Voices for Children

Voices for Children transforms the lives of abused children by providing them with volunteer Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs).
Location: San Diego , CA
Year founded: 1980

Description

The foster care system is made up of many committed and passionate professionals.  Unfortunately, it is also a government system that is underfunded and overwhelmed trying to help thousands of children annually. In San Diego County, social workers carry up to 25 cases at one time, attorneys can represent 150 or more children, while Judges take on the burden of up to 500 cases each year. There are simply not enough resources to give every child the attention he or she deserves and desperately needs. 

VFC’s CASA Program recruits and trains volunteers who are matched with an individual child or sibling group in foster care. Because CASAs are dedicated to a single child or sibling group, they are able to devote extra time and attention in understanding all facets of their children’s cases. Having an in-depth knowledge of a foster child’s life circumstances results in CASAs being especially qualified to make informed recommendations in their reports to Juvenile Court judges. It is these judges who make life-altering decisions concerning a child’s wellbeing and placement.

A CASA also provides an unparalleled level of support to a foster child by being a friend, mentor, and an adult they can really trust. Upon being matched with a CASA volunteer, many foster children experience elements of “normal life” for the very first time. With a CASA in their lives, these children do better in school, experience extracurricular and enrichment activities like playing a sport or going to the museum, and they even learn what it feels like to just have fun and be a kid by taking part in trips to the beach or the park.

Several key subcomponents of our CASA program have been developed to address the specific needs of foster children, going beyond their basic need for physical and emotional safety. Our specialty programs contribute to our foster children’s development, productivity, and wellbeing as they move through various life stages. The following briefly describe the activities and initiatives that support our CASA program:

* Foster Child Case Management: With the counsel and support of their VFC Advocacy Supervisors, CASAs get to know their assigned foster children, find resources to help them, and develop case plans for their time in foster care. They also write extensive reports and appear in Court to help judges understand and implement what is best for the child. 

* Case Assessment Program (CAP): CAP staff and volunteers review and triage the case files of every foster child, maintaining the CASA matching list and identifying the most urgent situations needing an advocate immediately.

* Advocate University: CASAs complete 35+ hours of training through VFC's Advocate University, offered in a combination of online and classroom presentations through evening and Saturday classes. Completion of training is celebrated by a VFC graduation ceremony in which CASAs are sworn in by a judge.

*  Volunteer Recruitment: VFC reaches out to the community to recruit CASA candidates using concerted diverse and extensive program of branding messages, collateral, social networking, and advertising. Through our volunteer recruitment efforts, VFC informs the community of the plight of abused and neglected children in San Diego County, and the need for ordinary citizens to step up to be CASAs.

* Services to Infants & Toddlers: The youngest foster children, ages newborn to five years, are the most needy and vulnerable children in the system. VFC assigns CASAs to these infants and toddlers in order to expedite “forever homes” where children can heal from the devastating impact of abuse.

* Educational Advocacy:  The trauma of abuse and the chaos of frequent moves in foster care often wreak havoc on a child's education and can set them back 4-6 months in their progress each time they change their living placement. CASAs help ensure that students receive educational services. They meet with teachers and counselors to help reduce skill gaps, obtain IEPs, track down lost credits, and avoid school failure. Education and its path to employment are crucial to the future of foster children.

* Transitional Age Youth Program: This program focuses on the needs of older foster youth, ages 16 to 21, to help prepare them for adulthood outside of the foster care system. CASAs help these young men and women with graduation requirements, college or job applications, budgeting, and other independent living skills crucial in order to avoid homelessness, unemployment and worse. 


Transitional Age Youth Program

About

Sadly,
the risks for teens leaving foster care are extreme, and the problem is
compounded by school failure, common among many foster teens. A poor
educational foundation and lack of any job experience means these youth have
little chance of obtaining work. Unemployment leads to poverty, welfare
dependence, homelessness, and even crime.


In response to these challenges, VFC developed the Transitional
Aged Youth (TAY) Program.

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What is the mission and purpose of this program?

VFC created the Transitioning Age Youth Program in
2013 to assist older foster youth, ages 16 to 21, who are making the precarious
and often difficult transition into adulthood. The TAY Program was specifically
designed to dovetail with the recent California State Law AB12.  Formally called “California’s Fostering
Connections to Success Act,” the law addresses a critical problem in our
society – foster youth who turn 18 and must abruptly leave foster placements,
no longer receiving any financial assistance or other care from the State,
including CASA support.  AB12 now extends
foster care to age 21 if the youth is in school or working, and therefore CASA
involvement can continue too. Our specially trained TAY CASAs are prepared to
assist teens in foster care with many life-skill areas including: education,
financial management, employment, housing, and general self-sufficiency.

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Program Description

Of the 5,000 boys and girls in
foster care, approximately 26% are between the ages of 16-21, which makes them
now eligible to take advantage of the benefits of Extended Foster Care through
this new California legislation, AB12. 
They come from all corners of San Diego County and represent a wide
demographic swath.

Our s TAY CASAs are important role
models for these teens and they are specially trained to assist them in
numerous life-skills areas as outlined below:

Education: Through VFC’s TAY program, CASAs learn to mentor their
case teens and help them succeed in school. CASAs often advocate to the Court
for foster youth to be able to access enrichment activities, tutors, or other
programs advantageous to their education, setting them on a path to academic
success and, in some cases, higher education. CASA volunteers offer strategies
for completing high school. They usually hold education rights for the foster
teen and attend all teacher conferences, school open houses and other education
related gatherings. They also assist their case teen in researching colleges,
universities and trade schools, and help them with applications to these
institutions. They investigate scholarship opportunities and encourage their foster
child to apply for available funding. CASAs often take their case child on
visits to different college campuses, and guide them through the
decision-making process.


Financial
Management:
VFC trains CASAs to individually
coach foster youth in many areas, including basic financial matters. This might
include instructions on how to open a bank account, budget, or plan towards a
large purchase, like a car. Often, CASAs informally teach other important life
skills like how to balance a checkbook or request special government funding.


Employment: Specially trained TAY CASAs tutor foster youth on how to
write a compelling resume, how to conduct a job search and how to complete a
job application. At a very basic level, CASAs help their case children learn
good manners and how to dress properly and adapt to different social
situations. Employment is a crucial step for avoiding homelessness, and the
CASAs teach valuable life skills for young adults entering the workforce.  CASAs instill the notion that the ability to
obtain a job and develop basic financial skills leads to economic opportunity
and prosperity.


Housing: TAY CASAs help their case teens to find safe, affordable
housing.  They assist them in filling out
rental applications; counsel them on first and last month’s rent, household
budgeting and securing a moving company. 
They also help their foster teen to secure special funding for housing.


Self
Sufficiency:
One of
the most important roles that a TAY CASA plays is to teach their case teen
nuances of self-sufficiency so that these youth can transition into adulthood
smoothly.  The common thread found in
CASAs work as they help their case teens to secure safe and affordable housing,
obtain needed education/training, and learn personal financial management, is
the goal of becoming more self-sufficient. CASAs encourage transitioning youth
to utilize free services, like Independent Living Skills (ILS) instruction
offered through the County’s Health and Human Services Agency. These skills
give foster youth important tools for self-sufficiency after “aging out” of the
system.


In addition to the focus areas
detailed above, CASAs write formal reports every six months for the Court to
keep the judge informed about the teen’s plans, needs, hopes and dreams. CASAs
also help teens navigate and access the transitional funding and services
offered by public and private agencies, all of which can prepare them for a
more successful life.


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Demonstrated Need

The Sad
Reality for Foster Youth as They Reach Adulthood . . .
Currently there are over 1,300 San Diego foster teens, many of whom have spent their entire
young lives in the complex and often dysfunctional dependency system. For these
forgottenyouth, life can be scary, turbulent and unsteady. Tragically, adoption
is rare for children over six, so few foster teens ever experience a stable,
secure, committed family. Upon aging-out of foster care, they typically are
unprepared, uneducated and have no support network to guide them into
adulthood. In many ways, this is the most damaged age group within the system,
because they have suffered repeated longstanding abuse, neglect, and
abandonment. In fact, studies show that 18- to 21-year-old youth preparing to
leave foster care are often classified as “extremely delayed” developmentally
and emotionally, exhibiting emotional behaviors equivalent to 12-year-olds.

The statistics
regarding these foster teens are severe:


  • Upon reaching the age of 21, over 50% will be
    unemployed and need public assistance;

  • By their early 20’s, 25% will become homeless,
    living on the street or in shelters;

  • Over 30% of boys in foster care will be incarcerated
    before the age of 21,

  • And, by age 24, 84% of all former foster youth
    become parents—often repeating the abusive cycle of their childhoods, and
    relinquishing their own children to be raised in the foster care system.

Education is one of the biggest challenges for many foster
children, as most move around multiple times while in the system, bouncing
between foster homes and group home placements, sometimes every few months. In
that process, they usually must transfer schools frequently as well, resulting
in skill gaps, missing credits, and worse. One study calculated that each
school change sets a foster student back by 4-6 months academically – which can
ruin a student’s grades, school participation, confidence, and ambition. Studies
show that 50% of all foster youth will not graduate high school. Only 3% will
go on to receive a college degree (of that 3%, only 15% will receive a
diploma). Youth aging out of foster care face enormous obstacles, and this is
even truer for those without a diploma. A poor educational foundation and lack
of experience means minimum-wage pay—if there is work at all.  Without
work, unemployment leads to poverty, welfare, and homelessness, and too often
to drug abuse, crime, and incarceration.  This lack of education, economic
opportunity and overall self-sufficiency presents further challenges for these
youth, but also becomes a drain on society.

CASAs – A Ray of Hope for Foster
Teens Transitioning to Adulthood

Despite the grim statistics, there
is a solution.  A VFC CASA volunteer can
have an extraordinary impact on a teen’s life. 
CASAs help their case teens learn how to cope with stress in a healthy
manner, take initiative, and learn to interact with others in social settings.  By guiding them through various skills and
services, CASAs contribute to the possibility of a successful life, while
reducing the likelihood of poverty, homelessness and dependency.



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Program Accomplishments

We know that the individualized advocacy of a CASA
volunteer has a powerful impact. Research shows that foster teens with CASAs do
better in many areas of life compared to those without. From a purely pragmatic
perspective, the relatively modest investment of a CASA (an average cost of
approximately $2,500 per year) is a turning point in a foster teen’s life that
could result in that teen staying in school, setting achievable goals, and
ultimately leading a happy and productive life. 
Underlying all of VFC’s work is our firm commitment to serve a teen now,
helping him or her avoid the more typical negative outcomes of foster
care—delinquency, crime, school failure, teen pregnancy, and a lifetime of
poverty, dependence, or even imprisonment.

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How do you measure the success of your program?

Now in its third
year of operation, VFC’s TAY program has been very successful – already serving
hundreds of foster teens with specialized advocacy. In FY2015-2016, VFC expects
that 40 new CASAs will be engaged to work on the TAY program, as well as 320+
seasoned CASAs who will gather new information and resources to do so over the
next year, and with this network of volunteers, VFC can serve approximately 550
foster youth age 16-21 years of age – reaching nearly one-half of the older
children in the system.  We will consider
our TAY program a success this fiscal year, if we are able to serve 550 foster
teens preparing for adulthood outside of foster care.


Objectives for the TAY program include:

  • Recruit, train, and match 40 new
    CASAs to serve Transitional Age Youth by June 2016;

  • Provide continuing education to 320+
    current TAY CASAs in order to familiarize them with the changes in Extended
    Foster Care and the specific benefits to 16-21-year-old foster youth;

  • Continue to review, refine and
    improve the ongoing training module specific to Transitional Age Youth and
    Extended Foster Care;

  • Continue
    to build TAY-specific relationships with VFC’s community partners in order to
    be current and proactive in regards to specific government and nonprofit
    benefits for which TAY constituents are eligible;

  • Hire an additional Advocacy
    Supervisor by April 2016 to accommodate the influx of new CASA volunteers;

  • Continue to enhance and refine TAY
    evaluation and related collection tools; 

  • Train CASAs on TAY data collection
    tools and begin collecting data;

  • Conduct written or online
    evaluations after each AB12 module is taught to measure the CASAs’
    comprehension and retention of knowledge about the subject, and conduct Survey
    Monkey anonymous evaluations at conclusion of Advocate University session;

  • Summarize evaluation findings in
    written report, and modify training as warranted.

    The methods for accomplishing these
    objectives are essentially a continuation of the successful processes and
    procedures in place for our CASA Program, which have been honed over the last
    35+ years of VFC’s service. 

    Institutional
    evaluation, assessment, and data-collection are critical to the work that VFC
    does with foster youth. By gathering and tracking quantitative data about the
    children and CASA activities, we are able to establish baselines and
    benchmarks. Then, by analyzing the data, we can measure outcomes, adjust our
    program protocols or training as needed, and plan for future programmatic
    changes so that more children may be served. 

    At least twice a
    year, CASAs collaborate with VFC Advocacy Supervisors to prepare formal,
    written reports to the Court about the status of their case teens. For youth
    aged 16 and older, the report must include updates for the Judge concerning
    whether these foster youth have a checking account, social security card, copy
    of their birth certificate, and more. Information is gathered and input into
    our database system, CASA Manager, a comprehensive database system designed
    specifically for court advocate programs like ours. The system is overseen by
    Vice President Cindy Charron (who has been at VFC for nearly 20 years); all
    program staff members use this system and are continually trained. This
    sophisticated relational database has been optimized to track everything from
    volunteer training through supervision of CASAs and child referrals through
    case assignments and status of children's welfare. CASA Manager is suitable for
    matching the needs of one client to another client, which is exactly the
    situation when we match our CASAs to the foster children we are serving. CASA
    Manager easily produces a wide variety of statistical reports, is easily
    customized, and very adaptable. 

    VFC also
    conducts regular internal evaluations based on both statistical data and
    anecdotal data from CASAs and staff working with them, about the progress of
    TAY Program participants. We measure impact in order to assess efficiency and
    effectiveness, and to make improvements where needed. We will be tracking a
    number of things about their cases, including educational accomplishments,
    housing changes, youth behaviors, court hearings, whether the judges follow
    CASA’s recommendations, caregiver/placement ratings, the numbers of services
    recommended by CASAs, and much more. 



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