Making a difference, one child at a time.

Linda Satchwell
Staff Writer

    “To give a child a CASA is to give them a voice. To give them a voice is to give them hope. And to give them hope is to give them the world.” Pamela Butler, former foster youth

    Child Appointed Special Advocate was formed in 1976, by a Seattle judge who was bothered by the fact he was making decisions with insufficient information about the lives of abused and neglected children. Those children were removed from their parents, placed in foster homes and made wards of the court.     His program used trained community volunteers to speak for the best interests of the children in court, thereby helping to see that they would live in safe and loving home environments.
    The program was so successful that it spread across the nation. Today, there are more than 70,000 CASA volunteers for more than 240,000 of the approximately 780,000 children in foster care.
    Plumas CASA was formed in November 2001, at the initiative of Judge Garrett Olney.
    Judge Kaufman, who currently hears all juvenile cases, supported the development of Plumas CASA by working behind the scenes through his contacts with the state Legislature. He continues to advocate for the program and believes it is essential to the best determination of a child’s future.
    Plumas CASA’s goal is to have enough trained volunteers to serve all of Plumas County’s foster children. That vision requires volunteers from across the county and, ideally, across the socio-economic spectrum.
    Program Manager Ann Krinsky and Volunteer Coordinator Joelle Breazier staff the program.
    Its mission statement makes clear the importance and parameters of the program: “To provide trained volunteers who shall give the child they serve a voice in the Court proceedings affecting their current and future circumstances, and who will advocate for stable, safe placements; mental and emotional health; appropriate educational services; and healthy family connections.”
    The children in foster care have been removed from their homes because of child abuse, abandonment or neglect. Sixty percent of Plumas County children who are removed from their homes, according to 2007-2008 statistics, are removed because of neglect, which is usually related to the parents’ drug abuse or mental illness.     Children in foster care are often separated from their brothers and sisters, have to change schools and frequently have academic and behavior problems at school.
    CASA volunteers act as advocates and supporters of their assigned children in a variety of ways.
    First, the CASA volunteer establishes a relationship with the child by meeting with him regularly and often. The volunteer meets with the child’s other support services: social workers, teachers, childcare providers and Child Protective Services workers.
    Then, the volunteer interviews everyone who plays a role in and affects that child’s life, including teachers, child care providers, foster parents, parents, extended family members and any other significant individuals.
    When meeting with her appointed child, the CASA volunteer tries to get a sense of how the child views the people in her life. The volunteer tries to ascertain what the child wants and presents that information to the judge whether or not she agrees with the child’s desires. In short, she gives her child a voice.
    The CASA volunteer also attends meetings about the child and participates in case planning as a member of the treatment team. Based on factual information, observations and extensive notes, the volunteer writes her recommendations to the court about what she believes is in the child’s best interest.
    Those recommendations are submitted to the judge, CPS and the parents’ and child’s attorneys in a written report. Judge Kaufman has said he relies very heavily on these reports in his decisions regarding a child’s welfare.
    He said his job is, first, to work with parents towards reunification. When a child is removed from his home, parents are given clear instructions on what steps they have to take to get their child back.
    According to Kaufman, “If we could stop the meth problem, (a large portion of) foster cases wouldn’t exist.”
    In many cases parents are required to keep a “clean home” and test “clean” he said. As they fulfill these requirements, they’re allowed more visits with their children.
    As Kaufman makes his judgment regarding a child’s welfare, he relies heavily on the CASA report, which offers specific recommendations on a more personal level than do reports from other social services and attorneys.
    Kaufman said he’s very interested in what the child wants for herself. Further, attorneys and Social Services know he relies heavily on CASA reports. CASA has a great reputation now, and its reports are taken very seriously Kaufman added.
    During his career as an attorney and a judge, Kaufman has sent people to prison for life and he’s worked on death penalty cases, but “the hardest thing I’ve ever done is taking a child away from his parents.”
     He explained that because he has CASA’s detailed reports, as well as those from the other support services, he knows the parents have received a myriad of services, resources and recommendations.
    Only when he knows parents have been given every chance and they’ve still failed, does Kaufman have the necessary “comfort level” to say the thing he hates the most to a parent, “You lose your child.”
    Program Manager Ann Krinsky is lauded by everyone from the volunteers to Judge Kaufman as the force that is making CASA work so well in this county.
    Krinsky has been on the firing line — she worked for Child Protective Services in Oakland for eight years, and she worked in Plumas County for a foster family and adoptions agency for another 12 years. She brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to bear in guiding CASA volunteers.
    Krinsky said she has an unusually skilled and committed group of volunteers. Most of them are what she calls “youthful retirees.” Still young, energetic, well educated —they’re just the kind of folks that make excellent CASAs. They love to learn she said.
    Five volunteers just drove to Sacramento for an all-day training. Krinsky would like to have more diversity, ethnically and socio-economically. Also, she’d like to see CASAs in all areas of the county, and she needs more of them. Currently, she has 26 volunteers to advocate for 29 children.
    The county has seen an alarming increase in children entering the system lately. In the past six weeks, Krinsky said 15 children have come in —bringing the total for the county to 85 children, from an average of 60-65. Her goal is to have a CASA volunteer for every child.
    CASA gets referrals from “everyone” said Krinsky: foster parents, CPS and teachers to name a few. She lets the judge and CPS know when a new class has graduated and they give referrals to the neediest cases.
    She will already have forms from volunteers that tell her their preferences and what they think they can’t handle. She uses those in deciding what might be a good fit between child and volunteer.
    Next, she’ll be allowed access by the judge to the two most recent court reports on that child. After reading the file, if the volunteer is agreeable, he’ll get the child’s complete file, and together Krinsky and the volunteer will develop a plan.
    Krinsky has been at this long enough to be realist. There aren’t lots of easy, happy endings she said. But with a CASA volunteer, each child knows there’s someone who is concerned about him.
    Because volunteers are much higher functioning adults than the child has experienced at home, they offer stability and a possibility of trust that may have been lacking in that child’s life.
    Volunteers Charlie and Suzanne Plopper are a case in point. They have been CASA volunteers for the past two years. They’d recently retired and moved to Quincy. “For once in our lives, we had time to do something we wanted to do,” said Suzanne. “We were attracted to what we’d heard about CASA.”
    Charlie said, “I grew up in California and the U.C. system provided me with a great education for practically free back then. I felt at some point I had to give something back.”     He said drugs seemed like the biggest problem in this country. He feels the real “fall out” from this is the children whose parents are addicts.
    “If you can help one child along,” he said, “I figure that’s good enough.” Charlie has already exceeded his own expectations; he is currently in the second year of helping his second child through the system.
    Like many of Plumas County’s CASA volunteers, the Ploppers come to their volunteer work with a wealth of experience from which to draw.     Suzanne had a career as a consultant in reproductive health training, primarily in Africa, for 25 years. She was an international commuter during that time, training doctors, nurses and midwives in the U.S. to provide family planning services abroad.
    Charlie was a faculty member at the U.C.-Davis veterinary school.
    A CASA volunteer helps the child negotiate the system and is, said Charlie, “the only unbiased, independent person involved ... we’re just there to take care of the kids, keep track of what they’re doing.”
    Charlie and Suzanne had only good things to say about the system in Plumas County. The social workers are first rate they said, but they’re overworked and can’t possibly give a single child the individual attention she needs.
    Attorneys and Social Services workers “know the situation from the forms they have to fill out,” which are necessarily superficial in nature. It’s up to a child’s CASA volunteer to give a full living picture of that child.
    “We spend a lot more time with the kids and to the degree we can form relationships where they can trust us, then we can talk about how they feel, how things are going, what they want and don’t want. We’re in a position to share that with the court,” said Charlie.
    Charlie emphasized the importance of interviewing the people in a child’s life to get at the truth of what is going on with that child.
    He credits Krinsky’s wealth of experience as an invaluable resource. Because she’s been through so many cases, she’ll have an idea of who to talk with to find out pertinent information.
    For instance, in a recent case, she suggested that one volunteer talk to the child’s teacher. Because the schools here are so small and the teachers so dedicated and, generally, because they’ve been at the schools for such a long time, “they’ll all remember these kids,” said Charlie.
    In the case he referred to, the volunteer set up a meeting with the child’s teacher, and when she arrived, she was met with all of the child’s teachers for the past four years. They all wanted to be there said Charlie. They all wanted to talk with her.
    Both Suzanne and Charlie said they were amazed at the resilience of these children. “The kids I’ve been involved with so far are basically really good,” said Charlie. He added that he reads a case file and realizes what a child has been through, “and then you actually run across the kid, and he’s a great kid. Delightful.”
    One of the most difficult and important things, according to Charlie and Suzanne, is getting these children to trust adults. Charlie said with his child, it took him about three months to gain that trust.
    Now, though it’s expected a CASA volunteer will spend approximately an hour per visit with a child, Charlie said he’s usually with his for a couple of hours at least. “We get into something we can’t leave,” he said.
    Also, Charlie’s realized that if he asks a question and the boy “doesn’t talk, that means it’s a very difficult situation, and eventually he will let me know about it.”
    Charlie’s been amazed at his child’s acuity, and thinks it is because he’s needed skills of observation and analysis to navigate a harsh environment.
    “He analyzes everybody. I’ve just been stunned once I realized he has everything figured out ahead of time for every one of those 22 people I’ve talked to. He knows exactly how he’s going to deal with the situation.”
    Charlie said he and Suzanne listened to a program on NPR recently and, coincidentally, an attorney was talking about being raised as a foster child and having a CASA volunteer assigned to his case.
    He said his CASA volunteer told him he was smart enough to go to college and then told him how to get there. He added that, before he had a volunteer, those possibilities simply did not exist for him.
    This attorney emphasized the importance of just one person showing up to see him. Suzanne said a child can get a sense of emotional stability in his life from just one person who he know cares about him.
    Suzanne and Charlie said they have a clear sense that they are making a significant difference in their children’s lives. Said Charlie, “If you’re worried about what’s happening with these kids, and you just want to do something to help out, it’s a great thing to do.”

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