A 13-year-old San Diego boy named Sean already had enough challenges, suffering from an intellectual disability compounded by years of neglect, but when he was removed from his home for his own safety, he entered a well-intentioned foster-care system that can still be daunting for any young person to navigate.
“When I first entered, I was scared,” Sean told NBC 7. “I didn’t know anyone and didn’t know if anyone would be there to protect me.”
To be sure, there are some wonderful foster families. The problem is there are not nearly enough to accommodate the thousands of children who are removed from abusive and neglectful homes and placed into the foster-care system. That typically leaves group homes run by paid staff and without a single, consistent, caring adult to guide children.
What’s the result? It doesn’t always have a happy ending. For children who stay in the system and then age-out at 18, more than a third experience of homelessness. Others end up in trouble with the police. Maybe 3% will graduate from a four-year college.
Sean caught a break, thought. There is a remarkable organization in San Diego called Voices for Children that helps foster children like him beat the odds, so that they not only survive, they thrive.
“We match children in foster care with specially trained community volunteers known as court appointed special advocates, or CASAs, whose role is primarily to advocate for the child as they work their way through the foster care system,” said Kelly Douglas, who is the CEO of Voices for Children.
A CASA named Tim Riley was selected to advocate for Sean. The pair not only spent time together, shared meals and outings, but Tim also learned what Sean needed most educationally, medically and emotionally, and helped steer appropriate services to help Sean. Best of all, Tim became a trusted adult who Sean knew would always have his back. That help eventually ice to Sean being able to move in with his grandmother. It appeared that CASA Tim’s work was done.
“The cool part about being a CASA is even when the file is closed, both the youth and the CASA have the option to continue having a relationship, and there was no way I wasn’t going to continue having a relationship with this guy! ” Tim said.
That ended up being another stroke of luck for Sean when he turned 18. When his grandmother passed away, Sean was on the verge of homelessness and no longer eligible for foster-care benefits, having aged out of the system – but he was still in need of support.
So CASA Tim went to work. With the help of two of the young man’s school therapists, Fran Wolf and Andrea Bosowski, who also identified Sean’s alarming situation, the team worked long and hard with Tim, coordinating the effort. After countless meetings, phone calls and lobbying, the team was able to get wrap-around support services for Sean, who is now in his early 20s, for life.
“What Tim has done for Sean really shows the power of advocacy,” Douglas said.
Tim is one of a thousand CASAs making a profound difference in the lives of San Diego’s foster children, many of whom are under the age of 10, but the organization needs more help.
CASA volunteers come from all walks of life. Voices for Children, considered the most successful program of its kind in the nation, provides its volunteers with high-level training and ongoing support and supervision. If you would like to help, the biggest requirement to be a CASA is to have a big heart. Also, you are 21 or older, commit to seeing a foster child once a month and pass a background check. The reward is that you can look back and say “you saved a child, gave them a future and made a profound difference.”
For more information and to donate if you prefer to help that way, go to Voices for Children’s website.