Advocating for Arizona’s children in foster care: Becoming a voice for voiceless children

Summer has come to an end, and children are going back to school. It’s a time of excitement and uncertainty for kids of all ages, but for children in foster care it can be frightening and disorienting.

In most cases, foster children have been abused or neglected by their parents or guardians.

Whatever the circumstances, these children have been separated from their families and friends; sometimes even their siblings. They’ve been shuttled around, questioned, and sometimes then placed with people they don’t know, in a new and unfamiliar environment that’s often located in a new school district.

Heather Varela (submitted photo)

Through all of this, a Court Appointed Special Advocate, or CASA, could make a world of difference to them.

CASAs are vetted volunteers who are appointed by judges to watch over and advocate for the best interests of the child. CASA volunteers help ensure that children don’t get lost as they navigate an overwhelmed legal and social services system.

Once appointed, CASA volunteers will stay with a child’s case until it’s resolved or closed and the child is placed in a safe, permanent home. For many abused children, their CASA is the only constant adult presence in their lives.

According to the National CASA Association, independent research demonstrates that children who have a CASA by their side are substantially less likely to spend time in long-term foster care, and are less likely to re-enter care. Clearly, organizations like Voices for CASA Children are vital to the community. The problem? Not enough volunteers.

Inside Maricopa County, there are thousands of abused and neglected children. Of the 9,000 active cases currently recorded in the Maricopa County system, CASA volunteers are needed now more than ever.

Heather Varela of Paradise Valley was looking for ways to give back to the community, and to create a space for herself that went outside of the role of wife, mother and marketing director. She recalled hearing about the CASA program on the radio, and decided to act.

“As my kids have gotten older, my work/life balance has become far more flexible. Going to court dates, hearings and meetings is a lot easier now,” Ms. Varela explained. “As CASAs, we’re the eyes and ears of the judge. It’s our job to ensure kids have the services they need, and that they don’t fall through the cracks.”

However, that’s just the beginning. Ms. Varela’s current area of focus is advocating for the best interests of four siblings aged 14 to 3.

Through the support of Voices for CASA Children, she is able to help the kids cope better with their new situation and ease fears. Even small tasks that others might dread or take for granted become empowering acts.

“The eldest starts high school this year. He’s in a new placement situation and will be attending a predominantly white school. He was worried about being the only Latino person and about dressing differently. With gift cards from Voices for CASA Children, a nonprofit that supports the CASA program in Maricopa County, we went school shopping together to give him some control over things, and to help him fit in better,” said Ms. Varela.

“His younger sister is starting middle school. She and I did some school shopping as well, picking up some cute earrings and a new water bottle for her first day. We also reviewed her orientation materials together, so that she felt comfortable and prepared.”

Anyone can be a CASA. There’s no requirement for a special skill or background — only a passion for kids, a dedication to the duration of the case, and the ability to be the eyes and ears for the court. It’s worth the effort.

“I learn so many things from my CASA kids that help me connect better with my own kids, and from my kids that help my CASA kids too,” Ms. Varela concluded. “Everyone benefits.”

For more information on how you can become a CASA, visit voicesforcasachildren.org/casa-advocate/.

Editor’s Note: This story was submitted by CASA officials.

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