A Life Of Pain And Hope — Former San Diego Foster Care Children Speak Out
January 13, 2014 1:18 p.m.
Sharon Lawrence, CEO, Voices for Children
Rosie and Candace, former foster care children, members of The Real Word
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. When you hear the phrase foster children usually also hear things like came from an abusive family, bounced around from home to home and separated from their siblings. Kids who find themselves in foster care have had tough lights to start out with and in foster care they often have a hard time establishing anything permanent in their lives so in many cases the kids grow up but never really recover. Officials with the CASA program in San Diego say their organization gives foster children something to hold onto. These appointed court advocate for volunteers represent the interests of a child in foster care and now some of those grown-up children are speaking out about the difference there cost us have made in their lives. Like to introduce my guests, Sharon Lawrence is CEO of voices for children the San Diego the group that runs the CASA program. And Sharon, welcome back to the program.
SHARON LAWRENCE: Thank you we are thrilled to be here, Maureen.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I would like to introduce Rosalina Burton and Candace [inaudible]. They are two young women who were in foster care and who were helped by the CASA program, welcome to you both.
BOTH: Thank you for having us.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Sharon you are starting a series of meetings to spread the word about the CASA program give us a basic idea of what these volunteers do.
SHARON LAWRENCE: We are looking for volunteers from San Diego who want to step up and help children who have been removed from their families because of abuse or neglect. These volunteers will go through a training program that voices for children which is free of charge. It's about 35 hours in length. We do them both on weekends and weeknights and they actually will become court officers for the juvenile court. After they go through the training they will be assigned to children by Candace and Rosie who are in the foster care system and we work with children who are newborns all the way up to age 21 and they really will become the expert on the child reporting to the judge about what is in the best interest of these children and how we can make their childhood as good as it can possibly be.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, why are CASAs needed? Children in foster care have caseworkers, right?
SHARON LAWRENCE: Right. Children in foster care have social workers and also attorneys to represent them. Unfortunately the system is overburdened with the number of kids in foster care.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How many?
SHARON LAWRENCE: Over the course of the year last year there were 5100 children in foster care but over a given date is about 3500 children in foster care. But the system is created so as the children are in foster care the social workers are very specialized. So the social worker that removes them from their biological family might be different but the social worker that puts them in their first home and is certainly different from the social worker who works on their adoptions. So they change social workers quite frankly. They can also change attorneys as well. Attorneys are in court most of the time so they don't have a lot of free time available to get to know the children. The CASAs, by contrast, work with one sibling group, one family. And they really get to know the children's and if the issues very very well.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: when it comes to being a class and working in the legal systemdo some people find the idea don't think that they will have to submit reports and it's all very official.
SHARON LAWRENCE: It is but I want everyone to understand that interested in helping the child the voices for children house. Professional staff members that are quick to coach and mentor each one of the CASA volunteers so there's someone always there to help them and guide them when they are writing the court reports and telling them what's going to be like when they go into court. We also have advocates that are at schools making sure the children are getting the special educational services they need. It might be that the advocate is in the community helping the child to get a special service that they need. So, but all along the way every CASA volunteer has a paid professional staff member from voices helping them so that they are not alone in the journey.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How many people are volunteering now in the CASA program and how many do you do need?
SHARON LAWRENCE: This year we expect to have more than 1200 volunteers working with our children and but we need many more. Ideally we would have 1700 volunteers over the course of the year working with our kids. We are in a huge growth spurt, but we have children right now that are waiting to match. So we need many many more people to step up and be an advocate for kids.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Candace, I saw something on, it was either YouTube, or Vimeo about an emotional story that use shared about your family. In an effort to tell people how important your CASA was to your and her brothers. Can you tell if a little bit about what it was like when you're first taken into foster care?
CANDACE: So I'm one of five kids. Four brothers two older, two younger. I really didn't understand what was going on right when we got taken away. Me and my youngest brother were supposed to learn how to surf that day, then we saw cops and my mother said she could no longer take care of us and she needed to be taken care of. So we got taken away and ended up being split up throughout the County of San Diego and we literally had no one. We were by ourselves. We felt alone, scared literally every emotion you could possibly feel we felt. I was lucky enough to not go more than a year without having a CASA and honestly, it's the most grateful thing I could possibly be appreciative of. They change our lives, literally change our lives make us feel like we have hope, make us feel we have a future and that this is not the end, this is just the beginning of a different path and even though our parents are in our lives we select people that care about us and that's really all about consistency and are CASA, my CASA was that for me.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: When you were first taken into a group home you were in the evening separated from your younger brother Sam Candace, you went to them, you were allowed to go to them, though, at least occasionally and help them get to sleep.
CANDACE: Yeah. I was living in one group home and we were allowed, we were finally able to live together so me and my two younger brothers we all were in different cottages but I told them the one thing I wanted to do for my little brothers was tucked them in at night and tell them it's going to be okay, I love you. We're going to go home or whatever I could say to them to just help them stop crying and go to sleep. Then I would go back to my cottage, lay back down and cry myself to sleep because I just had no idea what was going to happen. I had no idea what was in store for us in the future. It was hard, but I feel that was the best thing for me to do because my other brothers, I was like their mother. I was the closest thing. I was living in the same group home as them. So every day they would call my cottage and told them like hey, can you send Candace over? Bryce is having an issue orBo is having an issue and we need your over here really quick. So pretty much every single day that we were living together they would need me over there.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How many foster homes were you and your brother sent.
CANDACE: I lived in for foster homes and three group homes in the span of seven years. My younger brother has probably moved 10 or 11 times in the 10 years he's been in. Mostly everyone was have moved from seven different placements in the span that we were in
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You also tell the story of your CASA Genevieve. And tell us how she helped you stay together as a family.
CANDACE: She was the glue. Literally the only person that we could count on to make sure we would see each other every weekend. She spoke up for us in court and told what was necessary and needed to happen and that was us seeing each other every week. The thing about it is that social workers are always busy, attorneys are always busy, group home staff are always busy they aren't able to supervise five kids living in different placements and transportation was always an issue. So Genevieve told that this needs to happen. Not giving you an option. This needs to happen for these five kids they only have each other now. Both our parents by that point has moved out of the state so we didn't have family members in our lives we just had each other and Genevieve. So every Sunday for two hours the foster parents or group home staff had to bring us all together to one placement. And we would have a visit with each other and most of the time Genevieve would take us all out and do something fun together.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now Rosie, I want to talk about you and you grab for most of your life in foster care. For most of the time you did not have a CASA. Can you tell us about what that's like for you? Is it hard to have anything that's really, that you can count on as you move from home to home?
ROSIE: No, everything is unsure. You don't know what's going to happen. I've been told the day of the I'm moving to a new school. A new home. I don't even get to say goodbye to friends. I may enter the foster care system of seven other siblings but I didn't live with any of them. So it was a very scary situation for me. I felt alone, and as if I was important or worthy of love because every time I was moved to a different placement why wasn't I important or awesome enough to be kept or loved him. Donna came into my life when I was 12 years old and she was one who told me that I was important that I had a purpose in my family my life was worth living because before she came into my life I had moved veto, five different elementary schools, three different middle schools. When you move that much and you don't have any connection in your life, you feel like there's nothing worth keeping you here on earth. So I definitely had suicidal thoughts. Since she's come into my life that has gotten so much better and I feel as though I wouldn't be where I am only speaking on the show, but be alive and ready for the next day and happy to pursue life and all that it has to offer.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And is that because you have someone in your life that you knew was really sort of dedicated to your progress and who wasn't going to leave?
Definitely. Donna Marshall never said anything that she wasn't going to do. She never made empty promises. Up until that point I didn't know anyone like that that always made a promise and always kept their word. She was the only person for me.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you both, let me start with you Rosie, for people who are listening and who do not know about foster care tell us what are the things you miss when you are in foster care.
ROSIE: Consistency. Knowing what's going to happen next. I think that you really miss relationships at least from you since I moved around so much, it became something that I no longer wanted to do. I didn't want to get attached to people. I separated myself. I didn't allow myself to make friends or to become close with people because I knew tomorrow it could all be gone. It could all vanish. So I think I had to grow up really fast and I remember from like the age of 14 or 15, every Christmas, every birthday, every holiday I didn't ask for things that I wanted I asked for things that I needed because I knew that I was in it on my own. Or at least I felt like I was. And even though I had my CASA, she can't really be there for me financially. So I knew that once I emancipated from the foster care system I had to take care of myself. So instead of asking for the latest CD, or for the iPod I asked for pots and pans. Or for gift cards to IKEA. And that's how I, people come to my house and they say your house is so nice. It's because I literally spent five years, four or five years of my life just asking for household supplies.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Candace, what is it that you miss when you are in foster care that many people don't realize?
CANDACE: A place to call home. I would be starting to develop a relationship with the family or start to trust that I felt that I belonged. Bounce around looking living in different apartments I may live with my brother right now but that's not my home that's not where if you like my home is. I feel I guess I've gotten older you are trying to find a place called home. And I'm still searching for it and I feel like I have a lot more stuff to do before I can have my own home but just the thought of a home with a family who loves you with people who you enjoy being around especially during the holidays it's rough because where do you go for the holidays? Would you spend it with? I have my brothers but there should be more to that and that's why I would say it's just having a place to go home.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Sharon, San Diego County recently streamlined their adoption process in order to help foster kids find permanent homes. Do you think that the changes that we'll make will make the system work better for kids?
SHARON LAWRENCE: As I understand it the county is just beginning this process so they're going to do some groupsw here they have input given about how we can improve the system. And I think we're going to know more as 2014 progresses. Certainly we need more adoptive families here in San Diego and we need to better understand how the system works, the foster care system. There's a lot of frustration out there about people who are interested in adopting children but don't know why there are delays after delays I think the counties going to do whatever it can to streamline the process. I also think it's important for the general public to understand that when children are removed from their families federal law requires that we try to see if we can make the family safe again. So there is a lag time between when these children come into the system and when important decisions are made by judges as to whether or not they're going to go home or whether they can be adopted. And I think sometimes we don't explain enough about the system and educate the population, our viewers, and listeners about how things work. But hopefully the counties going to do a better job. I think there are many many professionals in foster care that are devoted to doing a better job, but there's a lot of things that we could improve as a system.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Rosie and Candace it sounds as if you are on your way to having a happy ending after coming out of foster care. Rosie, tell us a little bit about your life now and how your CASA volunteer has helped you make the transition. We know you have a lot of pots and pans.
ROSIE: Yes. Donna has given me a voice and helped me find my purpose. If it wasn't for Donna and voices for children I would have never started speaking and I realized that I really enjoy speaking. I love writing. And I love giving back. When I'm not able to speak about my experiences and how my CASA has helped me, my month or that time in my life is not as happy it really gives me joy to help someone else and being worked on is to me.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Are you working now?
ROSIE: I am working. I have a stable job at Home Depot and I've have a stable job since about 16 and that's because Donna was able to provide resources for me. She took me to get applications and really pushed me to pursue those things in my life that especially in the foster care system it can be hard to get permits and be able to work when you are living in a group home.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Candace how is your life going?
CANDACE: It's getting back on track. I'm going back to school this semester double majoring in computers and political science. Not sure what direction I want to go with it, but honestly law, or being a social worker or being a CASA, somebody to love another child just like myself just like my CASA did for me.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And most of your brothers are also headed to college aren't they
CANDACE: Actually everyone is graduated from high school and that statistically is proven to say that five siblings definitely wouldn't have been able to pursue that or achieve that but Genevieve has been the rock in this family. Has given all of us a chance to stand up and do something for ourselves instead of feeling sorry for self and saying nothing's going to get better even though that was maybe our past and it was bad luck but we can make a difference, we can change it and do so much more and she's given us the optimistic look on life that we never would've had if we didn't get a CASA like we do.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know that the CASA informational events begin next week could find a full listing on the website KPBS.org. I've been speaking with Sharon Lawrence CEO voices for children and Candace and Rosie, two young women who were helped by the CASA program. Thank you all very much.
ROSIE AND CANDACE: Thank you.
SHARON LAWRENCE: Thank you so much, Maureen.