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This article originally appeared in the Simi Valley Acorn, September 11, 2015.

Nonprofit serves county’s foster kids.

Every year, roughly 1,000 Ventura County children enter the foster system for reasons beyond their control. Often bounced from home to home, a foster child’s life can change at a moment’s notice.

Of the thousands currently in the county foster system, about 280 have been paired with Court Appointed Special Advocates of Ventura County, or CASA, said Miriam Mack, executive director of the volunteer-driven nonprofit.

Simi Valley resident Ron Sparks, 82, is one of 200 local volunteer advocates who provide stability and encouragement for their appointees. They must become sworn officers of the court, and the first step for that is 30 hours of training to learn how to represent the best interests of children in the dependency courts.

“It’s not the child’s fault they’re in foster care. They may not have been in a safe place, they may have been abused or they may have been neglected,” Sparks said. “As CASAs, we know that someone cares . . . to get the best opportunities for (the children) to thrive and, in some cases, survive.”

Seattle-based juvenile court Judge David Soukup founded CASA in 1977 and formed a group of volunteers to act as the voices of neglected and abused children in the cases he handled. The organization has since grown to 1,000 chapters in 49 states. Mack said the volunteers are more than just role models, mentors and friends for the children they work with.

“It’s all those things, but they’re also an advocate . . . to represent the child’s best interest in the courtroom,” she said. “Since opening in 1985, I would guess CASA of Ventura has served around 5,000 children.”

Being an advocate

A retired aerospace worker and communications professor, Sparks has advocated for three teens through CASA of Los Angeles County since 2005. He’s also been the advocate for a 17-year-old with CASA of Ventura County since 2010, when the boy was just 12 years old.

Sparks first learned of CASA in 2001 when he served on a Ventura County grand jury with Gerry Rubey, a volunteer CASA supervisor.

“(Rubey) told me about CASA, and after seeing an announcement in the paper that they were looking for volunteers, I decided to do it,” he said. “As an advocate you have to be patient, sympathetic to the child’s plight and willing to work with a variety of people.”

As part of their jobs, advocates are also called on to give a report to juvenile court judges every six months.

Mack said Sparks is the “essence” of what CASA is all about because he goes above and beyond in his commitment.

“We only really ask that there be a one-year commitment (from advocates), but he’s really stuck with his kid,” she said. “Most of the cases are closed in a year but many, like this boy, linger on and they remain in foster care.”

Sparks said he believes the longer an advocate is with their appointee, the better.

“(My teen) has had three or four foster mothers over the last five years, and he may or may not have any contact with his birth family,” Sparks said. “To have that one person he can call on, I think is important . . . to provide that stability in a child’s life.”

Over the years, Sparks has offered advice and listened to what his appointees have had to say. His current teen, who can’t be named due to confidentiality laws, often shares what’s going on in his life with Sparks over an ice cream cone.

“I’m there for him to talk to about the normal things that other kids his age would be talking to their parents about—school, extracurricular activities, that kind of thing,” Sparks said. “Recently, we talked about working to get him his driver’s license.”

Changes for CASA

In the past, youth would age out of the foster system when they turned 18, Mack said.

But in 2012, Assembly Bill 12 changed that by allowing them to choose whether to stay in the foster system for another three years and continue receiving care through the county based on individual plans addressing education, employment and housing.

“Before AB 12, our relationships with the children ended, but now our advocates go through new training to learn that their appointees are going to have more say as to what happens to them,” the director said.

The fact the teens can stay in the system until they are 21 is the “most remarkable change” of AB 12, Sparks said.

“That change has taken a lot of pressure off the child, whether they realize it or not, because they aren’t on their own anymore,” he said. “As an advocate, (AB 12) gives us an opportunity to see them get jobs, go on to college or make other major decisions.”

In addition to providing care for youth ages 5 to 18, CASA began serving newborns to 5-yearolds in 2014.

“Infants and toddlers can’t really talk, so this is a different type of advocacy that has a lot to do with monitoring a child’s development, keeping them upto date with immunizations and ensuring they’re enrolled in First Five,” Mack said.

While being an advocate is extremely fulfilling, Sparks said, the best part is watching the kids thrive.

“I don’t really do it for me,” he said. “I do it for these kids because seeing them happy and realizing that their progress is from their own achievements is the best feeling.”

By Melissa Simon