Article originally appeared in the Antelope Valley Press on March 10, 2014.
By: Alisha Semchuck
LANCASTER – Court Appointed Special Advocates ensure that abused and neglected children in their charge have a place to call home and a bed of their own.
More than that, they make sure the children who have been removed from the family home for any variety of reasons have a voice representing them in the legal system – an adult world that can be confusing and frightening to young people.
Antelope Valley CASA, as the nonprofit organization is called, had its annual fundraising dinner Friday night, honoring former state Sens. George and Sharon Runner and their entire family for efforts to protect children.
Sharon Runner told the crowd of about 175 people attending the event in the Grand Ballroom at the University of Antelope Valley that she’s always been a firm believer that “children are our most important asset.” She added that she wants to make sure “the next generation feels the same.”
“We adopted out son Raider at the age of 11,” said daughter-in-law Sandy Runner, who is married to George and Sharon’s son Micah. “He was in sixth grade. “That night I lay in bed, thinking about this child down the hall from us.”
In the six years that he was in the foster care system, she said he changed from home to home eight times. Thinking about what he endured broke her heart.
“At that moment,” Sandy Runner said, “I knew I couldn’t walk away.”
It struck her that during those years, Raider had no photos of his childhood and no birthday parties. His attorney was his sole source of consistency during that period.
Sandy Runner said she and her husband started an organization called Home For Good.
“We advocate for children in foster care,” she said. “We ask people to step up and take a child in.”
George Runner said he feels that he and his family have been blessed.
Often times, he said, they got involved with “crazy little ideas” but had the good fortune to be surrounded by supportive and encouraging people.
He said one friend told him about a program in Texas and asked if it would be possible to do the same in California. That’s how the Amber Alert came about.
“The courts are full of people with good hearts,” he said. “At the end of the day, they’re just really busy.”
A program like CASA, George Runner said, “lets someone be there consistently for the child.”
Diane Grooms, who was co-host for the event with Jean Youngquist, a CASA board member, introduced what she called “the Reader’s Digest version of the life of George and Sharon Runner and their family.”
“In may ways,” Grooms said, the family members “look just like us. They celebrate Christmas in their pajamas and put the angel on the tree. They enjoy the ocean, lighthouses, giggling babies and dessert. Yes, George loves dessert so much he sneaks a bite from his grandson’s plate.
“George and Sharon married in 1973 and we know they started Desert Christian Schools together.
“Why, is best said in their own words: ‘We wanted a school for not only everyone else’s children, but for our own children, where we knew they were going to hear about God in an exciting way.'”
Grooms said the Runners did what every other young couple does – bought a house and had a baby, their son Micah.
“One day Sharon was talking to a neighbor over the fence and heard about a little baby who needed a home,” Grooms said. “In typical Runner fashion, they talked to people and found out the rest of the story – of a young mother-to-be in trouble. The Runners opened their home to a little girl – one we know today as (their daughter) Becca.
“That’s when they learned about complicated adoption procedures and the difficulties in helping a child in need.”
George Runner served as a Lancaster City Council member and as the mayor before becoming a California assemblyman and then state senator. He now sits on the state Board of Equalization as an elected member.
Sharon Runner also won a seat in the Assembly and then the state Senate. “They became California’s power couple,” Grooms said. In 2002, George Runner authored California’s Amber Alert System, which notifies the public of a search in progress for abducted children. The first two girls saved by the alert were teens out at night in Quartz Hill when a kidnapper forced them into a car.
Four years later, the Runners authored California’s version of Jessica’s Law, which imposes mandatory minimum prison sentences for sexual offenders convicted of violations against children younger than 14.
Micah and Sandy Runner “opened their home to a foster youth” who became a part of their family and he was later joined by a brother and sister, Grooms said.
The Runners’ daughter joined the U.S. Coast Guard. Her ship was the first on scene in Haiti following a devastating earthquake. There she helped a young mother deliver a baby. She and husband James DuVall have a child, Paxton.
Grooms credited Kay Runner, George Runner’s mother, for setting an example and “establishing the family values.”
Dilys Garcia, executive director of CASA of Los Angeles, presented the CASA Child Advocacy Award to the Runners.
Lisa Moulton, the district coordinator for state Sen. Steve Knight, R-Palmdale, presented the Runners with commendations on behalf of Knight and Los Angeles County 5th District Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich.
Sharon Runner thanked the crowd for attending the function.
“I felt it was a little like raising funds for a political campaign,” she said. She talked briefly about a time when she worked with the Right to Life League.
Ryan Crist, a Lancaster planning commissioner, presented a certificate of recognition on behalf of Mayor R. Rex Parris and the City Council.
“It’s quite a sight to see a room like this full (with) so many people who really care about kids. We are essentially (a team) of volunteers. We mobilize in the community” acting on behalf of kids, Dilys Garcia said.
“CASA fills the gap for children who have been taken from their families. There are 28,000 childen in L.A. County in foster care. In the Antelope Valley office, a staff of five.
“A big part of what we’re doing is trying to get money to fund (the training of) advocates. Our organization trains volunteers to serve as advocates. That’s our sole purpose for existing.”
The organization has 83 volunteers in the Valley that work with the staff in the Lancaster office.
Anyone interested in volunteering can go to the CASA website at www.casala.org or call Cynthia Whitlock, the volunteer outreach coordinator at (661) 723-2272.
Julie Wilson, 53, and her spouse Abbie Henderson, 65, started out as foster caregivers for children in the CASA system. They adopted six of these children.
“We have the Brady Bunch – three boys and three girls,” Wilson said. “We were foster parents for 17 years.”
The children now are ages 17, 16, 12, 9, 5 and 3. “They were all babies,” Wilson said. “We got them one by one. They were so cute. You look at those eyes.”
Wilson said one of the children was 17 days old when they took him in. The previous home gave him up because the foster parent said “he cried too much,” according to Wilson. “That’s why she didn’t want him.”
Youngquist, a retired principal from Sunnydale Elementary School, recalled her second CASA case, a young boy from Mexico.
His mother sent him to live with relatives in the United States, thinking he would have a better life.
But his grandmother, aunt and another relative abused him.
“At 9 he became a foster child,” Youngquist said. When his birth mother found out what was happening, she traveled from Mexico to the States “to get him,” as Youngquist put it. She worked hard making and selling tamales. His father in Mexico also wanted him.
After nine months in foster care, Youngquist said, “he was successfully returned to his mother and his family in Mexico.”
Grooms wears many hats, according to Youngquist. She’s on the Board of Trustees for the Lancaster School District and chairwoman of the Antelope Valley Homeless Coalition, as well as a grant writer and consultant. She is a CASA advocate and works as the program sustainability manager at The Children’s Center of Antelope Valley. Besides that, she’s married to Larry Grooms and she raised two sons.
“You can picture her with whatever hat you would like.”