Voices for Children connects foster kids with advocates in San Diego

San Diego nonprofit Voices for Children connects foster children with advocates to ensure the kids' needs are met.
(Courtesy)

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Voices for Children, which has been helping San Diego’s foster children for 40 years by connecting them with services they need, will hold its annual “Starry Starry Night” gala on Saturday, Oct. 3, in hopes of raising awareness of and funds for its cause.

“Essentially our mission is to transform the lives of abused and neglected children in San Diego,” said the nonprofit’s president and chief executive, Kelly Douglas.

The organization does this “by providing [the children] with a court-appointed special advocate [CASA],” she said.

The special advocates are community volunteers whom “we specially train and then, pursuant to an order of the court, match with a child in foster care when the child is removed from their home due to abuse or neglect.”

“When a child has been removed from their home,” Douglas said, “a petition is filed with the county for the court to basically become [the child’s] legal guardian. That’s when they enter foster care, and that’s when our staff steps in.”

Douglas said each new case undergoes a Voices for Children assessment process “so that the highest-needs kids get to the top of the list to be assigned one of our CASAs.”

“Our goal is to be able to assign a CASA to each child who needs one and for that CASA to be with the child for the duration of their time in foster care,” which averages 18 months, she said.

The advocates get to know the children, Douglas said, spending time with them and their caregivers, biological parents, teachers or therapists to help determine the children’s needs.

CASAs then report to juvenile court judges to advocate on the children’s behalf, as well as advocate in their schools, health care settings and elsewhere in the community “so they can get connected with the resources they need,” Douglas said.

In 2019, Douglas said, VFC served more than 3,000 children, out of 3,790 in the foster care system, with about 1,100 CASAs.

CASAs must complete 35 hours of training before they are sworn in by the court and matched with a child, Douglas said. They are asked to commit to 18 months with VFC, putting in 10 to 15 hours a month on average with the children they serve.

Kelly Douglas, Voices for Children president and chief executive
Kelly Douglas, Voices for Children president and chief executive, says the organization is seeking volunteers for the CASA program.
(Courtesy)

VFC also employs staff members, each of whom oversees 40 to 50 CASAs. “There is a lot of supervision required,” Douglas said, as the volunteers often deal with “intense, complex issues as a result of the trauma that their kids have experienced.”

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, VFC has stayed true to its mission, though “how we do it is a little bit different,” Douglas said.

All of VFC’s activities have been converted to an online format, starting with recruitment. Douglas said the organization has graduated 89 new volunteers from online training during the pandemic.

To continue advocacy online, VFC “put together a remote advocacy tool kit for our CASAs to give them things to do virtually with [the children and] provide them with resources of people they need to be speaking with, questions they need to be asking” to make sure nothing “fell through the cracks,” Douglas said.

Court appointments also are done remotely.

With many schools still closed and children having online classes at home, “cases coming into the system are much more severe in terms of the facts underlying the abuse and neglect,” Douglas said.

There is also “an increase in the number of children who are being removed from their homes” due to increased reporting of abuse “and as the word is getting out to teachers about signs to look for when they’re teaching children virtually.”

Though VFC receives money from annual foundation grants and government funding, the organization is heavily funded through private donations.

“Sixty-five percent of our budget is composed of individual philanthropy through special events,” Douglas said. “We’re super grateful to our various community members who give in big and small ways to help support our mission and our work.”

The majority of the funding is spent on staffing the team that supports the CASAs.

The Starry Starry Night gala is the organization’s biggest annual fundraiser and is usually held outdoors under the stars. On Oct. 3, however, it will be entirely online, beginning at 7 p.m., with entertainment provided by the Mainly Mozart Youth Orchestra and the San Diego Children’s Choir. The program also will celebrate VFC’s CASA of the Year and include a live auction.

Though the event cannot be in person this year, “one of the great gifts of the virtual format is that we can open up the event to the entire community without cost,” Douglas said. “We certainly hope that one of the outcomes of that is not only will people learn about what we do but there hopefully will be some people who will choose to become a CASA as a result of that.”

For information on becoming a CASA or attending Starry Starry Night, visit speakupnow.org.

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