A voice for children
Special to the Tribune
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – Pat and George Schultz have been CASA volunteers for five years and have worked with 10 abused and neglected children who are part of El Dorado County’s child welfare system. Pat Schultz said it’s easy to grow attached.
“You try hard not to fall in love with these kids,” said Schultz, who is a grandmother. “You’re supposed to be objective.”
A volunteer Court Appointed Special Advocate, or CASA, takes the children to the movies, out for ice cream and other activities. Most of all, they serve as an additional set of eyes and ears for the court in child welfare cases.
In South Lake Tahoe, CASA of El Dorado is inside the El Dorado Superior Courthouse. About 50 local volunteers advocate for almost 100 children.
Many of the children come from homes with drug and alcohol dependency and domestic violence.
“There is a lot of domestic violence in South Lake Tahoe,” said former site manager Kelly Edmundson, who left the position in November.
The volunteers undergo a psychiatric evaluation, a background check, are fingerprinted and receive training through the nonprofit. They don’t claim to be experts – just another person able to talk to a child, look at their home environment, gauge their parent’s condition and give feedback to the judge.
“CASAs really dedicate their passion to children,” Edmundson said. “It’s not hard to advocate for children. I don’t know many people who don’t have a soft spot for children.”
The volunteers also work within the delinquency system. Many of the youths that volunteers encounter at the Juvenile Treatment Center in South Lake Tahoe grew up in homes with a history of abuse, neglect or chemical dependency, Edmundson said.
Anna Richter has been a CASA volunteer for seven years, working with youth at the detention center. She is struck by the effect a home environment has on a child.
“What the kids need so much is knowing they can really count on the people who love them,” said Richter, whose youngest case in the detention center was 12 years old.
She works with each teen to develop trust and a mutual respect.
“They are going to make (bad) decisions that boggle my mind,” Richter said. “My job is to let them know it’s more than the present moment; to remind them this is a stage in their life.”
Richter has also worked with younger children who are not in the detention center.
Richter shakes her head when she recalls taking a kindergartner on a hike for his birthday. Richter told him they would be eating his birthday cake next.
“No one has every given me a birthday cake,” the boy told her.
By proxy, many CASA volunteers have learned what’s most important to kids: Consistency. Accountability. Dependability.
It’s also important to shield children from adult issues, said Dr. Jenifer Norris, a bilingual CASA volunteer and local family practitioner.
“Make sure the kids are exposed to kid stuff,” Norris said. “Kids take on such a parental role, like rent is due next week; this meal was daddy’s last $5. Let kids be kids.”
Pat Schultz added, “Never put a child down. Always try to build them up.”
Take a child to the library, Edmundson said. Take children on a hike and to the beach. Let them be around animals. Celebrate their birthdays. Help them expand their imaginations.
“Giving kids self-confidence is the greatest gift,” Edmundson said.
Edmundson said her biggest joy in working with CASA is seeing families learn, heal and reunify.
“It’s so touching to be out of a courthouse and see a family at Raley’s, being a family,” she said. “I’ve cried. To see them discipline effectively without violence and yelling; these are the moments.”
“Parenting is not easy,” she added. “Life is not easy.”