May is National Foster Care Month, a time set aside originally in 1988 by President Ronald Reagan to offer appreciation to foster parents.  Since being initiated, the National Foster Care Coalition has worked to expand the goals of this month to focus on awareness of the issues at hand and to encourage willing citizens to get involved with the foster system. 

One such woman, Sue Velasco, has taken this call to action profoundly in becoming what is known in the system as a CASA: a Court Appointed Special Advocate.  Sue first heard about it through a friend as the last of her children was still in high school. “The timing was off”, she explained, “but then a few years later I was at Jury Duty and the CASA promotional video was on a loop, it felt like the right time.”

A CASA fills a very specific role for a child in the foster system, different than that of the child’s attorney, or even their foster parents.  This person is officially appointed by the court, to advocate specifically for the rights and needs of the child.  They receive 30 hours of training, sign up for two years with any one child, and meet with them 10-15 hours per month, all in support of ensuring the child is getting the proper care and taught important skills needed for life.

Sue explained that each of the children are in the system due to their parent’s neglect or failure to protect them. This void seemingly falls on the lap of not only men and women who take on the role of foster parents, but also those like Sue who help to bridge the emotional gaps for these children.  “The younger ones are easiest to work with, they process a little differently, tend to be a little more resilient. I work with the older kids, the ones preparing to age out”, Sue said. Meaning the kids around age 18, on their way out of the foster system, and into the life of an adult in society.

This transition is one that takes much attention according to Sue, “the children have little to no experience, such as knowing not to use the same sponge to clean the bathroom as you do to wash the dishes you eat off of.” These are the life skills CASAs like Sue work to develop in kids as they prepare for college or living on their own.

Sue’s current case has been under her care for over a year and is now approaching the benchmark of aging out.  The child was raped at age 13, and lives with her son who is now four years old.  Sue explained kindly of her assigned child that she tends to be a bit rough around the edges, a result of a plethora of tough circumstances she’s had to live through.  Sue recounts however that each time the girl reacts with rudeness, is a time Sue is reminded to pray for the hurt she’s encountered and how it’s manifested into her perspective of the world. 

One day, the child said to Sue how she couldn’t believe that she had “hung in there with me, after being so horrible to you.”  To which Sue replied to her that “this was my place, I’ll be here right next to you”, an interaction that spoke volumes to a girl who had only known rejection and trauma.

Although Sue has had the privilege of building loving relationship with kids that have faced adversity most of their lives, she is sure to explain that this rewarding role does not come without it’s emotional struggles and fear. “It’s not easy to meet them where they’re at, it takes you outside of your norm; a scary place that takes commitment and relationship.”  But commitment and relationship she has given, and believes is in all of us to give. 

There are about 200 kids at this time in need of a CASA in their lives, and though not all of us may be able to take on the responsibility of this role at the present time, we do all have love to give and skills we possess that can help make the lives of these children better.  Both Orangewood Foundation and Orangewood Children's Center have volunteer opportunities available for those looking to help in some way.  Assisting the older children to develop independent skills, reading to toddlers or being a resource for babysitting are all needs that can be filled by our church community; if helping in one of these ways stands out to you, email Sue at suevelasco@yahoo.com for more information. 

Sue left us with one final anecdote from the trip to Disneyland she and her case child got to experience on her 17th birthday last year.  After spending the whole day at the “Happiest Place on Earth”, they stood waiting for one of the entertainment shows at the theme park.  The girl looked to Sue and said somberly, “my childhood is almost over, and this was the best memory I have of it.” 

We as a community can partner with people like Sue to help create better memories like these for the children that have lived lives filled with heartbreak and pain.  As May 2017 comes and goes, may we long to join together in righting the past wrongs this children have endured.