Mentoring & Advocacy: CASA Is Changing Lives One Child At A Time

Today I'm talking with Regan Phillips. She's the Chief Executive Officer for CASA OC in Orange County, California. In case you're not familiar with it, CASA is a national organization. It stands for Court Appointed Special Advocate. CASA volunteers work with children who through no fault of their own ended up in the foster care system. 

Regan first became involved with CASA in 2001 when she signed up for a one year internship in New York City. At that time, she was pursuing a masters degree in social work at Columbia University.

​​​​​​She went on to receive her juris doctorate degree from Chapman University in 2005 during which time she worked as an investigator for a law office that represented dependent youth. Upon passing the California State Bar, Regan worked as an attorney specializing in dependency and personal injury.

Since 2009, she has served on the governing board of CASA OC.  Then in 2015, Regan joined the nonprofit as Chief Program Officer. In 2017 she became CEO.

This is an organization that I became familiar with over the last two years as a new member of the community. Several friends recommended it as a volunteer opportunity I should get involved in and last year I was sworn in as an official Court Appointed Special Advocate.

 

N: Regan, thank you so much for joining me today. As head of the organization in Orange County, can you tell us more about CASA?
 
R: Our mission in Orange County is that we will provide a powerful voice for children in the child welfare system through an one-on-one relationship with trained and supervised community volunteers who become sworn in as officers of the court. Essentially these volunteers are working with the youth and the system to ensure the children are safe, that they find permanency in their life whether that's reunification with their family or another family, and that they are having an opportunity to thrive in life and do well in school and have opportunities for extracurricular activities. We provide someone who will connect, provide consistency and a listening ear for these youth who are often at risk for not having anyone in their life to do those very things for them.

N: How does a child enter into this court system and get involved with CASA?

R: CASA is a national organization. There are just under a thousand of our individual and unique organizations throughout the country. In Orange County, we are run almost entirely privately so we are a codified part of the court process meaning that the law has been written to incude us in all of these proceedings and to rely on these CASA volunteers but not every youth in the system will have the opportunity to get a CASA volunteer.

These youth enter the system as a result of abuse, neglect, or abandonment that is happening in their homes. Social Services has become involved and has made a decision to remove a child from those circumstances for their safety. There's a lengthy court procedure and detailed process that they go through to determine whether or not reunification with their family of origin is safe and appropriate and whether or not they're able to participate in a case plan that will enable them to be reunified. At the same time, we're also looking at what other options might exist if that's not possible.

There are 3100 youth in foster care in Orange County. Those numbers vary from county to county, state to state. We serve a fraction of those youth. We're serving over 700 youth on an annual basis and the referrals are made by judges, attorneys, social workers and sometimes the youth themselves will request a CASA volunteer. These are typically the most at-risk youth. These are kids who really need someone in their life who will be an extra set of eyes and ears and an advocate for their needs and someone who will be there for them in a mentor capacity. We still have 240 youth on our wait list so we're not able to serve every youth that's being referred to us. We'd like to see that wait list disappear.

N: If you had more volunteers, you could serve those kids?

R: Absolutely! Our mission is a one-on-one relationship. Not every organization uses that model. Some organizations will use one volunteer to serve siblings. Our organization has made an intentional decision to create a one-on-one relationship with very limited exceptions. We require safe, appropriately trained, willing and able volunteers in order to meet that need.

N: Tell us some of the success stories.

R: I can tell you one of the reasons I value this organization and the impact these volunteers make is because I've been a part of the interior workings of our dependency system and I've looked at things from a different angle. I'm an attorney and worked in Orange County representing youth in foster care.

I relied on our advocates in the court room substantially for that unique insight and information they could provide. These volunteers know the youth in a way that nobody else attached to their case does. They're involved with these youth in a way that the professionals aren't. As an attorney representing foster youth, I had hundreds of kids on my case load. There was no way I could know every single kid. I didn't even meet every single one of my clients. It's an overwhelming concept to have to advocate for someone's wellbeing when you know quite little about them.

CASA volunteers really humanize the process and provide information that others don't have. When you think about a judge raising a child in this bureaucratic system and social workers having monthly contact, attorneys having six month or slightly more frequent contact, CASA volunteers have the opportunity to change the trajectory of success for these kids and I know these cases get more attention because of the unique information and insight.

When we talk about success for youth in foster care, there's really no one-size-fits-all formula for what success should look like. We've had some wonderful circumstances where volunteers have been responsible for helping to identify family that was either unaware of the circumstances that their children were involved with in the dependency system as a foster youth ~ extended family or even more immediate family who were under the impression that the child had been successfully adopted and they weren't capable at that point in time of parenting them and that adoption for one reason or another failed. Adoptions out of the foster care system fail almost 50% of the time. We've seen reunification efforts made to identify family members all over the country.

We have a unique program called Family Connections where we have volunteers that work solely to identify these types of individuals ~ family members who may not have been aware of the circumstances or may be available to provide some sort of connection to them whether that's emotional, being someone who will call on their birthdays and invite them for holiday meals verses someone who is able to take them into their home and actually provide that sense of permanency and belonging in their life. We have a very high success rate, nearly 100%, in finding at a minimum emotional connections for each youth in that program. We use some vehicles that are not available to social services and even social media has been a successful vehicle for identifying family members. 

Most recently we identified a family member for a youth through Ancestry.com which is a new tool we're using. This is a kid who's been in the system for nearly his whole life. He's approaching emancipation. No family has been able to successfully take him in or commit to him long-term. We've now identified someone on the East Coast. They've begun communicating. They're very interested in meeting and we will start facilitating those visits and try to find a place for him to live once emancipation occurs so he's not left alone without any support.

N: Is this a volunteer opportunity for some people to go in to this group and work toward finding relatives for some of these kids?

R: Yes, it's a really great volunteer opportunity. Often times we'll have an advocate who has worked on a case for several years and their kid's case is closed and they need to take a break because the work itself can be very involved and emotionally draining and difficult but they don't want to distance themselves from the organization entirely. They're still passionate about what we're doing~making a difference~ so they will become a volunteer with this program Family Connections and take a case where they're doing behind the scenes investigative work to try to identify some contacts and folks in this child's life. It's a unique way to stay involved and really make a difference because so many of these kids have been in the system when reunification has failed, other placement options have failed. 

There's been recent legislation in our state that has effectively removed group homes as a viable options for a lot of youth in the foster care system and this happened without there being a growth in foster homes so we have a housing crisis for permanent placement of foster youth. These types of services are even more useful and important now.

N: Talk to me about the number of foster care kids that successfully complete high school with a CASA volunteer by their side encouraging them as opposed to kids who never get that kind of support.

R: This is another area where a lot of success is made with the help of a volunteer. Statistics and outcomes for foster youth are bleak in general. Eighty percent of our adult criminal justice system have spent some portion of their life in foster care. High school graduation rates are bleak as well for the general population of foster youth in our country. 

Our volunteers really do a lot in terms of helping to identify educational needs and deficiencies. We work closely with the Department of Education and a subgroup called Foster Youth Services locally in our jurisdiction that tries to pay special attention to these kids. We're talking about kids who have experienced the trauma of removal from their home and frequently they're moving sometimes 4, 6, or 10 times in one single year. 

I just recently learned about a youth with a chance for a permanent foster family placement. Because this particular child had moved six different school districts already that academic year, the CASA volunteer halted the process saying "I understand we have a great placement for this youth and that's fantastic but this kid needs to finish the school year at his current school because he cannot move schools yet again this year. We're doing him a disservice."

These CASA volunteers have a wholistic understanding of the youth's needs. They can make recommendations in the face of other professionals who are trying to check a box to do their work and make sure they have placements handled and all the needs met. CASA volunteers are striving to address the child's needs.


These volunteers really have an opportunity to get involved and spend more of that one-on-one time with them teaching them, helping them understand certain life skills, outsourcing that and identifying different resources for them to utilize that would help them prepare for an independent life and really just being there for them. 

I can tell you a wonderful story about a volunteer we have. Our volunteers are community members who are over 21, clear a background check, have an open heart and an open mind. These are not professionals. They don't come with a background in the law or in psychology. We give them all of that through our training and ongoing support without case supervisory staff. However, we try to be intentional and thoughtful in matching youth when there is some interest that an advocate shares or a skill set that might be beneficial to that youth given their circumstances.

We have several youth that have hearing disabilities and utilize sign language and we had a volunteer that grew up with a deaf brother so she speaks sign language. We were able to make a nice match for her with a couple of youth over the years.

One youth was struggling in school. There were frequent reports from social services detailing the fact that this youth does not engage in the classroom and was checked out, not participating, not doing well. They were looking at it singularly. Through getting to know this youth and talking with him, she taught him sign language to communicate. She expanded his vocabulary. She participated in his individual educational plan through the school and advocated for him to be in a special learning environment with a teacher using sign language so he could engage.

No one had taken the time to understand what was happening with him. He needed an outlet for communication and she provided that for him. Now he's on a Special Olympics basketball team. He attends school and is doing well. He has a life that would not have existed but for her involvement, her patience, her willingness to engage with him and try to identify the root of the problem. This kid had been told to stay in the back room and don't go anywhere because we don't know what's going to happen if you get off the premises.

N: This is an amazing story!

R: Sadly, this isn't unusual. It's a wonderful outcome. Outcomes look different for every kid and success varies depending on what the needs of the youth are. We see a lot of opportunity for growth and transformation as a result of having one person in these children's lives who care about them, who are willing to spend that time and get to know them for who they are, and have a genuine interest in seeing them develop and grow. It's a remarkable program. It's the one thing I have seen continually make a difference in this well intended but broken bureaucratic process that we call foster care.

N: It's so unique because if you're a mom and you're an empty nester and you have extra time to spend and enjoy that nurturing of a child, this is a great organization for you. It also lets you interact with the court, the judge, and through the CASA supervisor helping to communicate what that child really needs. You're not just mentoring that child. You're doing two very different things with different skill sets. Being a great mentor and listening well is one piece of it. There's so much more. Can you share what a volunteer starts out doing and how the process works?

R: It's a unique and special volunteer opportunity in general because it includes both areas ~ the mentorship with the ability to connect and interact with the youth as well as the advocacy piece and feeling like you're able to really make a difference inside and outside the courtroom. You have a lot of advocacy with professionals who are overseeing this particular youth outside the courtroom too.

We recruit volunteers ~ people with open hearts and open minds who approach this to make a difference for a child. We provide an information session and direct them to our website. Once they go to an informational session and sign up they learn more about the process.

Our introductory process is a little daunting. We require 30 hours of training up front for volunteers. It sounds like a lot but everyone who has gone through this has said they have gotten a lot out of it. It's thorough and comprehensive. It's aimed at introducing people to our system and to the youth we're working with and helping to pay attention to things like cultural sensitivity and advocacy and understanding families and the dynamics behing why some families may need this type of assistance and the children's educational issues as well as their mental health issues.

We require referrals/references and we have an interview process and a background check. Upon completion of that process, our volunteers get sworn in by a judge. We have a swear-in ceremony that we do in Orange County on-site in our training room. That grants them the power and privilege of participating in these proceedings and reading about the youth who are affected by and a part of the system to try to find a good match for them. It grants them authority to communicate with the teachers, caregivers, therapists, social workers, attorneys, anyone who has any kind of touch with this particular youth and the system. It can be confusing for someone who doesn't have familiarity with foster care. We have a staff member who's assigned to each volunteer as a coach and supervisor to help translate any issues that come their way and support by attending meetings with them. Having an adult voice stand up for a youth with the support of our staff can be a powerful advocacy tool for these youth.

We ask for a two year commitment from our volunteers to provide consistency for the child. A lot of our volunteers go on to have life long connections and relationships with these kids. I have a volunteer who's been with us for 15 years. He's about 70. He was asked to be the best man in his youth's wedding.

N:  How many hours is the typical volunteer signing up for as a commitment each month?

R: Thirty hours of initial training plus being sworn-in. A court case twice a year. Then spend time with the youth twice a month about 4 hours per outing plus phone calls. It's about 8-10 hours a month. We have a lot of empty nesters but we have a wide variety of volunteers at different ages and stages of life. Most say this is pretty manageable.

It's amazing for someone to take the time to get to know a child who has been so marginalized. They've been dealt this crummy card in life through no fault of their own. It's an impressive gesture of giving back.

Contact Information: www.casaoc.org for Orange County, Ca or www.casaforchildren.org for national information.

 

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"We're like Big Brothers & Big Sisters but with bite." ~ Regan Phillips on Design Your Second Half, the podcast
Wishing you a lifestyle you love,

 ~ Nancy
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