First year Court Appointed Special Advocate Marsha Gary said there is a lot to learn about the foster care system, but the work is incredibly fulfilling.

More than 17,000 children in Arizona are living in group or foster homes because their parents abused or neglected them. That means living in unfamiliar surroundings and likely attending a new school with a new teacher and new classmates.

Their new normal includes an ever-changing roster of lawyers, judges, therapists, case workers and foster parents.

Children who spend time in foster care will bear the scars for the rest of their lives, but numerous studies show that a relationship with a consistent and caring adult can help mitigate those scars. That’s why CASA of Pima County is pushing for more people to become Court Appointed Special Advocates.

In Pima County, the average child spends 26 months in foster care, and only 50 percent will be reunited with their parents. Some will be adopted, but others will turn 18 and age out of the system. That happened to 149 of them last year.

Currently, there are 3,100 children in foster care in Pima County and only 200 have a CASA, said Krissa Ericson, who is the CASA of Pima County program supervisor.

CASAs are volunteers who provide objective information to the judge who will determine if families should be reunited and who will oversee the care of the children while they are in foster care.

Advocates remain in the child's life as long as he or she is in the foster-care system. CASAs spend time with the child as well as stay in touch with foster parents, biological parents, extended family members, teachers, daycare workers, attorneys and Department of Child Safety case managers. They also attend Children and Family Team meetings, Foster Care Review Board meetings and may attend pediatrician appointments in addition to observing parent/child visitations.

CASAs are focused on the best interest of the child and where the child will ultimately live. They watch for things having to do with safety, developmental milestones, social and emotional development, mental health issues, caregiver and child interactions and health issues, Ericson said.

They take what they’ve observed, prepare reports for the judge and make recommendations as to what they believe is in the child's best interests.

“Judges wish they could go out in the community to observe first-hand what’s happening with the children, but since they can’t, they use advocates to be their eyes and ears,” Ericson said. “The ideal CASA is someone who cares about kids and is interested in being part of a team to help children heal and find a safe, permanent home. They are someone who can remain objective and not be tempted to jump to conclusions,” she said. “They need to be able to bring the facts to the court and not be clouded by their own opinions.”

Because caseworkers, therapists, lawyers and foster parents often change throughout the course of the case, CASAs are often the one constant in the child’s life, Ericson said.

Ideally, ever child in the foster care system would have a CASA, someone who also serves as a positive role model, Ericson said. CASAs are required to see their child at least once a month.

Local experience

Marsha Gary, 69, is a part-time Green Valley resident who became a CASA last year. The former assistant school superintendent wanted to find a fulfilling volunteer opportunity.

“I’ve volunteered for different things and I’ve always felt like it wasn’t time well-spent or that the organization had more than enough volunteers,” she said. “I don’t feel that way with this.”

Since November, Gary has been getting together with a 10-year-old boy at least three times a month. She’s introduced him to the symphony; he’s introduced her to catch football. They’ve been fishing, played soccer, gone clothes shopping and hung out at Golf N’ Stuff.

“I enjoy spending time with him,” Gary said. “We go on adventures. We do things he’s never done and I’ve never done and behind the scenes I’m making sure all of the pieces are going together OK.”

For example, CASAs make sure all of the child’s team members are current on what medications a child is taking, they keep track of the child’s individualized education plan and they ensure all of the various parties’ reports are in the child’s file. That’s on top of making suggestions about mental health or tutoring services that might be explored and even weightier decisions about where a child should be placed.

Although Gary will be leaving for California for several months and another CASA will take over, she plans to stay in touch with the child.

“Hopefully, if they get the right guidance they’ll be able to have a successful life,” Gary said.

She and another relatively new CASA, Ron Chew, said there is a steep learning curve, but the fulfillment they get is more than worth it. They also get plenty of help from their fellow CASAs.

Chew, a retired Colorado therapist who moved to Quail Creek last year, said he was sitting in his hot tub with his wife when he decided he needed to “pay it forward.” He’s been blessed in life and he wanted to do something that could make an impact for years to come. Working with children seemed to fit that bill, he said.

Having two sons and four grandsons, Chew became a CASA intent on helping boys.

In January, Chew was assigned to a 13-year-old boy nearing his end in foster care. Over the last few months, Chew has been meeting with the boy’s team to make sure the judge should reunite the family.

He and the boy grew so close, the boy wants to maintain a relationship after he goes home.

“I almost cried,” Chew said. “I was going to ask him if he wanted to see me afterward, but I thought that might be awkward, but then he asked right in front of his mom and dad and the judge.”

Chew said he’s probably driven 1,000 miles back and forth to Tucson in the last couple of months, but he’s not complaining.

“For a very small price, you get a great opportunity to change the future of a child and that’s priceless, it’s just priceless,” Chew said.

Kim Smith | 547-9740