Thursday, October 30, 2008

CASA rallies for vulnerable children


More than 700 cardboard cutouts of children blanketed the grass of the Santa Barbara Courthouse Sunken Gardens yesterday afternoon, a visual representation of the number of abused or neglected children countywide.
Held by the National Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), the “Forgotten Children Campaign” rolled through Santa Barbara in an effort to raise awareness and inspire volunteerism for some of the most vulnerable members of the community.

“You don’t have to be a foster parent, we know that can be intimidating,” said Maria Long, executive director of Santa Barbara CASA. “You don’t have to be a CASA advocate.”
There are many other ways to support kids in need, she said, gesturing at dozens of organizations with tables set up at the courthouse — such as Noah’s Anchorage, Family Care Network, Angels Foster Care, and Child Abuse Listening and Mediation.
“We want people to understand more about the kids, to step forward and stand up,” said Michael Piraino, CEO of National CASA.
The need is certainly undeniable. CASA volunteers serve 156 youth locally, following them through the dependency system and advocating on their behalf. Another 136 children remain on the waiting list, Long said.
Foster care services are similarly overwhelmed. Some children are being sent to foster or group homes in Bakersfield, Fresno or Los Angeles because there aren’t enough local homes, she said.
Still, Piraino remains optimistic, stating that he believes the county will be able to meet the needs of every child in the community one day soon. However, it’s going to take the support of nonprofits, community groups and volunteers, he said.
“Government systems of child welfare, child protection, can’t do this all on their own,” he said.
Judge Jim Herman, the county’s presiding juvenile court judge, sees many of the children referenced yesterday on a daily basis — those abused, neglected or abandoned by their parents.
“A large number of the youth who come through my court end up in foster care,” he said. “They are sort of a hidden population in our community.”
He expressed hope that yesterday’s event would spur an upswell in volunteerism. His support for CASA volunteers is particularly strong; he calls them “angels” rather than advocates.
“They spend more time with the child than anybody,” Judge Herman said, describing how they find out about medical needs, hobbies, dreams and much more. “They bring me the whole child.”
As a result, he said it’s easier for him to make decisions about visitation rights, supervision or whether children should be returned to their biological parents.
Ultimately, he wants to see the campaign spark a greater understanding of the foster care and dependency system as well as an increase in CASA volunteers and foster parents.
Long first encountered the Forgotten Children Campaign during a trip to the nation’s capital in June, where thousands of cutouts had been set up near the Washington Monument in what turned out to be the inaugural display that is now working its way around the country.
She joined hundreds of other CASA representatives and carried a cardboard cutout on Capitol Hill, speaking with the nation’s leaders and asking for their support.
“That really touched me and I started thinking, how can I bring this here?” Long said.
A few months later, she watched as dozens gathered up cutouts at De la Guerra Plaza before setting off down State Street on a march to the courthouse.

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