For 40 years, Voices for Children has served children in foster care removed from their homes for their own safety due to abuse and neglect, needing a supportive adult in their lives. It is the only organization approved by the court to match each child with a Court Appointed Special Advocate, a volunteer who gets to know their situation, making sure that all their needs are being met. A nonprofit, Voices serves foster youth in San Diego and Riverside counties with its specially trained community volunteers.
President/CEO Kelly Douglas said its CASAs spend time with the kids, gets to know them, their needs, their likes and dislikes, and act as liaisons with all other professionals in the child’s life.
“So, teachers, foster parents, heads of group homes, social workers, therapists, then use all that information to advocate for the child,” she said. “First and foremost, in court. Our CASAs submit regular written reports to the juvenile court judges who oversee their cases, attend court hearings, and share information with the judges about what the child needs are so that those needs can be addressed while they are in foster care.”
Douglas said the individual attention that CASAs give to their kids is what makes the organization unique and special.
“These kids, when they get into foster care, they have many people who come and go,” she said. “They are surrounded by professionals that are very well meaning, but they have large caseloads. Social workers will be supporting 30 families at any given time, lawyers representing the kids may have 100 different cases, but our CASAs will support one child, or one sibling set. That means that our CASAs can give that individualized attention and build those meaningful relationships that make them better advocates for the children.”
Douglas said Voices has a staff member assigned to each of the five courtrooms in San Diego County that handle foster care cases. With its own assessment that looks at every single new child that enters the foster care system,
it looks at their needs, identifies the kids with the highest need, and they are in line for receiving their appointed CASA. She said they do get some referrals directly from judges, social workers and others, but it is its in the courtroom model that enables it to match kids faster with CASAs, so that they have that person by their side earlier in the foster care process.
Matt Morscheck, CASA volunteer, said he worked in human resources for years, including organizations that served kids in foster care and know many people who had been CASAs in different cities. He said he had thought of volunteering as a CASA for several years, but when he moved to San Diego and saw a flyer at Starbucks for Voices, it was the perfect timing for him to get involved. “I have worked with kids for life and thought this was the perfect time, so I called the number and attended an information session. I was sold from there. I signed up for the next step to get my training,” he said.
Since 2019, Morscheck has matched with a couple of youth and said he is always talking to other people about his CASA experience and encouraging them to get involved.
“My experience as a CASA has been the most meaningful and impactful volunteer experiences that I have ever had,” he said. “I worried whether I would have the energy or time to commit to this and I found that I certainly have time to work this into my schedule. I get a lot of energy back from this program. Just seeing the impact that we have in the lives of these youth that can really benefit from having an advocate that is just there to listen and get to know them and can focus in-depth in a way that so many other well-meaning organizations and providers cannot because of their caseloads.”
Morscheck said he was nervous at first, but the training from Voices, the support of his advocacy supervisor, he quickly realized Voices offered something unique in the lives of these young people.
“Really getting to know their interests, and as CASAs, if they are interested in a certain game, I can bring in that game and play some chess,” he said. “Or it they love fishing, let’s grab some fishing equipment and go fishing for an afternoon. We can engage in those interests in a way that help these youth come out of their shell and becomes more comfortable with you. That has been key to my experience. It is during those times like when the fishing poles are in the water where we can bond, find out what is important to them, needs that are not being met, and where I can work for more advocacy, talk to some of the providers to make sure that their voice is being heard.”
The Human Rights Campaign Foundation announced on Aug. 27 that it recognized Voices for Children as a top tier Innovative Inclusion recipient, by working with the HRC Foundation’s All Children-All Families program in improving its services that they provide to the LGBTQ+ community, including those in the foster care system. HRC reports that one out of three youth in foster care identifies as LGBTQ+, have higher rates of mistreatment while in foster care, have more frequent placement disruptions, and have a high rate of being placed in congregate care settings. Douglas said she is honored that Voices received the highest tier of recognition, Innovative Inclusion. She said why this recognition matters are twofold.
“First, it confirms our commitment to provide outstanding advocacy and support to LGBTQ youth that we serve in the foster care system,” she said. “But also, this participation in All Children-All Families, gives us access to resources from people who spend a lot of time in this area that will allow us to grow and improve so that we can provide outstanding support for this population of youth who are unfortunately overrepresented in the foster care system.”
Morscheck said as a member of the LGBTQ community, this honor is especially important to him as it shows that Voices is providing its services to all populations.
“My passion has always been around kids and making sure that services have been provided in an inclusive nondiscriminatory, but also a celebratory way,” he said. “I think this is the benchmark that Voices has hit by being recognized with this honor. I went in cautiously optimistic, hoping that I would hear things that reflected my values around inclusion, especially for such a vulnerable population at a vulnerable time in terms of the coming out process and personal identity that can take many years and look many ways. But I found that this is a place that I can be comfortable being my full self as a CASA, but also that this agency is working to celebrate all kids, including their LGBTQ kids that are out there.”
Douglas said about 65% of its funding comes from individuals and special events, with the rest split between government funding, foundation, and corporate events. She said Voices is in much need of more CASA volunteers.
Douglas said to become a CASA volunteer, individuals attend an information session, an application process that includes an interview, background check, and vetting process, and attending Advocate University, a 25 hour training program.
For more information about Voices for Children, visit www. speakupnow.org.