By Alexandra Fradelizio | m/Oppenheim.Org Writer
In Merced County, California, nearly 700 children live within the foster care system, a figure that can increase on a weekly, if not daily, basis. For over 10 years, the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Merced County has helped over 500 youth by providing them with a trained volunteer advocate who drastically changes their lives.
“Our mission is to advocate for the best interests of abused and neglected children within the court system,” says Executive Director Cathie Lancaster.
“We base this on the belief that every child is entitled to a safe and supportive home.”
As part of the requirements implemented by California CASA and the national CASA organization, advocates in Merced County are required to complete 30 hours of classroom training and 5 hours of courtroom observation. All trained advocates are sworn officers of the court and are assigned to a case with a youth, a commitment that can last anywhere from 18 months to the remainder of the child’s life. The volunteers must meet with the child at least twice a month and are taught specific tools to address any social, behavioral, or learning gaps.
“They’re trained to see what to look for [and] what needs their child might have,” explains Lancaster of the advocates.
“There is no cookie-cutter case. All the children have different needs and wants. …You never know what your child may or may not need.”
During their time together, the advocates engage in age-appropriate activities with their children, which can often include reading, cooking, or attending sporting events. These outings are designed to bring a sense of normalcy to a foster child’s chaotic and unsettled life.
“Their social workers may change, their foster place may change, but their advocate is their advocate,” says Lancaster.
With this added, continuous support, foster children who benefit from a CASA volunteer often lead happier and healthier lives. As a result of the program, Lancaster states that more teenagers are performing better in school, graduating high school on time, and pursuing a higher education.
“The advocates are always there,” she says.
“They make a difference in so many ways.”
A number of sponsors, including various rotary clubs and In-and-Out Burger, also reinforce the assistance given by advocates. Many of the companies and organizations provide clothing, hygiene products, and various services to foster youth and even sponsor visits to college campuses “so they can see that college doesn’t have to be a dream, it can be a reality,” says Lancaster.
Lancaster first became involved in CASA of Merced County after retiring from her job at AT&T. She initially wanted to give back as an advocate, but as she became more involved in the organization, Lancaster realized the impact CASA was having on both her life and the lives of hundreds within the foster care system.
“I like to say that when I worked for AT&T, it was to put money in someone else’s pocket, [but] here it’s to put a smile on a child’s face,” she says.
“It’s very rewarding and unlike anything I ever did at AT&T before, but it’s probably the best job I ever had.”
As CASA of Merced County celebrates its 10th year in existence, Lancaster acknowledges her staff and volunteers have much more to accomplish. While the organization’s initial goal was to assign an advocate to every foster care child living in the county by 2020, Lancaster and her team are constantly finding new ways to gather volunteers and funds to reinforce the organization’s mission. Because of the selfless dedication of volunteer advocates, foster care children not only see a positive future for themselves but also gain a “lifelong friend” in the process, explains Lancaster.
“A lot of the advocates will tell you they end up getting more out of it than they thought they would.”
“It’s heartwarming to build this relationship and help this child and make a difference in their life.”