CASA program offers special bond with youth

Foster kids who get special advocate are lucky ones; the shortage is huge
2012-11-23T00:00:00Z 2014-09-05T15:32:25Z CASA program offers special bond with youthKim Smith Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
November 23, 2012 12:00 am  • 

By the time Tonisha Dreilinger was 14, she'd already lost her mom and her dad, lived in multiple foster homes, group homes and shelters, and met with countless caseworkers, therapists and psychologists.

So many people had moved in and out of her life, Dreilinger had her mind all made up when her judge gave her a court-appointed special advocate, or CASA.

"There was no point in talking any more because they were just going to be gone the next second," Dreilinger said.

Five years later, and her former CASA is like a second mother to her, Dreilinger said.

She and Marcia Katz, 54, are constantly texting and calling each other and getting together to hit new restaurants or just to hang out.

"Most of the family I do have is in New York, so Marcia was the one person I could always call and hang out with," Dreilinger said. "I really clung to her as a mom or as a family member."

Dreilinger is one of the lucky few.

Right now, in Pima County there are nearly 3,700 children in the foster care system.

Just 144 of them have a CASA.

"Court-appointed special advocates are the eyes and the ears of the judge," said Jill LaBrie, CASA recruiter.

Once an advocate is assigned to the child, that advocate remains in the child's life for as long as he or she is in the foster-care system, LaBrie said. They regularly meet with the child and those involved in the child's life - their therapists, teachers, doctors, foster parents, Child Protective Services case managers, etc.

They are expected to prepare regular reports for the judges and personally tell them what is in the children's best interests as far as their mental health, education and general health, LaBrie said.

Katz, a former teacher, loves children and decided to become a CASA after seeing newspaper articles describing the need for them.

She thought she'd like to work with a first- or second-grader - until she read Dreilinger's case file.

"I read a few different case files, and I just knew Tonisha was the one I wanted," Katz said.

Things did not go smoothly at first.

"In the beginning, I cried a few times," Katz said. "She wasn't very nice to me."

Dreilinger admits to being defiant, untrusting and uncommunicative.

"Sometimes she wanted something and I didn't know it and I let her down," Katz said.

Eventually, Dreilinger realized Katz was in it for the long haul and began opening up to her.

Although she was required to see Dreilinger only once a month, Katz would sometimes meet with her three or four times a week.

She went to dance recitals, she attended teacher conferences, and she drove Dreilinger to the first day of high school and attended her graduation.

"For me, the personal relationship was very important," Katz said. "I loved being a part of her life and seeing her grow."

Dreilinger remembers how Katz went to bat for her with the judge when she was forced to switch high schools because it was more convenient for the foster home to have all of the kids going to the same school. Thanks to Katz, she was able to return to friends and favorite teachers at her original school.

There was also the time when Katz persuaded the judge to let her move out of a home where she was being verbally abused.

She also remembers Katz driving all over town picking up bits and pieces of clothing so she could participate in a dance recital that required eight different costumes. Those in charge at her foster home weren't willing to help her out and she couldn't drive, so Katz did the legwork, using funds provided by Dreilinger's grandmother and the CASA program.

Once Dreilinger turned 18 and their formal relationship ended, Katz deepened their relationship even more, introducing her to her husband, daughter and mother. She quizzed Dreilinger for her driver's license test and lent her a car for the driving part of the exam.

"Being a CASA is one of the hardest things to be, but it's one of the most rewarding things," Katz said. "I couldn't imagine my life without Tonisha."

Without someone like Katz in their lives, Dreilinger believes it's all too easy for foster kids to become just another case number.

She's been in court where cases are called and no advocate is there to testify.

"They just get shoved back into the file cabinet," Dreilinger said. "It's a miracle when foster kids graduate high school and go to college, because there's no one there to support them.

"These kids just need somebody to say, 'Hey, wait a minute.' They need someone to look after them a little bit," Katz said. "Anyone with love in their life is going to do better."

It's for exactly that reason that Katz has become a CASA for another teenager.

As for Dreilinger, she is working as a cake decorator and hopes to pursue a career helping kids.

Katz definitely helped her learn some important life lessons, she said.

"Even though you might think you are tough and strong and can carry all of the weight on your shoulders, somebody else needs to hold the weight sometimes," Dreilinger said. "Everyone needs to be loved."

Did you know?

Pima County's Court Appointed Special Advocates program was the second one created in the United States and is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. There are now 3,666 children in foster care in Pima County, and officials hope to recruit enough volunteers to provide an advocate for every child in the system by 2020. Right now, Pima County has 113 CASA volunteers serving 144 children.

Advocates must be at least 21, willing to complete necessary background checks, provide references and participate in an interview, complete a minimum of 30 hours of pre-service training, be available for court appearances with advance notice and be willing to commit to the CASA program until their first case is closed. The average case lasts about 18 months and takes about 10 hours a month of a volunteer's time. For more information on how you can volunteer, go to www.azcourts.gov/casa or call recruiter Jill LaBrie at 740-5083.

Contact reporter Kim Smith at 573-4241 or kimsmith@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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