San Diego volunteer provides care for youth in foster care and consistency as special advocate

It was the look of terror Kate Gibson saw on her 9-year-old neighbor’s face that sparked a shift in her thinking about people who had been victimized in life and how that trauma might affect the rest of their lives. life.

“I got to see firsthand some of the issues that the kids face, and it doesn’t leave you,” she says, referring to her next-door neighbors who were foster parents at the time. “It’s something that has always stayed in my head and my heart. This population of children has incredibly special needs that are all too easily overlooked by others. That’s how I found Voices for Children.

Voices for Children is a non-profit organization that educates, trains, and provides support to Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteers in San Diego and Riverside counties. These volunteers are matched with a child after completing an application process, interviews, background check and other requirements. They get to know the child and meet with lawyers, social workers and others involved in that child’s case to ensure that the child’s needs are met and to serve as a constant and caring adult presence in his or her life. Voices for Children estimates that 3,500 children in San Diego will spend time in foster care this year after experiencing abuse or neglect.

Gibson, who previously worked in special education as a teacher’s aide, began volunteering as a CASA in 2018 and took the time to talk about her experience, initial concerns, and lessons learned. she learned how to effectively advocate for children in vulnerable situations. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For a longer version of this conversation, visit

Q: What did you see in your neighbor, and what kind of effect did it have on you, that led you to start volunteering as a CASA?

A: We had gotten to know these next-door neighbors a bit and had just started to become friends, but we didn’t know they were adoptive parents at first. One morning, there is a knock on my door and the mother looks panicked because this new child who has just been placed in their home has locked himself in a closet and does not want to come out. He refused to go to school. He was a 9-year-old boy who had attended maybe five other schools that year. Imagine this 9 year old child in a new house, not wanting to go to school because it is another group of teachers and children who will not accept him for different reasons. What really struck me was that when we finally talked to him and persuaded him to come out, there was just a look of terror on his face. What child of this age should feel this? What happened in his life to make him so scared? He was placed in a big house, but that fear is what made me think there must be so much more going on than I can see on the surface.

Q: You saw that kind of fear, and it drove you to take that course, to volunteer to advocate for youth in foster care, instead of avoiding it or deciding it wasn’t your problem. Where do you think this compulsion to help comes from?

A: With so much of the work I’ve done and the people I’ve been around, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking, “Hey, there are no casualties. You can solve your problems. But I must say that I sincerely believe that many of the children we serve are victims of circumstances over which they have no control, and it has nothing to do with them. It’s not because they did anything wrong, it’s not because they were bad. So I had to really rethink my thought process about who some of the victims are in this world that we move through. This is where my heart was captured, feeling that they need people who are willing to understand their stories and be there for them and stand up for them when they can.

Q: What were some of the concerns you had about entering this program as a volunteer?

A: I think I may have had a bit of a stereotype about what it was going to be. I am CASA for a child who is 10 now, but she was 7 when I started. There’s also a kid who was 17 when I met her, and she’s now 19. I thought older kids wouldn’t want anything to do with me. I wondered how I was going to get them to open up, how to build trust in those relationships.

The youngest had been placed with a family that was quite supportive of her, so I wondered how I could play a role in this case. With the younger one, I wasn’t so worried about the relationship, but about how I could help defend it. In both cases, there were different sets of fears. During my first encounters with each of them, all of those fears and some of the things that I had been building up in my head completely diminished. I laugh now how worried I was that it wouldn’t work the way I wanted it to. The youngest child has many special therapeutic needs – physical, speech therapy, occupational therapy, vision loss – and will have these needs throughout their lives. When I first met her adoptive parents, we sat and talked, and I walked out of there with a list of the adoptive mother. She had laid out the things she was working on, but was frustrated with the lack of progress, so she tasked me with doing them.

Then, the kid who was 17 when we first met, I thought about how a conversation might start between us, but we talked for over an hour and a half.

Q: In what ways does the CASA program support foster children in San Diego?

A: I think education is probably one of the main ways CASAs can really dive in and be instrumental in their advocacy. Most of our kids don’t stay in school very long because they change placements. The court tries to keep them in their original school, but sometimes it can be a 30 or 40 minute drive from where they were placed. This educational element is so important for any child, but especially for the children we deal with, because it gives them their freedom. If they can feel confident in their upbringing, they might experience some success. For the majority of our children, education is probably the biggest thing a CASA can get involved in, right down to working with their emotional development. There are so many emotional issues, so many traumas that a lot of children have gone through. Years and years of emotional trauma, so I think individual therapy is really important. It’s not always what kids want, so it can sometimes be a long process. Then they start therapy, but may not really connect with their therapist. So it’s not the easiest thing to do. As a CASA, however, I think it’s important that we stand up for them and ensure that they get therapeutic services that they may not think they want or need.

In the case of the 19-year-old I work with, she is a non-minor dependent, so she has an apartment and the state helps fund it. With COVID being so crazy for everyone, there have been days, sometimes weeks, where she doesn’t leave her apartment because school is online and therapy is online. To me, that’s one more reason why she needed to meet regularly with a therapist she could get in touch with, just to share her anxieties. I really saw the impact a few months ago when she went to apply for a job. She’s a great communicator and isn’t afraid to talk about some of the things that happened in her past, but she froze during a job interview when they asked her to tell them about it. she. She froze. She couldn’t answer and she called me from her car, just in tears. She didn’t know what to say and she freaked out, and that was just a reminder to me of why I think emotional support for our kids is really important because you don’t know what the trigger will be and when it will will come.

Kate Gibson is a volunteer Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) through Voices for Children, a non-profit organization that trains volunteers to advocate for children placed in the foster care system.

(Photo courtesy of Kate Gibson)

Q: What have you learned about the best way to advocate for young people in foster care?

A: First, manage expectations because whatever it is, it’s going to move slowly. It’s also so much about relationships. That’s the one thing I’ve really tried to do, not just build a relationship with the kids, but with the professionals involved in their cases, so that we have good two-way communication.

You also have to accept that things are not going to happen quickly. My youngest child was in a wheelchair and the host family’s van, which had the wheelchair mechanism built into it, was stolen from their driveway before Christmas a few years ago. I jumped in to fix this and it took six months. When my eldest child left San Pasqual Academy (a residential school for foster kids in Escondido), I attended a meeting with her where she was told about all the things they were going to help him. leave: furniture, a computer, Internet access, that sort of thing. Through no fault of the academy, once she left she was assigned to a new social worker and none of the things discussed at that meeting happened. It took us two years to straighten it out. Even with a CASA, it took that long. So managing expectations, listening to all the different professionals to get a good overview and accepting that things take time; these are the things I learned about good advocacy for these children.

Q: Going back to your story about the foster child your neighbors were taking care of, what did you do to get him to unlock the closet and come out?

A: We just sat and talked to him for 30 minutes, through the door. It was just being there and listening. At one point we said, ‘Look, if it doesn’t work out today, you can stay home, but we need you out and we need to talk about it. His circumstances, whatever they were, at the age of 9 should not be the things that define him for the rest of his life. I guess that’s what I come back to all the time with kids is that I have the opportunity to work with kids who are unique, bright, creative, and they deserve not to see their situation. past define and even crush some of the dreams they have. In the case of my eldest child, I tell her all the time that she is amazing. I’m just amazed by her because she grew up so dysfunctional, and it would be so easy for her to follow that. Instead, she’ll say, “I’ll get a job,” and she gets a job. She’s really working on it, instead of saying, “Oh, poor me.” I think it’s because there are people in her life who believe in her, who care about her beyond the report they have to write, and that’s what it takes.

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