I want to be clear up front that this is not a typical article.  I have had as a policy to only provide product development process related content to my SVPG readers, and this is the first time in the 5 years I’ve been writing these articles that I’ve strayed from that.  So I completely understand if you do not wish to read further.  However, I’m hoping that people will give me a one-time pass on this one because it really is for a good cause, I don’t gain anything personally, and I promise I’m not asking anyone to contribute money.

For over 8 years now I have been a Court-Appointed Special Advocate (aka “Child Advocate”).  Essentially this is a program to serve as a form of mentor for a youth in the foster care system.  It’s a pretty amazing program in that it has a remarkably high rate of breaking the cycle of homelessness, incarceration, teen pregnancy, welfare and/or substance abuse that so often is the destiny of kids caught in the system.

The reason for this note is that I was giving a talk the other day to a group of product people invited from this newsletter, and it hit me that these people would be ideal role-models for these kids.  So in the hope that some of you may be looking for a way to contribute personally in a meaningful way, but that can also fit with your busy professional schedule, I wanted to describe this program.

A while ago I wrote up the following description of the child advocate program because I couldn’t find a good summary anywhere else.  It is intended to address the following questions:

  • What is a Child Advocate?
  • Does the program really make a difference?
  • What kind of person makes a good advocate?
  • What kind of time commitment is asked of me?
  • What are my responsibilities?
  • What about the kids – what are their circumstances and what ages?
  • Do I get to choose which child I can be an advocate for?
  • What types of issues can I expect to encounter?
  • Who supports me if I need help?
  • What is the training process?

The Child Dependency System

There are over half a million children in the US foster-care system, and are considered “dependents of the court.”  There are many reasons that a child enters the system.  There was probably child abuse or neglect involved, or one or both of his parents may have drug dependency problems and they’re either in treatment or incarcerated, or there may simply be no family members that are willing or able to care for the child.  For whatever reason, when these kids enter “the system” they become the responsibility of the Juvenile Dependency Court.  Note that this is completely separate from Juvenile Delinquency Court, which is where juvenile criminal issues are dealt with.

The child is assigned a social worker that manages the child’s case, in terms of investigating the circumstances behind the child’s removal, and finding a place for the child to live (maybe a group home, or a foster home, or a residential facility). Unfortunately, the social worker typically has a very large caseload, and it can be difficult for the social worker to stay on top of all the many details of the child’s life – school, friends, homework help, braces, health care, therapy, etc – in addition to investigating the situation with the immediate and extended family members, so that the social worker can decide whether to recommend that the child be returned to the parents, or moved to the home of another family member, or placed into a longer-term home such as a foster-family home or a group home.

The Child Advocate Program

In 1978, a Dependency Court Judge in Seattle was concerned about having to make critical decisions regarding the children under his protection without enough information as to the best interests of the child, so he conceived of the idea of having trained volunteers from the community assigned a single child to work with and provide detailed information and recommendations to the court.  The volunteer would essentially be an agent of the court to watch out for the best interests of the child.  That was the start of the “Court-Appointed Special Advocate” (CASA) program, nicknamed Child Advocates.

Today there are nearly 1000 CASA programs in communities nationwide, serving nearly 300,000 kids. The goal is to have an advocate representing every child in the system.

There are few programs in our country that have demonstrated the level of success that the child advocate program delivers.  Simply put, the kids with an advocate do better across the board.  They finish high school at a higher rate. They go to college at a higher rate.  They are much more likely to stay out of the criminal system.  They are less likely to end up homeless once they come of age. They are less likely to end up as a teen parent.  And they are much less likely to go on to have children that enter the system.

The Advocate

The reason for the success is that kids with an advocate have an adult that is there to support them and represent their interests – in court to the judge, at school to their teachers, at home to their foster parents or group home staff, and in the system in general to the social workers.

For court hearings, the advocate writes up a short report that lists the issues facing the child and what the advocate’s recommendations are.  The judge knows that in all likelihood, of the various sources of information that is presented to the judge (from social workers, lawyers, therapists and others) it is the child advocate that is focused exclusively on the interests of that one child, and consistently spends quality time with the child.  It is for these reasons that the court values the advocate’s recommendations so highly.

The child advocate works with the social worker, attorney, therapist, teachers, foster-parents or staff, and family members to understand the child’s needs and pursue the child’s interests.

Generally, the advocate spends 2-3 hours each week either with the child or working on behalf of the child, although this depends on the age of the child, the child’s needs, and the advocate’s availability.  Because one of the primary benefits of the program is the continuity the advocate provides for the child (it is all too common that in any given year a child will have multiple social workers, and live in multiple homes, and even attend multiple schools) the advocate is asked to try and represent the child for a minimum of 18 months.  But all of the advocates I know have maintained relationships with their children all the way to emancipation (when they turn 18 and are out of the system) and beyond.  I even know several advocate children that have gone on to universities with full scholarships thanks to the encouragement and assistance of their advocates.

In my experience, a good advocate is someone that genuinely enjoys time with kids, and also has the patience and persistence to deal with the system in spite of its flaws and inequities.  This is not really the role to go out and try to change the system, but rather to effectively work the system to get everything that the child is entitled to.

The Child

The children in the system range from birth to 18 years old.  Every ethnicity and socio-economic strata is represented. Some come into the system as newborns, especially if the mother has had other children removed before. Many young children are removed because of abuse or neglect, and they can be terrified from being uprooted from their mother and the life they know, no matter if that life was good or bad. Others are teenagers that find their world turned upside down when their parent ends up in jail and no family member steps up to take them in.

Some of the children were exposed to alcohol as fetuses, and suffer the consequences with learning disabilities and behavioral issues.  Others have issues with attachment and rejection, or the psychological effects of abuse.  But all of them are hungry for a relationship with a stable adult – someone that is dependable, that shows up when he says he will, that listens to them, cares, and most importantly, someone that will still be there tomorrow.

The new advocate will often be tested – these children have very likely had many well-meaning people drop into their lives, spend a few hours, and then move on to the next child.  It can take a few months of consistently showing up before the child lets himself believe that this person just might be someone he can count on.

Becoming an Advocate

There are a few requirements in order to become an advocate.  You have to be at least 21 years old, and the agency will need to check out your background through letters of reference, DMV and Police fingerprint checks.  Next will be a training class typically comprised of several evening sessions that cover topics such as the child dependency system from the legal and social worker perspectives, child abuse, domestic violence, foster-families, educational issues, and special support services.   You’ll also get to sit in and watch actual dependency court sessions.

Once you complete the training, you’ll be assigned an “Advocate Supervisor.”  This is a member of the staff of the agency that is available to help you throughout your work as an advocate.  She will help you in selecting a child, and as issues come up where you want help navigating the system she will be there with advice and additional resources.

The first thing you’ll do is come in and start reading case files.  Rather than simply assign you a child, the agency will ask you about the age, gender and background that you’re most interested in working with, and will provide you with many case files for you to read and select from. It’s an important decision and typically the most difficult one you’ll face, so you’ll want to study the files carefully, call the social workers, and ask lots of questions.

Once you’ve selected a child, you’re ready to dive in.  You’ll meet the child, meet the social worker, the attorney, the family members, the teachers – anyone that can help you gain insight into the child’s situation and help you determine what that child needs.  And most importantly, you’ll start building your relationship with the child.

There will be some days that are difficult for you, especially when your child has setbacks, such as getting suspended from school for acting out, or losing his placement at his foster home because he couldn’t get along with the family’s other children, or your child is frustrated because he can’t see his little sister when he wants to and you can see he’s worried about her.

However, you’ll also start to see the benefits of your child’s relationship with you. About the only thing he looks forward to is the time he gets to spend with you.  You provide a window into a world where people actually like school and learning, they go on to college, they get jobs that they actually enjoy doing, they can save and buy cars and a home, they read books for pleasure, they travel – most importantly they enjoy their life and look forward to their future.

This is typically in stark contrast to the world your child is in, with violence, welfare, and especially self-medication through drugs and alcohol.

Over time you’ll see the impact you’ve had on your child’s life and future. As a child advocate, by spending only a few hours a week you can dramatically impact a child’s life, and very likely the lives of their future children.

If you’re in Silicon Valley, you can find out more and sign-up at http://www.cadvocates.org/.  If you are elsewhere in the US, check out the National CASA site at http://www.nationalcasa.org/ for a directory of regional CASA organizations.

If you’ve read this far I’m grateful and if I can help you at all by answering any questions feel free to contact me.

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