Marine veteran advocates for foster youth as a CASA volunteer
Marine veteran Jose Contreras has been a Court Appointed Special Advocate, or CASA, volunteer for five years.
Over that time he has helped five youth in foster care. That includes making sure their needs are being met and preparing written reports about how the children are doing to help the judges in their cases make decisions about family reunification.
But Contreras said it's also about being a caring adult in a vulnerable child's life.
“Sometimes it’s just going out and getting something to eat and talking and that’s enough. They appreciate that time,” Contreras said.
Contreras said he's gotten more out of being a CASA than he's put into it.
“I didn’t really plan on being so much a role model, but really that’s what you end up being because you are the one person that’s there one on one with them regularly and they do start to look up to you,” Contreras said.
There are currently around 2,200 children in foster care in San Diego County. According to the San Diego nonprofit Voices for Children, which trains volunteers to become CASAs, fewer than half of those children — 822 — have CASAs. The organization said foster children with CASA volunteers are half as likely as their peers without CASAs to reenter the child welfare system.
Voices for Children CEO, Jessica Muñoz, said when children are removed from their families, it can be a really scary time.
“From the child’s perspective, the CASA becomes a caring, consistent adult presence because of that unique relationship that they build," Muñoz said. "CASAs are also able to let judges, social workers and other really important decision makers know if the child has any unmet needs,”
Because CASAs are volunteers, they are able to focus on one child or one sibling group at a time which is different than the attorneys, social workers, judges and others in the system.
"A lot of our professional partners in child welfare are trying to meet the needs of lots of families at once and so having a CASA volunteer assigned to a child gives that child and that family a person who’s really focused on them and what they need,” Muñoz said.
Contreras said he is still in contact with the child he advocated for when he first became a CASA.
“The child that I had in the first case, we started off at 10-years-old when I first met him and he just had his 15th birthday and his mom invited me to his 15th birthday and it’s great to be able to watch him grow up,” Contreras said.
The best case scenario for a CASA helping a foster child is to reunite them with their family.
Muñoz said the organization is always looking for more male CASA volunteers.
“CASA Jose is really a shining example of that consistency and dedication and it’s also really special because he’s a gentleman and we always need more CASAs who are men,” Muñoz said. “We have a lot of boys that we serve who would really love to have a male role model in their life.”
CASA volunteers are asked to make at least an 18-month commitment and dedicate between 10-to-15 hours a month to their assigned case. To learn more about becoming a CASA volunteer, visit speakupnow.org.
Voices for Children is a broadcast sponsor of KPBS.