“I was watching Dr. Phil’s show about two and a half years ago,” said Linnea Brecunier, a Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) in Ventura County. “Dr. Phil and his wife are big CASA advocates.”
The Moorpark resident was recalling how she heard about the non-profit organization that recruits, screens and trains community volunteers to become the voices of children who are in the court system.
Andrea Vigil, CASA of Ventura County communications manager and volunteer shared, ““It’s a national program but the Ventura County chapter started by a group of judges, lawyers and community members in 1985.”
According to Vigil, there are about 1,000 children with ages ranging from 5 to 18 in Ventura County who are under the jurisdiction of the Juvenile Dependency Court.
Unfortunately, there are only about 200 foster families that can take these children in.
“If they’re not with foster families, they’re placed with extended families or friends or they get placed in group homes or in Casa Pacifica in Camarillo,” said Vigil.
It is not unusual for some children to be moved from one family or place, anywhere from three to five times during the first year alone, said Vigil.
As a result, connections to family and friends can be lost in the process of moving from placement to placement.
That’s when CASAs like Brecunier come into play. “I am that one constant and stable individual in one child’s life,” said the retired teacher and mother of two grown children.
Getting to know a child and earning their trust are no easy feats.
“Trust and friendship don’t come easily to these kids because they’ve seen untrustworthy adults come and go in their lives,” said Brecunier. “These kids’ hearts have been broken again and again.”
Establishing a relationship with that one child includes constant interaction, driving several miles to spend time together or taking them to activities and events that the child is interested in.
Cheryl De Bari Schaible, another CASA from Moorpark, is constantly on the lookout for community and after-school events to take her CASA child to.
“Sometimes, it’s the basic things that we normally do with our own kids that amuse them the most because they’ve never been exposed to it – like bike riding, going to the beach or walking the dog,” she said.
Vigil said, “The CASA becomes a ‘lifeline’ and friend for the child, ensuring that their needs are being met and that the judge is objectively informed about what is going on in their lives.”
De Bari Schaible, an attorney who practices educational advocacy law, has helped with transitions to new homes and new schools.
“It’s important that I’m there for those things because these kids have already been abandoned at least once in their lives,” said the mother of two.
“Sometimes it’s as simple as being there for them with a new set of school supplies on their first day at their new school,” said De Bari Schaible.
According to Vigil, there are approximately 120 active CASAs in Ventura County. Some take more than one child under their wing, as in the case of siblings.
“You go through a mix of emotions even with just one child but there’s a case manager to help you sift through them and there are continuing classes for the CASAs to give you more tools to deal with all sorts of situations and issues,” said Brecunier.
CASAs have to complete 40 hours of training and must go through background checks and interviews. “We also ask for a commitment of 12 to 18 months to see a child through the process,” said Vigil.
While women make up about two-thirds of the current crop of CASAs, Vigil insists there are no stereotypes. “It attracts people who have hearts – big hearts for at-risk kids,” she said.
De Bari Schaible said, “It’s worth your time and the kids are definitely worth it. Even after driving many miles…one smile from my little guy and my heart just melts.”
There will be an orientation for those interested in becoming a CASA, on Tuesday, May 29, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. in Camarillo.
Please contact Bernadette at 805.389.3120 or email@example.com, for more information.