 years old. My CASA supervisor presented me with the case files for a few children, and I then chose my child after asking lots of questions. This process felt so strange because every case file I read was incredibly heartbreaking. They say that you'll just feel a pull toward one child when you read their story, but that was not true for me. I chose my 3 year old girl because I felt like she needed the most support (even though they all needed support!).
One of the things I was most nervous about was the first meeting with my CASA girl. But I needn't worry; she was the cutest, most spunky little kid I've ever met. I loved her from the moment she stuck out her hand to shake mine and introduced herself. She immediately wanted to play with me outside and talk to me. Once every week or two, I would pick my CASA girl up and go do fun stuff together, like go to the zoo or a theme park, paint pictures, play at the local park, or go to Chuck E. Cheese. Some days were easier than others and I had to be extra patient with her at times. But over the months, she warmed up to me more and more.
I have now been a CASA for about nine months. Every single situation with a child and family in the dependency system is unique and has its own set of problems. My case has had plenty of problems and I have often felt like I don't know what to do. But with the help of my supervisor and another experienced CASA, I have learned how to better navigate all of the nuances of being a CASA. There is still so much I need to learn and, thankfully, there are so many resources available to continue learning.
If you are considering being a CASA, I highly recommend it. I completely understand feeling nervous or scared about all the ways you could get hurt or be overwhelmed. It's not easy. But it's not really about you or me. It's about advocating for and giving a voice to the approximately 440,000 children in foster care in the United States.
For more information about the Court Appointed Special Advocated (CASA) Program, visit nationalcasagal.org.