Article originally appeared in Quartz Hill Life, October 2013 (http://emagazines.hibu.com/QUARTZ)

CASA of Los Angeles’ volunteer advocates work with and support children in dependency court

A group of volunteers in training in the Antelope Valley.

If you ask Dilys Garcia about the local Juvenile Division of the Los Angeles Superior Court system, specifically dependency court, she will┬átell you it’s “overburdened.”

According to Los Angeles Superior Court, dependency court deals with the “protection of children that have been or at risk of being abused, neglected or abandoned.” The Department of Children and Family Services investigates allegations and is the petitioner on cases filed in this court. But the nonprofit Garcia is the executive director of is helping ease the burden and, most importantly, help those children.

That nonprofit is the Court Appointed Special Advocates(CASA) of Los Angeles.

While the majority of cases in Los Angeles County are heard at the Edmund D. Edelman Children’s Court in Monterey Park,where CASA of Los Angeles’ main office is located, there is a satellite office in Lancaster that serves the Antelope Valley at the Alfred J. McCourtney Juvenile Justice Center.

In dependency court, judges, social workers, lawyers and the Department of Children and Family Services officials are dealing with hundreds of children.

“The professionals do the best they can, but they tend to be focus on the real emergencies and not every child gets the attention they need,” Garcia said. The local CASA branch provides a way of “augmenting the attention,” she said.

What do CASAs do?

Basically, CASA of Los Angeles works to “mobilize community volunteers.” These volunteers, who are appointed and become officers of the court, serve as advocates for the children in foster care, Garcia said.

“Ordinary citizens can hold the system accountable for these children,” she said. The community volunteers, often referred to as CASAs, are assigned to one or two children, usually a sibling set, at a time.

“Having a CASA can really make a qualitative difference,” Garcia said.

“There’s research that shows that you can have an incredible impact on another person’s emotional being by just showing up for them.”

And that’s exactly what CASAs do. Once being appointed by the court and assigned to a case, these volunteer advocates get to know the child by talking with everyone in his or her life, including parents and relatives, foster parents, teachers, doctors, attorneys, social workers and more. The CASA volunteer then presents a report of the information they gathered to the court, what the child’s current status is, the child’s positioning and then gives their opinion of what is going on and a recommendation based on that to let the judge know what the child wants, needs and what will be the best permanent home for him or her.

“These children need to have a voice heard in court,” said Lesley Bois, CASA’s Antelope Valley regional manager.

“They have had their lives basically torn apart. They need to be able to have a way to let the judge know what they want and the judge needs to know what they need.”

Often times, children in the foster care system move around a lot, move from home to home, they might have to change schools, therapists, doctors and even their social workers, and not because of anything they’ve done, Bois said. A CASA becomes those children’s consistent person in their lives; a CASA follows the child they’re appointed to wherever they go, she explained.

This is important, Garcia said, because these children “have been traumatized, been through a lot and are very alone.” In fact, she said that CASA volunteers become a sort of “parental surrogate” for the children they’re assigned to.

Becoming a CASA

Garcia and Bois agreed that CASA of Los Angeles is “always” looking for and recruiting volunteers to serve as CASAs.

“We always have a need for advocates,” Bois said.

Although CASA of Los Angeles is one of the largest CASA programs in the country, Los Angeles County has one of the largest foster care populations in the country

In the Antelope Valley, Bois said there is an average of about 60 CASAs that serve a little more than 100 children. However, there is an average of about 1,700 children in the system. While not all of those children are in foster care, they all have some sort of dependency case, Boise explained.

This year, Garcia said the goal is to add 225 volunteers to CASA’s ranks, with about lOO serving out of the Lancaster office.

The process of becoming a CASA begins with an information session that lasts about one hour. After that, the interested person fills out an application, goes through an interview and then they can be assigned to a training class. The training classes,which are typically at night, are once a week for five weeks.The classes involve online work as well as in-person work.The final day of training involves observing court and being sworn in by a judge. CASAs are required to meet with the child they’re assigned to a minimum of once a month. In addition,those interested in becoming a CASA must pass a background check and agree to stay with a case until it is closed.

The next scheduled information session in the Antelope Valley is September 24 with the next training session beginning September 26, Bois said.

For more information about CASA of Los Angeles or to begin the process of becoming a CASA volunteer, visit www.casala.org