By Alexandra Fradelizio and Priscilla Rodriguez | m/Oppenheim Media Writers
One of the toughest challenges that a child in the foster care system must face is inconsistency: inconsistency in their schools; inconsistency in their homes; and the inconsistency of the people in their lives.
“A child in foster care could have up to seven different homes, seven different social workers, and attend more than nine schools before they are adopted or age out of the system,” says Renee Espinoza, Executive Director of the San Francisco Court Appointed Special Advocates (San Francisco CASA).
“The only thing that is consistent is inconsistency in their lives,” she says.
To help solve that problem, the nonprofit San Francisco CASA connects children in foster care with volunteers in the San Francisco community, who will serve as their advocates and stand by their side in the long process of navigating the foster care system.
Because the foster care system poses unfamiliar terrains for every child, volunteers are immersed into the lives of their assigned youth in order to understand and identify their needs. They learn about their lives through one-on-one meetings and connect with the entire network of professionals assigned to that child, including attorneys, social workers, educators and so on.
“It can be very overwhelming and traumatic for a child,” says Espinoza, explaining that the volunteer will become that constant in the child’s life, who will champion for their rights.
For many of these children, the factor of constant change in their lives compounded by the traumatic experience of being pulled away from a dysfunctional home can lead them to wane in their self-confidence or spiral in their trust in others. Because San Francisco CASA hopes to change that reality, it is important that volunteers commit to the program for at least 18 months.
It is only after 40 hours of training, a background check, an application, and an interview that volunteers are sworn in by the court and assigned to their young person, with whom they will spend time with over the next 18 months, or until the child is out of the system.
Espinoza explains that the last thing the organization wants is for a new adult to step into a child’s life, then disappear.
Since its establishment by the court in 1991, San Francisco CASA has trained over 2,700 adults to become advocates for foster children, reaching approximately 300 children per year, or one-third of San Francisco’s foster care youth.
Espinoza says the organization hopes to expand its reach to help more than 400 children every year, but for now, San Francisco CASA must overcome logistical barriers that pose challenges for both the volunteers and youth.
One of those barriers is the placement of children in foster homes that are far beyond the borders of San Francisco county. The result is that SF-based volunteers might end up with a two-hour commute to meet with their young person in areas like Alameda, Contra Costa, or Stanislaus County. This also poses complications for the child whose social worker, attorney, and even court hearings continue to be stationed in San Francisco.
Nevertheless, Espinoza says the reward of helping a child in need speaks for itself.
“When you’re working with someone so closely and you’re building trust with them and working with other providers to support them, you begin to understand what your needs are and what your young person’s need are,” she says.
“You begin to understand what really is important in life, and the power that an advocate has could really make a difference and create change in a young person.”
Over the next few years, San Francisco CASA will continue to encourage community members to stand up for the hundreds of children that end up in the foster care system every year, and in the meantime, the organization is also working toward measuring the impact of its volunteers on the lives of foster children.
“We know the stats on these youth, and we want to interrupt those and measure our impact,” says Espinoza.
“We want to know what it means to have a consistent caring adult by your side, someone who is advocating for you, holding the narrative for you, and someone that can help you begin to feel the community of support.”