Article originally appeared in the Antelope Valley Press on March 30, 2014.
By Julie Drake
LANCASTER – Sallie Jones wasn’t ready to retire when a health issue forced her to leave her career of 35 years.
So perhaps it was serendipity when she stumbled onto a new calling in life that can be summed up with the motto on the back of her blue T-shirt: “I am for the child.”
Jones is a court-appointed special advocate, or CASA, volunteer for CASA of Los Angeles-Antelope Valley.
A CASA is appointed by a judge to watch over and advocate for abused and neglected children who have been removed from their homes and placed in the Los Angeles County foster care system.
The volunteers remain with each child until the case is closed and the child is placed in a safe, permanent home.
“I love it; I wouldn’t give it up for anything,” Jones said at the organization’s Lancaster office.
Asked what brings her the most joy in her volunteer role, Jones said it is knowing that she has made a positive difference in a child’s life, particularly with children whose early lives are badly disrupted, often by chaos in the family of origin.
Jones, 60, began about four years ago, after a genetic condition forced her retire from her job as a director at Valley Presbyterian Hospital in Van Nuys.
She started at the bottom, went to college, and rose to a directorship in charge of roughly 10 departments and some 100 people. Unable to do all of the walking her job required, Jones left in 2007.
“I had to go on permanent disability,” said Jones, who uses a cane to walk. “I thought I’d go nuts. I thought, ‘Now what do I do with my life?”
Jones, who lives in Palmdale with her husband, saw an ad in the Antelope Valley Press asking people if they wanted to help children.
At the time, she didn’t know anything about court-appointed special advocates.
Four years later, Jones is a CASA peer coordinator and one of the top advocates in a department that is always desperate for more volunteers.
“Sallie contributes in many ways,” said Lesley Bois, CASA’s regional manager. “Not only is she one of my top CASAs, she handles cases impeccably.”
As a CASA peer coordinator, Jones helps new volunteers get comfortable with what they need to do, how to write reports and maybe even meet their first children. She is coaching three CASAs and oversees work on their cases.
Bois added that Jones talks to people in the community and is always promoting what she does.
“I’ve always been able to read and relate to children very well, of all age groups,” Jones said. “I think that’s been a big plus.”
Jones knows when to give a child his or her space.
“You’ve got to know how to deal with people, so the hospital gave me more than enough training on how to deal with people, attorneys, all the people we come in contact with doing our job,” she said.
A CASA advocate can be assigned if a judge feels a case has dragged on for too long with no progress, or if the child’s point of view isn’t being heard.
A child’s attorney can also request a Court Appointed Special Advocate.
What makes a CASA’s role so important in the foster care system, Jones said, is that he or she is the one constant that child has.
“We’re with that child, or those children if it’s a multiple family, till the end of the case,” Jones said.
That could either be when the child or children are placed in permanent foster care, adopted or reunited with the family.
Children in foster care can be moved to numerous foster families and also have different social workers.
“What you try to do as a CASA is try to keep them with goals, keep them up and ask them how things are going,” Jones said.
If a child had a school event, Jones would make sure she attended.
“You just try to be someone they can trust,” she said.
She has remained in contact with one family with multiple children, even though their case is finished and the children are back home.
“That’s one of the things that makes it rewarding is when the kids still want you in their lives and when you see the good outcomes,” Jones said.
Jones has taken her children out shopping, on little field trips or to get ice cream, where she has a chance to talk to them about what they want. When a child reported he got headaches at school, Jones discovered he needed glasses, so she suggested an eye exam in her report.
“We put through all the recommendations that are for the best interests of the child,” Jones said.
Jones signed up for training for the organization’s early childhood program that targets children from newborns to 5 years old.
“Those kids have special needs that if caught early, by the time they reach kindergarten age, maybe they’ll be normal. Maybe they’ll have a chance at a future. Maybe they’ll have good things going in their lives,” Jones said.
Because of her medical background, Jones can sit in on doctor’s appointments should there be a need.
Jones spends more than 20 hours a month with the infant for whom she is advocating. That includes making appointments and being there for supervision when the parents visit at Department of Children and Family Services to watch how the child interacts with them.
“You’ve got to keep the child safe, happy, healthy,” she said. “Their welfare is the No. 1 priority.”
Jones interviews anyone who has an interaction with the child, which can include visiting the child’s school.
Tenacity is also a plus.
“I don’t like to hear, ‘No, that’s not good, you can’t do that.’ I want to find out why,” Jones said.
Jones cautioned that a CASA needs an outlet, whether it’s yoga, meditation, painting or music as a stress reliever in his or her personal life to help put cases at the back of the mind.
“Even though you think you aren’t thinking about it, it’s always on the back of your mind,” she said.
Jones went through a week of training to learn about things such as different age groups, how children respond, the foster care system and the common problems volunteers will encounter. She also spent time in a courtroom before she was sworn in by a judge.
“You truly are a court official, even though you’re a volunteer,” she said.
The Alfred J. McCourtney Juvenile Justice Center in Lancaster has two courtrooms where the juvenile dependency cases are heard. Jones said sometimes there can be up to 26 or 30 cases heard per day.
The local CASA chapter is in desperate need of volunteers.
“Had I known about being a CASA when I lived down below and worked at the hospital, I would have done it then,” Jones said.
CASA volunteers can have full-time jobs, but it helps to have flexibility with the schedule to account for court schedules.
They also need to have time to meet and bond with the assigned children.
In the Antelope Valley, Bois said they have 85 volunteers and are always looking for more.
“At any given time in the Antelope Valley there are 1,700 children with cases in the dependency court,” Bois said. “We only manage to serve around 100 of those a year.”
Though some children don’t necessarily need a CASA, Bois said a lot of the children “fall through the cracks.”
“And then you worry about their future,” Jones said.
For details on becoming a CASA volunteer, visit www.casala.org/volunteer/ or call (661) 723-2272.