Constant Support in a Constantly Changing World

Court Appointed Special Advocates a Mainstay in the Lives of SF Foster ChildrenCounselor with girl on stairs

On the day he was born, Anthony Pico entered the San Francisco foster care system. His drug-addicted mother disappeared from the hospital, leaving him with poison running through his system, no home and no one to fight for him.

By 14, he had lived in three separate placements, and by 18, he had attended six different high schools. Shuffled between social workers, therapists, lawyers and group homes, he was starved for stability

At 21, Pico is three years out of emancipating from foster care, and living on his own in Sacramento. He’s a legislative aide and a third-year student at Sacramento City College.

Dark sunglasses can’t hide his animation when he speaks of one of the things that saved him from slipping through the cracks of an over-burdened social welfare system: the San Francisco Court Appointed Special Advocate program.

“I don’t think I’d be where I am today, had it not been for my CASA,” Pico says outside the Sunset’s Java Beach Café, the late afternoon sun glazing his round face a golden orange before slipping below the Pacific.

SFCASA, a non-profit agency that trains community volunteers to serve as advocates for abused and neglected children in the San Francisco Juvenile Dependency Court System, assigned a teenage Pico a mentor, or CASA, who became his guiding light

Pico exemplifies the ultimate goal of SFCASA: to help ensure that every one of the city’s approximately 1,300 foster kids is placed in a safe, permanent home.

The organization, supported by grants and corporate and individual donations, was established in 1991 and is one of more than 900 affiliate programs across the country. Volunteers are rigorously screened and complete 40 hours of professional training in areas such as child development, mandated reporting and dependency law.

Upon making an 18-month commitment to advocate for a child, CASAs are sworn in as officers of the court. Reporting to a judge every six months, they submit a case report addressing the child’s needs and recommending the best possible outcome for his or her future.

Judge Donna HitchensKnowing what’s best comes from spending one-on-one time with them, reviewing records, researching information and talking to everyone involved in the child’s life — from social workers, attorneys and judges to parents, teachers and doctors.

“We make a point of seeing them in all of their environments, so we can have a full view of where they are as humans, and what their needs may be,” says Maya Durrett, former CASA and current SFCASA Program Director.

The needs are typically high for San Francisco’s 0-18 year-old victims of abuse, neglect and abandonment. They spend a large chunk of childhood on the move, averaging five different homes and nine different schools over an average of five years in the foster care system.

On top of the trauma of being removed from their families, most children have been exposed to substance abuse, domestic violence or mental illness. They often suffer from learning disabilities and emotional or developmental problems.

For Jenn Fallon, a CASA living in West Portal, the tragic circumstances that land kids in the system are heart-wrenching. “It’s challenging from a human perspective,” she says, “to see kids suffer like that.”

Fallon says that while the professionals who are paid to be in the lives of foster kids are well-meaning, they usually fall short when it comes to devoting a significant amount of time to them.

“The social work system is, in general, spread really thin,” says Fallon, noting overwhelming case loads and lawyers who meet children only minutes before court hearings. “[We] are another group of people keeping our eyes on kids in fragile situations.”

Sally Coates, Executive Director of SFCASA, says that the city’s most vulnerable youth have been repeatedly let down by adults promising to do good things and then disappearing.

“These children are not necessarily waiting on the doorstep for someone to come and love them,” Coates says.

But in a world of impermanence, CASAs provide the constant presence that is usually missing but desperately needed. Weekly visits build a trusting bond that may be one of the few positive relationships the child has.

“When one person keeps returning, it speaks volumes,” Durrett says. “They can’t believe their CASAs are not paid to be there. It’s profound for them.”

Gail Nebenzahl, 72, a CASA who has volunteered hundreds of hours to mentoring foster youth over the past eight years, knows the importance of “being there.” On top of making sure their needs were met, she gave her foster kids caring companionship, taking them to the beach, museums, the zoo, photography classes and redwood forests. Surprising one of the young girls with singing lessons remains one of her most vibrant memories.

“It was something she always wanted to do,” Nebenzahl says, her smile growing bigger with pride. And then she turns serious.

“With these children, there’s a very dark side,” she says, cupping a cobalt blue mug of tea in her sunny kitchen. “They’ve experienced what you and I cannot imagine.”

Three of the children Nebenzahl advocated for were removed from their families of origin after being subjected to violence, drugs and alcohol. On one occasion she found herself walking through an abandoned squat house with the five-year-old. A place with broken windows, dirty mattresses and drug addicts coming and going was where the girl called home.

Being a CASA empowered Nebenzahl in the courtroom to be the voice of a child who couldn’t negotiate the legal system on her own.

“I said, ‘Your Honor, these are the kinds of things that have happened to this child. We need to make sure this child can survive and thrive.’”

Nebenzahl’s testimony was evidence of a deep-seeded relationship between CASA and foster child — a relationship that judges highly value.

“CASAs provide the eyes and ears for the court in looking at each child as an individual,” says Judge Donna Hitchens, who has presided over dependency cases in San Francisco’s Unified Family Court for over 19 years.

Judge Hitchens says that judges rely heavily on the CASA report because it contains crucial information that fills in gaps in cases. “It goes right to the heart of what’s going on with the child,” she says, which, in turn, “always leads to better decision-making.”

Approximately 2,000 foster kids have come through Judge Hitchens’ courtroom, but of those, only 15% had the benefit of having a CASA. In her experience, 80% of court-dependent children not served by SFCASA enter the juvenile justice system, but of those served by SFCASA, less than 2% do so. “We could always use more CASAs,” she says. “If I had my way, every foster child would have one.”

During 2009-2010, SFCASA provided over 13,224 hours of advocacy and mentoring to San Francisco’s children in foster care. Today, there are more than 300 volunteers, but more than 130 court-referred children on a waiting list for a CASA.

“It’s an amazing role for someone in the community to have,” says Durrett of being a special advocate. “A volunteer can make a change for a child on a small scale that means so much to the child.”

Despite living in a different city, Anthony Pico still keeps in touch with his CASA. He’s grateful for the consistent support he had while trapped in the foster care system’s “perfect storm”- a scary, lonely, swirling mess of court proceedings and emotional issues.

“Having a CASA helped navigate away from the storm’s eye,” he says. “Just knowing that someone was there....that someone actually cared enough to spend time with me.”

Feedback: oleson@westsideobserver.com

October 2010