Saturday, September 01, 2007

Invitation to advocate for young people in the Riverside County foster care system

CASA training to begin
ADVOCATES: Volunteers attend court hearings on behalf of youth and much more

Hand, Charles. Valley Chronicle, August 9, 2007.

Training will start soon for the newest crop of advocates for youngsters caught up in Riverside County's foster care program and Shari Crall, a case manager in the advocate program, really hopes you'll sign up, especially if you're a resident of the San Jacinto Valley and especially if you're male.

Crall will take all the advocates she can get, since the number available falls far short of the number needed to provide services for the youngsters who need them, but she said the need is particularly acute here and particularly acute for teen boys.

The youngsters find themselves in the foster care program and beyond the support of family and friends, usually through no fault of their own, Crall said.

Advocates, who work in a program called Court Appointed Special Advocates, create the one consistent contact many of the children have, Crall said, and can make the difference between a life lost and a life redeemed.

The advocates - who call themselves CASAs - attend court hearings twice a year with their young charges, but there are duties beyond that that may be of even more value.

Crall said that, when she was an advocate herself, before she was named a case manager, she stunned the girl for whom she became an advocate by turning up for back-to-school night.

“There were eight professionals in her life, but no one had ever gone to back-to-school night,” Crall said.

Advocates, as officers of the court, become the only people with access to every fact in the youngsters' lives, and become liaisons between the youngsters they are trying to help and various governmental agencies, the youngsters' families, the court, schools, and others with influence over the youngsters' lives.

They become friends as well.

Joanne Hanson said she is still giving help and advice to the young woman she spent two years helping as an advocate.

Though she turned 18, which ended her involvement with the foster care program and ended her official involvement with her advocate, Hanson said she got her a room at Safe House in Riverside and has helped out with small expenses and other living issues.

Emancipation is what the legal system calls it when a youngster turns 18 and is no longer eligible for official assistance.

“She needs my help more now than before,”
Hanson said.

The girl had been in foster care for a year because of an abusive home life when Hanson entered her life.

During that time, caregivers had made some errors that carried the potential for serious negative impact on the girl's life, Hanson said.

A doctor had prescribed inappropriate medication and psychological testing had severely understated her IQ, she said.

Through her advocacy resources, Hanson was able to get both changed, as well as school-sponsored tutoring and other services she needed, but was not getting before Hanson took on the case.

Crall said the fact that the youngsters often fall through the cracks is no surprise when each social worker handles 50 or 60 cases and the other professionals see them only occasionally.

“Social workers tell me they don't dare go on vacation because they'd never catch up,”
Crall said.
Tom Lovegrove, a married pastor with children of his own, said he has seen professionals put enormous effort into the case of the teen boy for whom he has been an advocate for more than a year, but there is only so much they can do given the time and resources available.

“The system has only so many resources,” Lovegrove said.

The result was the case Lovegrove only recently completed.

The teenager had family and the members of that family needed to take certain steps to achieve reunification.

But it just never came together. Something always went wrong.

That was before Lovegrove, who used the information available to him as the advocate to encourage the family to complete the steps to reunification and to convince the appropriate governmental agencies to provide the assistance they needed.

“There were just some small things that needed to happen for him to go back home. It was primarily getting them in touch with the right resources,” Lovegrove said.

By pulling those resources together, Lovegrove said he saved the 11-year-old another seven years in the foster care system.

All three - Crall, Hanson, and Lovegrove - say that such advocacy can make the difference between a life lost and a life redeemed.

“It was a very unusual opportunity to make a difference,” Lovegrove said. “With CASA, I can make a difference in a child's life.”

“The number one factor in resilience is a stable, permanent person in their life,” Crall said.

The goal is always to reunite the youngster with his or her parents, but, until that is accomplished, advocates become that stable point of contact.

The average youngster in the foster care program has been in 17 foster or group homes.

The majority of those who reach their teens have been in foster care much or all of their lives.

They end up in the system through failures of one kind or another of their parents.

Some are in jail. Some are on drugs and unable to care for their children. Some have subjected their children to physical or sexual abuse or allowed it by those around them.

Crall said that drugs are involved in 70 percent to 80 percent of the cases, but almost always for the parents only and not the youngsters.

Advocates are expected to invest 15 to 20 hours a month in the program and to make an 18-month commitment.

Crall said advocates come from all backgrounds and circumstances.

Information on the CASA program is available at 304-5220.

Orientation will be provided Sept. 12 and 27 at the Southwest Justice Center and training will be conducted Oct. 20 and 27 and Nov. 3 at the Riverside County Medical Center in Moreno Valley.

Training is conducted in all-day weekend sessions.