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CASA Provides a Voice for Community’s Abused Children

Trained volunteers support the children every step of the way to a safe, permanent home.

They call themselves “CASAS,” and they generally refer to their assigned cases as their “children.” While there is no blood relation between these adults and children, one thing is certain: The adults will become, for many, the only healthy constant the child has had in his or her lifetime.

Nine times a year, CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) for Children in Santa Barbara County trains volunteers to become the unbiased fighting voice in the court system for children removed from their homes because of neglect and abuse.

Michele Neely, left, the incoming president for the CASA board of directors, with Berenise Garcia, the first teenager she worked with as an advocate. (CASA photo)

The mission of CASA of Santa Barbara is to ensure a safe, permanent, nurturing home for all abused and neglected children by providing highly trained volunteers to advocate for them in the court system. Helping CASA meet its goals, the volunteer advocates — or CASAS — work carefully to see that each child’s best interests are served.

Eleven years ago, Steve Thomas, a now retired Raytheon employee, found CASA and underwent the extensive training and background check to become an advocate.

“I just have an affinity for working with teenagers,” he said. “I think teenagers are really cool. You get involved in their lives. You almost feel like a relative. And you fight as hard as you need to fight to help these kids out.”

In the past decade, he has seen firsthand the effects of the shuffling a child will endure throughout their ordeal within the Juvenile Dependency system.

“My longest case has had seven or eight different CWS (Child Welfare Service) workers, as well as been before five or six judges, and a number of attorneys,” he said. “I have been the only consistent voice in court over these last 10 years.”

He added, “The CASA advocate has an enormous advantage over the CWS worker in that the CWS worker will often have a case load of 30 or more children to watch over. The CASA advocate, typically, has one. Therefore, things that might get past by a CWS worker will not be missed by the CASA advocate. Not to assign blame, but the CASA advocate has the ability and time to get into the details of a case much more than CWS.”

For a child to qualify for a Court Appointed Special Advocate, it’s not luck of the draw. Instead, according to CASA Executive Director Maria Long, it’s decided by severity of the case. The judge will assign a CASA advocate, she said, “only in the severest cases of maltreatment.”

“In rural areas, like outside Santa Maria, we see a lot of kids coming from families of meth and drug abuse,” Long said. “I would say 85 percent of the children in our system are there because of substance abuse.”

There are 156 CASA advocates serving 222 children in Santa Barbara County, with 135 children on a waiting list.

“Our children need to stay as close to the area as possible, but sometimes, because Santa Barbra has such a huge shortage of foster homes, they are farmed outside the county,” she said.

Long, at one time a foster child, has helped CASA for Children in Santa Barbara County continue to grow. Three years ago, CASA’s operating budget was $650,000. Today, largely because of fundraising and grants, the nonprofit CASA is operating on a $1.2 million financial plan. According to Long, it is the only nonprofit working within the local court system.

In September, the nonprofit organization will move into a new building given to CASA by the Santa Barbara Board of Supervisors.

“Using grants from the Women’s Fund of Santa Barbara and the Orfalea Foundation, we are currently renovating the 1,600-square-foot building. It’s Judge Ochoa’s old office,” Long said. “We have the building for 10 years, rent and utility free, with option for renewal. We’re calling it ‘a CASA for CASA.’ “

Although far from serving all the children it wishes to, Long attributes CASA’s success to the volunteer advocates.

“Volunteers undergo an extensive background check and the training is involved,” Long said. “Our children have been let down enough. We need to make sure our volunteers are ready to do this work. ... After they have completed their training, they are sworn-in as officers of the court. They, then, have access to their child’s entire world. They have access to their entire history file, so they can thoroughly investigate their child to help them in the best way possible.”

Michele Neely, the incoming president for CASA Board of Directors, has been an advocate for five years. She reminds potential volunteers it’s not always a smooth ride.

“You hit rough patches,” she said. “There are a lot of highs and a lot of lows (with your child). And you need to readjust your expectations.” Adding that simply helping your child pass a high school class can be a huge accomplishment. “It’s definitely challenging,” she realizes.

But, that said, being a CASA has enormous rewards.

Just last week, Neely said, she saw Berenise Garcia, the first teenager she worked with as a CASA. She remembers when Garcia was preparing to graduate from high school and thinking of a career in nursing.

“When (Garcia) saw me on State Street, she ran up to me wearing a nursing smock. She said she’s now working at a clinic and saving money for nursing school in Santa Barbara,” Neely said. “It’s really gratifying to see your child going in the right direction after they’ve turned 18.”

In the Juvenile Dependency system, when a child turns 18, the advocate’s role is over. “I hope we can remain close,” Neely said about Garcia, now 20.

Garcia, born and raised in Santa Barbara, was 15 when she met her first Court Appointed Special Advocate. It was at that pubescent age, already tumultuous for most teenage girls, Garcia entered the Juvenile Dependency system. Like other children, Garcia had been removed from her home most likely because of abuse, neglect or abandonment.

Upon meeting her CASA, Garcia had no idea the impact this new adult would have on her life. At least, not until later that same year at her first court hearing.

“It was really scary,” Garcia said. “It was helpful to have someone there with me.”

Garcia said her advocates, she had two during her three years in the system, helped get her on track. “They helped me set goals and make plans for when I turned 18,” Garcia said of her CASAS. “One helped me set up a bank account and get in touch with my parents, which was something I had wanted to do. And Michelle listened to my needs and even helped me move.

“I had really, really good help while in the system. I definitely think Santa Barbara is doing a great job for their children. The only thing I wish was better was that there more foster homes available.”

CASA’s board of directors includes Michele Neely, president; Bruce Stevens, treasurer; David Beard, governance; and members Randy Glick, Phyllis Noble, Fred Benko, Scottie Ortiz, David Bixby, Lisa Rottman, Bob Howry, Jessica Schaeman, Kathryn Kromer, Drew Simons, Diana Starr Langley, Tom Sneddon, Erv Madden, Prudence Sternin, Mike Stoker, Sue Neuman and Betsy Turner.

For more information or to become a CASA volunteer, visit www.sbcasa.org.

Noozhawk staff writer Rebecca Carroll can be reached at [email protected]

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