CASA: African American Advocates Needed
By Dianne Anderson
For as long as Jatori Harris can remember, he and his older brother, and his cousin bounced back and forth between relative caregivers, from his great aunt to his grandfather to foster homes, and back to his other aunt.
Mostly, it was in-house with family, yet not without challenges.
“It was difficult. Some of those issues linger into adulthood, but I think life depends on how you view it,” he said. “The family jumping around was natural for us.”
Despite an unstable childhood, he has come to terms with the negative aspects over the years by building himself up in a variety of ways. Today, the future is more important than the past. He is a busy dad of a nine-year daughter and a two-year-old son.
“As people, we don’t view where we are, but where we want to be. I’m learning patience. I do a lot of self-educating, and listen to motivational speeches throughout the day,” he said.
As it turned out, he works with foster kids as a career choice, helping youth access wraparound services that are essential to escape cycles of poverty, food insecurity, job services, through foster family support services.
Harris, a past board member of CASA, (Court Appointed Special Advocates), said the county has several programs to help foster youth take advantage of college, scholarships, and work opportunities.
Some barriers are starting to break down through with opening more positions like his own, where alumni – former foster youth – help other foster youth navigate the system.
“It’s one thing having a worker telling you what to do and you don’t relate to them, but we’ve actually been through it. That’s one of our highlights,” said Harris, a peer and family assistant for the Independent Living Program at the County of San Bernardino Children and Family Services.
As mentors, they stand in the gap for the foster youth and the social worker. Another goal is getting them connected to all available services, especially from age 21 to 24 as they transition out of foster services.
Youth receive training, they learn how to open bank accounts, and life skills to learn how to live independently once they leave the program.
He said other programs like Ifoster.org also offer great benefits.
They are also directed toward free education and agency partners, such as the Guardian Scholars Program through at community colleges and universities.
Right now, there are over 5,000 kids in foster care countywide, including a significant jump in referrals. The county has received over 30,000 calls into Child Protective Services in the past year.
Of those calls, only a small fraction will end up in foster care.
Cesar Navarrete. executive director at CASA of San Bernardino County, said the increased calls are not necessarily a bad sign. However, it could reflect that more people are getting involved when they see children at risk of neglect or abuse.
Potentially, he said lives are being saved. But, the youth that CASA serves differs from the overall general foster population.
CASA youth are not going back home, not because it’s their fault, but that the parents haven’t met the requirements to start the reunification process.
“We have a little over 200 kids. We’re servicing about 180 kids throughout the year. We have a large waiting list.”
Neverette said they are always seeking men and women to help foster youths that have been recommended for a Court Appointed Special Advocate.
There are not nearly enough Black men to meet the need for volunteers.
Of their CASA youth, 21% are African American, 23% are Hispanic and 35% are white. African Americans are disproportionately represented, which, depending on how they identify, their numbers may be higher under the 21% “bi-racial” category. African Americans are also under-represented in volunteerism, only making up 12% of volunteers. Hispanics make up 31% volunteers, 25% white.
Advocates connect youth to services, such as IEP, additional tutoring, or classes that they may need to graduate high school with an eye toward secondary education. They also provide alumni services for youth 18 to 24, along with additional financial support and adult living skills.
Once CASA volunteers are sworn in following an intensive background check, they are presented with several cases, and decide which youth they want to work with.
“They meet with youth for the first time, the advocate supervisor provides professional supervision, case monitoring, and management,” he said. “Our volunteers have a professional they can always talk to.”
Unless a youth can receive a CASA advocate, they are without anyone to advocate in their corner.
He said volunteers act as a surrogate parent for CASA youth, mentoring and advocating in the education system, the child welfare system, healthcare, and court systems.
“Just like any parent would fight for their kids, through CASA assistance they now have an adult who can do the same thing,” he said.
For more information, call www.casaofsb.org/