An estimated 5,000 San Diego children spend time in foster care each year. They are innocent victims who have been taken away from their homes through no fault of their own, but due to parental maltreatment. Once removed, the children are under Court jurisdiction until a judge determines the home is safe for return. If reunification cannot occur, the child continues to live in foster care until an adoption or guardianship can be arranged. Sadly, many children are never adopted and spend their childhoods in foster care.
Voices for Children’s 1,500 CASA volunteers come from every ethnicity, background, income level, age, and profession. They pass several levels of screenings and interviews, and pass our rigorous training program of 35+ hours. Being a CASA is an extraordinary responsibility, not something suited to everyone. And those who do qualify are the elite and the best; one child described them as “big brothers with super powers.” CASAs who reported their time last year have donated approximately 64,000 hours. According to Independent Sector, the leadership network for America’s charitable and philanthropic sector, this contributed time could be valued at nearly $1.7 million.
Our volunteers perform miracles, often changing lives and bringing joy to their case children, yet also face anger, rejection, and mistrust from children who have been betrayed by adults. The stakes are very high for these children, yet studies show that CASA volunteers make a significant difference in the lives of their children.
Suamhirs is a former foster youth and Real Word panel member who, with the help of his CASA, Marco Mares, overcame enormous odds and terrible circumstances. In January 2016, Suamhirs was appointed by President Barack Obama to the U.S. Commission on Human Trafficking, an extraordinary honor. He is the youngest member of this commission at age 26, and the only former foster youth. Of achieving this tremendous honor, Suamhirs said, “Voices for Children gave me a voice. And my CASA, Marco, taught me to be strong, not to let my past define me. He believed in me and is still with me—the longest stable, positive relationship I have had in my life. This man. A total stranger. A regular person with a regular job… and an extraordinary heart. With extraordinary skills to set someone free. That is my CASA.”
Growing up, Jacob experienced physical and emotional abuse. After being removed from his home, he switched living arrangements and schools multiple times. He had very little support as he tried to navigate and adapt to each new living situation. Much of the time he felt alone and apathetic—especially about school. Jacob’s grades began slipping. He was in danger of failing and having to repeat the 7th grade.
As soon as Voices for Children assigned him the case, CASA Eric jumped wholeheartedly into advocating for Jacob—especially when it came to Jacob’s education. In just a month and a half, Eric had scheduled meetings with Jacob’s teachers, counselors, and principal. Eric included Jacob in these meetings so the young man would learn to be involved and take ownership of his academics.
Jacob’s grades began improving. By the end of the term, his marks increased in three of his classes. For the first time ever, Jacob put effort into his studies and experienced the joy of learning. With encouragement from Eric, Jacob also became more socially engaged, making friends for the first time. Eric also ensured that Jacob’s academic records were complete and that credits were properly transferred from his previous school. He then obtained the Court’s permission for Jacob to get involved in extracurricular activities. All of this has transformed Jacob from a solitary, apathetic young man to someone with real hope for his future.
“In my service as a CASA, I have learned to persevere and take challenges head-on,” Tania said. “As much as I have learned what my case child is capable of, I have also learned what I am capable of.” Tania Jabour, a Humanities instructor at High Tech High, became a CASA volunteer when she was in her mid-20s. At the time, she had a hard time facing difficult or uncomfortable tasks.
When Tania was initially assigned to Briana’s case, Briana was in crisis. Briana came into the system when she was eight years old due to physical abuse from her mother. During her time in foster care, she has been in and out of at least 15 placements and has struggled with mental health and behavioral issues.
“Her therapist told me that the situation was hopeless—there was too much damage,” Tania said. Tania refused to believe this.
“As Briana worked hard to achieve her goals, I came to believe that a foster home was the best placement option for her, so I advocated to her attorney, social worker, and judge that she be moved from the group home to a foster home,” Tania said.
“The most important thing I’ve learned is that it can take just one stable, trustworthy, supportive adult to change a child’s life.”
Though Tania’s plan was met with a great deal of resistance from some of the professionals working on Briana’s case, Tania continued to advocate for what she thought was best for the child.
“The facts in some of the reports presented to the Court did not provide enough background information for the judge to understand why Briana was struggling,” Tania said. “My reports helped the judge understand her situation more fully.”
After months of negotiating and countless meetings with various professionals and agencies, Briana was moved out of her group home.
“Through the hard work of my case child and the coordinated efforts of the entire team, we found her a fantastic foster home and she has been thriving there,” Tania said. “She’s a successful student and a responsible young woman, and she uses coping skills to manage her anger and frustration.”
Tania concluded, “The work a CASA does with and on behalf of the child during dependency can—and frequently does—set the child up for long-term success.”
The life of four-year-old Hailey has been filled with turmoil and neglect. Her parents had a violent relationship and often left her in the care of strangers. When Child Welfare Services removed Hailey from home at age three, she spoke only two words: “no” and “uh-oh.” She displayed many other cognitive and physical delays typical of maltreated young children.
Thanks to Karen, Hailey has started to catch up with her peers developmentally. She is helping to ensure that Hailey’s journey through the foster care system is brief and has the happy ending she deserves: a safe, permanent, and loving place with an adoptive family.Fortunately, Hailey was matched with a CASA, Karen. It soon became apparent to Karen that even with services, Hailey’s biological parents were not making any progress turning their lives around. Karen researched to find other family members available to adopt Hailey, but none would commit. Karen provided regular updates to the Court and recommended speech therapy to teach the little girl to express herself, and play therapy to help her work through the trauma she experienced.
When Jorge Valerdi retired, he knew he wanted to serve the community. Little did he know that his work as a Voices for Children CASA volunteer would result in praise from officials on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Jorge became a CASA in December 2002 and, to date, has advocated for 32 foster children. He specializes in cases that involve immigration and education issues and strives to improve the lives of Mexican-American foster children living in the United States. He has been relentless in his advocacy, doing everything possible with agencies in both countries to ensure these children receive the resources they need.
“Our community is definitely multicultural and we have to be very much aware of this so we can understand and recommend the best option for a case child when he or she has to be placed away from home,” Jorge said.
As a result of his incredible work with Voices for Children, Jorge was invited to Mexico’s House of Representatives, where he met with members of the Mexican Congress involved in immigration, human rights, and international relations commissions. Jorge shared with them his perspective on human rights for minors living near the border, and recommended availability of more services to immigrant mothers, procedures to give Latino parents the tools they need to help their children academically, and incentives for proactive health care.
“Being a CASA has allowed me to pay forward the many gifts I have received in my life.”
Jorge currently has two active cases that involve four children. Former case children stay in touch with Jorge, some contacting him on Father’s Day to thank him for his advocacy on their behalf and others sending regular updates on progress they’re making toward their life goals. One of the young men, Juan, had continued in extended foster care after he turned 18, under the provisions of new laws. At a subsequent hearing, Juan asked that his case be closed so that he could prove to himself, his family, and the Court that he was capable of living independently.
“I advocated to the judge that this young man was indeed mature enough to make it on his own,” Jorge said. The judge considered the facts of the case and Jorge’s recommendation and closed the boy’s case. Juan has since made a successful transition into adulthood.
Rachelle, Annette, and Andrew
After enduring heart-breaking neglect, Rachelle and Annette (ages 5 and 4) and their seven-year-old brother, Andrew, were removed from their mentally ill mother and completely absent father and placed into foster care. Tragically, the adoptive foster mother they were placed with suddenly developed dire health issues and could not continue with the adoption.
With hardly any warning, their social worker worked miracles and found the three children another adoptive placement, outside of San Diego County. The children had barely settled in, still reeling from the change, when little Annette was diagnosed with leukemia. Meanwhile, the older boy’s long-overdue dental surgeries reached an acute stage.
Their CASA, Karina, visited the children regularly, providing continuity and reassurance to the children and helping locate medical resources and support for the foster mother. She also kept the Court informed of how the children were adjusting.
The children immediately started to thrive with their loving new parents, and their adoption finalized in February, attended by the CASA who organized a joyous celebration. Today, Annette is in remission and Andrew’s surgeries are completed. All of the children have resumed their childhoods, secure in the love of their “forever families.”
When her youngest child graduated from high school, Christie Ranney asked her husband to consider fostering or adopting a child. “He suggested I find ‘another outlet’ for my passion,” Christie said, laughing. That outlet came in the form of volunteering with Voices for Children.
Christie, who is often assigned to challenging cases because of her tact and professionalism, has recently accepted her twelfth case. A few of her cases have ended in adoption. She has helped the others prepare for independent, successful lives.
“The CASA program allows me to support children in a way that best addresses their challenges and their futures,” Christie said.
One of her case children, James, graduated from high school and enlisted in the U.S. Army after Christie helped get him involved with the Sea Cadet program. James is doing well in the service and is already a leader of his company. Christie also advocated to the Court that two of her case children (brothers Joey and Austin) remain at their same high school all four years and graduate with their classes on time. Their older brother, Kevin, living in Kansas, frequently writes to Christie to ask for guidance, as she has been the most important and consistent person in his life.
“As a CASA, I bridge the gap between the real picture and what the judge sees on paper.”
“What I enjoy most is building a relationship with the children and inspiring and motivating them to graduate high school,” Christie said. “What I find most challenging about my CASA work is the children’s education and their choices as they get close to aging out of dependency. The severing of services when the kids are ‘aged out’ continues to be a major concern.”
Currently, Christie is working with a young girl with developmental delays who’s living with a foster family. Christie is not only an advocate for Sarah’s needs; she has become an important source of support for Sarah’s foster mother by helping her identify resources for the child. In addition to working directly with case children, Christie is a member of the Voices for Children Community Ambassador Program and donates many hours speaking to groups about her work as a CASA, educating potential volunteers about CASA service and the extraordinary experience of being a CASA for foster children.
Anthony’s dark brown eyes shine excitedly as he races from the slide to the climbing dome at the playground. Though still shy around people he doesn’t know well, Anthony has come a long way from the nearly nonverbal toddler he was at age two—when a school-bus driver found him roaming the neighborhood, filthy, hungry, and unsupervised.
After about six months in an emergency foster shelter, Anthony was assigned to CASA Lauren. The social worker believed that reunification was the best plan for Anthony’s case, even though it seemed Anthony’s mother always had an excuse for missing a hearing or therapy appointment, or for arriving for a supervised visit with Anthony clearly high on drugs. Meanwhile, relatives appeared and disappeared, and Anthony folded into himself, vocalizing only for uncontrollable tantrums.
After nine months of researching the case, speaking with other family, caregivers, doctors, and case-team members, Lauren recommended to the Court that there should not be reunification, and that Anthony be found a family who would love him enough to see him through his emotional disarray. Her well-researched and impassioned presentation convinced the judge and the social worker. Lauren’s dream for Anthony came true several months later, and now Anthony is just weeks away from a finalized adoption and his new life with a loving “forever” family.
Sophia was only months old when she was placed in foster care due to extreme parental neglect. She was immediately matched with CASA Michelle, who frequently visited Sophia to make sure she was reaching developmental milestones. CASA Michelle also kept apprised of Sophia’s parents’ progress toward reunification, eventually recommending to the Court that parental rights be terminated. The Court agreed. Now—many months and court hearings later—Sophia has been adopted by a wonderful family, who will give the little girl the loving childhood she deserves.