MEET OUR CEO
Wendelyn, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I was born into this work in Flagstaff, Arizona. My parents are educators and civil rights activists and I grew up with a firm understanding of the fight for social justice and against systems of oppression. I have dedicated my career to working in youth development, with a focus on older youth, in helping them achieve their potential and stay out of the juvenile justice and child welfare systems that have a tendency to lead to terrible outcomes.
My work at CASA of Los Angeles (Court Appointed Special Advocates) is a combination of my personal passion and professional expertise. I am a former foster parent, an adoptive parent, a CASA volunteer myself, and I have mentored dozens of young people over the past 20 years. At CASA, we work within the court system and I am an attorney, but we do not practice law. We practice the art of human connection, connecting one caring adult with one child or youth in foster care. The results are objectively and subjectively great – we connect children faster to permanent homes, we help them excel in school and ensure they are safe and receiving the services they need and deserve. I love my job, mostly because of the extraordinary volunteers and children I get to work with.
Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
A few months ago, I went to lunch with a social justice advocate I deeply respect and have worked with for two decades. We talked about the great work we are doing now but also about how deeply frustrating it feels to watch the “fight” look like three steps forward and two and a half steps back. Or occasionally four steps back. Some days, I sit in meetings where we talk about things like using prevention, human relations, rehabilitative tactics rather than punishment and suppression tactics to deal with kids who have committed petty crimes. It isn’t deja vu because I actually have sat in meetings where exactly the same things were said decades ago. The same can be said about immigration reform, the Violence Against Women’s Act, and racial disparities in the child welfare system. It would be easy to become jaded and to give up. In addition to that, the work brings very serious challenges. I have seen multiple young, thriving youth lose their lives. To suicide, to accidents, to murder, to the prison system. Those days are the biggest struggle. To remember that the work matters even if it does not work for everyone.
However, there are shining moments. Most days it feels like we are making a real difference. Both for individual people and for the “movement.” The number of kids locked up in LA County is about half of when I started in this work. There are about 20,000 fewer children in the child welfare system in LA county than 8 or 9 years ago. We, as a state, have a mutually agreed on a protocol that promotes reunification, keeping families together, housing children with families rather than institutions, and allowing children, youth and families to have a say in what is best for them. And most importantly, I can point to countless stories of young people and families who are thriving because someone cared enough to fight for them.
This is not a smooth road and not for the faint of heart. But it is the most rewarding path I could imagine walking.
On the personal side, the road has been full of struggles. I have four children. Three biological and one adopted. Making that work with a full-time job in Los Angeles is a struggle in itself. Keeping it together as my children and I have encountered normal challenges and extreme challenges related to foster care, adoption, mental health, financial struggles, divorce, school issues, involvement in the juvenile justice system and others has made the road bumpy and exciting. But we show up every day. As best as we can.
Casa of Los Angeles – what should we know? What do you do best? What sets you apart from the competition?
I have the joy and responsibility of serving as the CEO of CASA of Los Angeles (Court Appointed Special Advocates). CASA ensures that children who have experienced abuse or neglect and are in foster care have at least one caring, consistent adult to advocate them and care for them. Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) are volunteers who dedicate between 10-15 hours a month to working to ensure that the “system” is providing for the safety and well-being of one child. CASAs also work to find a permanent family for the child they advocate for, supporting reunification whenever possible and, if not, helping find a family member or other caregiver who will adopt. We recruit train and support volunteers from all over Los Angeles County. This year, over 1,200 volunteers will provide one-on-one CASA advocacy to 1,500 children. In addition, we provide day-of-court advocacy for over 3,000 children at Edelman Children’s Court.
In hundreds of our cases, the child or youth has languished in foster care for years and been in dozens of different homes, group homes and institutional settings. Thousands of our youth have “aged out” of foster care: turned 18 or 21 depending on their case and sent alone to brave the world without a permanent family. CASA volunteers can be lifesavers in those situations, finding housing, helping with job placement, providing a support person, helping build a safety net. I am so proud of how our CASA volunteers work with young people to help them avoid the terrible statistics for kids aging out of foster care. Nearly 25% of these youth will face homelessness. Similar numbers will be arrested within two years. Only 3% will graduate from college. A CASA volunteer can turn those statistics around and help a young adult have a fighting chance to thrive.
What moment in your career do you look back most fondly on?
I suppose my proudest career moment was a personal moment. Recently, a job opportunity came up for me that would have been a big financial move but would have meant leaving the nonprofit sector. I thought about it and discussed it with my family. My 17 years old daughter, Angela, spent four years in foster care in ten different foster homes before she made it to my home when she was 6. When she heard about the job opportunity she looked at me surprised and said, “Why would you ever leave the important work you are doing at CASA?” At that moment, I realized that my work at CASA makes my children proud of me. And most importantly, it makes my daughter, who shares so much in common with the kids we serve, feel like I am doing something important and admirable every day. Needless to say, I declined the opportunity and happily refocused on my rewarding work serving children in the foster care system.