Kicking off a new school year is both exciting and stressful for new students and families who are purchasing classroom supplies, preparing for challenging lessons and making new friends.
For foster students, those challenges can often prove to be even more difficult without the consistent and stable support of a family. In an effort to address those gaps, Court Appointed Special Advocates of Los Angeles (CASA LA) are working to improve the lives of children in the dependency system by ensuring all psychological, educational, family, social and basic service needs are met.
CASA LA reports that there are approximately 28,000 children in the city’s foster system that have been abused or neglected. In 2015, CASA LA will pair trained volunteer advocates with 6,000 of the youths who are either in group homes, foster homes or staying with relatives.
“The CASA special advocates hold educational rights for the children because parents are often no longer in the picture, and they need to make sure that everything to address the child’s educational needs is in place,” said Linda Jones, senior program coordinator at CASA LA.
The special advocates stay with their assigned student for one to two years to ensure their educational and emotional needs are being met. The organization helps set goals for each of the students to lay out a game plan for their future. Once the child is permanently placed in a home or with a family, the special advocates will oversee that those needs continue to be met.
Many of the students in the CASA program are in special education classes because they experience have educational or emotional difficulties, are mentally challenged or experience PTSD from traumatic experience. In fact, when compared with other at-risk student groups, California foster children change schools more frequently, are twice as likely to be classified as having a disability and are five times more likely to be classified as having an emotional issue, according to a 2013 study from The Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning.
“Traumatic experience results in academic issues. How can you go to school to get educated when you are wondering when you will get to go back to your home or when you will see your family? The transition is very hard,” Jones said.
When foster children are forced to frequently move schools due to home relocation, they often lost six months worth of education, according to Jones, who recently worked with a 17 year old who is reading at a second grade level due to constant relocation. In this case, special advocates work with those students to at least bring their literacy to a level that allows them to fill out a job application.
Because foster children have to transfer so often, credits are sometimes lost in the transition, causing students to repeat classes that they have already taken. In fact, this year special advocates helped sort out multiple cases of missing credits for their students, which would have otherwise prevented them from graduating.
Rory Hutton, who lives in Park La Brea, has been a CASA volunteer for five years and found that most schools are good in providing special help for students when she approaches them with the individualized education program.
“Very often this work is about staying on top of the situation, asking the children if they are enjoying school and if they like their teachers – really just getting their feedback,” Hutton said. “We try to help the children become a little better rounded by providing an opportunity for extra-curricular and enrichment activities. We always tell our volunteers, ‘what you do for a child, no one else will’.”
Hutton said CASA LA trains special advocates thoroughly and gives them in-services, helping them every step of the way. She has found teenagers to be the most challenging to work with, but also finds them the most rewarding. Even after the students complete high school, CASA has programs that help with their transportation and housing from age 18 to 21 if they show enthusiasm for going to college or getting a job.
“Our group has made real inroads with these kids and helped them gain enough self worth to believe in themselves. We have seen some of them graduate from college,” Hutton said.
This summer, 49 people graduated from their training into certified court appointed special advocates. In trying to create resources for the 28,000 foster children in Los Angeles, CASA LA is always in need of volunteers. For information, visit www.casala.org.