Somewhere in Ventura County hundreds of children live separated from their families. In our neighborhoods and often on our own blocks drug use, crime, squalor and violence scatter children whose frayed connection to society continues to weaken. Often hidden from the public eye, these kids may not ever experience the “normal” lives led by their peers in school.

“They’re all around us but we have no idea,” says Shannon Oehler, one of a dedicated group of court-appointed volunteers have helped dozens of children make sense of the chaos and confusion thrust upon them.

Oehler is a court-appointed special advocate, or CASA. She and her colleagues offer a voice for some of the hundreds of children whose cases are active in the juvenile dependency division of the Ventura County Superior Court. A volunteer effort administered by Interface Children Family Services, a Camarillo-based nonprofit, the CASA program will soon host trainings to recruit new individuals trying to provide some degree of stability to these adrift children’s lives.

Somewhat akin to Big Brothers Big Sisters, CASAs are officers of the court charged with serving as the eyes and ears for the juvenile dependency judge, partners with foster parents and social workers, mentors, and, most importantly, advocates for children caught up in dependency proceedings.

As much value as such advocates might offer, though, the program cannot find enough volunteers to make a dent on a lengthy waiting list. Many children determined to be eligible for a CASA may never get one before they “age out” of the dependency system or their cases are resolved. Young boys are especially at risk, with far fewer men volunteering to participate in the CASA program than women. Without CASAs or similar support, children separated from their parents through no fault of their own are at greater risk for a rough transition into adulthood. They have no one to turn to, and the confidentiality and stigma of their cases means few people will understand their situation.

“You don’t even know,” said Sandy White, who manages the CASA program for Interface. “They’re in your class and you don’t even know. You can’t ever go to a sleepover, you can’t have friends over, you can’t do what normal kids do. “

Their own disasters

One new graduate of CASA’s training program has seen terrible crises up close but still can’t compare those experiences to the type of cases she has seen in the program.

Bernadette Cardenas of Oxnard is a nursing student who volunteers with the Red Cross on disaster relief operations. She has also gone on mission trips where she has worked with children in need. She now has two children she works with as a CASA volunteer (normally CASAs only work with one child at a time, but she said program coordinators recognized that her particular medical knowledge would be helpful with an additional child’s case).

“CASA is very different,” she said. “CASA children have gone through their own disasters and very sad experiences. They’ve had all these adults who have changed. CASAs are the one constant in their lives.”

Cardenas said her training was a reality check about the problems children face in Ventura County. Volunteers need to be committed with their time, she said, they need to be able to keep cases confidential, they need to be open with the children they are working with, and they need to be strong enough to support those children.

“You have to go in understanding that you’re there for that child and that child has gone through so many different scenarios that you may not have experienced or even known about,” Cardenas said. “By the end of the [training] you know what you’re getting into, you really know.”

But CASA’s also may be the only one speaking for children in dependency court. In addition to making reports to the court, CASA’s often ask the child they’re working with what that child wants the judge to know. The judge may not always be able to grant that child’s request or wish, but it provides Tari Cody, the presiding judge of the juvenile dependency court, a more thorough perspective on the cases she handles.

“It’s another set of eyes and ears that can tell me what the child needs and what can be done for the child,” Cody said. “If I have a child who has a CASA I know I’m getting pretty good information about what’s going on in a child’s life. Sometimes a CASA will ask for something that nobody else knows about what a child needs.”

Cody said she can’t always grant those unique needs, but often the CASA becomes the only individual the child trusts enough to candidly disclose his or her requests to.

“People end up in dependency court because they’re not able to care for their children,” Cody said. “That can take every form you can imagine. It can look like a situation where the parents have drug problems and they’re not able to keep their child safe, it could be a domestic violence situation, it could be a seriously messy home (in terms of dangerous items around the home, especially with small children).”

Cody has seen any combination of these problems — and many others — plague the families that come through her courtroom. The dependency court is not a criminal court. It is not the place where parents are judged for actions that may have caused them to lose custody of their children, but the shadow of certain specters, such as domestic violence or mental health problems, looms over her courtroom and the children whose fate she helps determine.

“The criminal law is the train wreck, and we get the carnage,” Cody said. “It’s a system designed to protect children, not to punish parents.”

As presiding judge, Cody must determine what placement children in dependency court receive. In addition to attorneys, Cody must also work with social workers and foster parents for each case she handles, and, when appropriate, she can order a child to be placed on the waiting list for a CASA.

“I try to do it in cases I think the kids will benefit from having a CASA,” Cody said. “Usually, that’s a child who, most of the time, is in foster care. It’s going to be a child who could use a good role model who is going to speak up for them and, maybe, a mentor or a friend, but that’s not required.”

Although Ventura County is a rare county where each child in dependency court is assigned an attorney, Cody said CASA provides a unique role for children that their often overworked lawyers cannot. The program also offers kids in dependency cases a glimpse at a world that many other children in Ventura County take for granted.

“It’s astounding to me, and I’m sure it would be to regular people who live regular middle-class lives, the kind of lives these kids live,” Cody said. “Some of these kids have never been to the beach, and they live in Ventura. If you can get these kids exposed to more than just what’s going on in their foster home that has to help with their self-esteem, with the feeling they can do something with their lives. It’s got to have something to do with helping the county.”

If statistics provided by White are correct, the county likely does benefit from CASA volunteers. White, the program director for CASA in Ventura County, said 95 percent of children paired with a CASA nationwide tend not to re-enter the dependency system.

“The impact of that for any county is huge,” White said. “Here in our county, we have 900 kids in the [dependency system]. To be able to help those children out of that and possibly work toward permanent homes is huge.”

CASA volunteers began helping children in Ventura County in 1985. There are 64 CASA’s currently active in the county, White said. A seven-member council directs CASA fundraisers and other events to sustain the program. Trainers, like CASA’s themselves, are volunteers, and more people are needed to support the program.

As of the time of this writing, 35 kids are on the program’s waiting list, White said. Interested volunteers must be willing to commit a few hours every week to touch base with the kids they are paired with. To qualify for the program, volunteers must also complete 40 hours of training before they are designated officers of the court (the next training is scheduled for October). There are also monthly trainings, and CASA’s must make regular reports to the court on their assigned cases.

“We need more people to realize there are so many more kids we could help if we simply had enough volunteers,” White said.

Past and present CASA volunteers unanimously agree with White and are quick to praise their experience with the program.

Jim Kuyper, a retired human resources specialist who spent much of his career at IBM, worked with the same child for seven years. When he first started as a CASA volunteer, the child Kuyper was assigned to was 11 years old. He turned 18 in November, 2006.

“He grew up quite a bit,” Kuyper said. He said he knows CASAs make a difference, but it’s too soon to tell how his kid will turn out (although he is now employed).

In some ways, Kuyper’s contributions weren’t overtly dramatic. He and his CASA spent time together by going to the beach, watching movies in the theater, visiting the library, or just grabbing hamburgers together. But a key part of being a CASA is making activities that seem commonplace to most people accessible to kids whose lives have been limited by their situations.

Still, Kuyper’s contributions weren’t limited to fun outings. He also served as an educational surrogate to his assigned child.

“For many of these kids, if they don’t get into a good foster home there is no continuity in their life,” Kuyper said. “A CASA provides continuity. That’s why I was the educational surrogate.”

As a parent, Kuyper said kids in the dependency system face some challenges universal to all children, but worsened by their situation.

“The reality of it is very few kids are able to walk into the adult world at age 18 and be successful,” Kuyper said. “The problem is these are kids who admittedly have less.”

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A heart for kids

Aside from the commitment of time and the willingness to serve as CASA, the volunteers have backgrounds as varied as the children they work with.

“We have people from all walks of life,” White said. “We have very busy working adults and we have retired folks, men, women, married and non-married, etc.”

Some CASAs are parents. Some are not. Oehler, a Thousand Oaks homemaker who describes herself as “poor by choice,” said she became a CASA three years ago. Oehler and her husband used to be foster parents, but they became frustrated with their inability to affect the situations of the kids they took care of.

“Foster parents are charged with responsibility 24-7, but you have no power,” Oehler said. “Everything is controlled by the social worker. It’s a little frustrating because you know what’s really going on with the kid.”

CASAs, by contrast, have the opportunity to work together with all the parties involved to get a clear picture of what is going on to help a child and make substantive reports to the court. In addition to the child, the CASA can serve as a bridge between his or her social worker, foster parent, teachers and the court.

“Not everyone can be a big brother or big sister, or a foster parent,” Oehler said. “It’s a commitment to children in need, of which there are plenty. You don’t have to make a commitment, but you can make a difference to [children].”

Everyone who enters the CASA program has specific skills to offer. Some might be able to help with an academic subject a kid has trouble with, others might have occupational skills that can help a specific case, others still might just have a similar background that will help them bond with their CASA kid. Case managers make a concerted effort to match volunteers with the kids on the CASA waiting list, Oehler said. In her case, her experience as a foster parent helps her better relate to the people taking care of the kids she is matched with.

Oehler said she enjoys volunteering, but she didn’t want to just offer to volunteer at a library or other organization. She wanted to make a more involved commitment. Interested volunteers, she said, need to like kids, and they need to like kids with problems who may initially give their CASA a very cool reception.

“I have a heart for kids,” she said. “You have to like kids who have had some unique challenges. They’re not going to behave like your middle-class Thousand Oaks kid, and they’re not going to look at you like you are the greatest thing since sliced bread.”

But bonds do build. The children Oehler has worked with (she is currently on her third case) come from throughout Ventura County. Their worlds can seem far removed from Oehler and other CASAs’ lives, she said, and finding common ground can be difficult.

“It’s not like you’ll have a breakthrough and next week you’re that much closer,” she said. “You’ll have your own little moment of seeing the same person walking down the street and both of you start laughing.”

Kuyper said the contributions CASAs make go beyond individual cases that may, unfortunately, not have positive outcomes. The possibility that the kid may not end up a successful adult shouldn’t dissuade potential volunteers.

“You should be able to be a realist and not expect too much,” he said. “You have to understand that the goodness that you’re doing is in the individual action, not necessarily the outcome. What you do is good. The outcome will be what the outcome will be.”