John Ragosta, Jasean Edison and Patricia Miljanich talk about the struggles foster care children face at the CASA office in Redwood Shores.
Like many youth who enter into the state foster care system, Jasean Edison spent most of his childhood being relocated and struggling to find a consistent caring adult.
When he was 8, his mother became unable to provide for him so his great aunt was awarded guardianship, Edison said. He spent the next seven years with relatives until he faced another significant upheaval.
“My auntie said that she didn’t want to take care of me anymore, so she just dropped me off at the police station one day,” Edison said.
Edison was placed into numerous group homes where he spent the rest of his adolescence under the care of strangers. Fortunately, Edison’s growing distrust of adults was offset when the San Mateo County court system introduced him to John Ragosta.
Ragosta was a volunteer and is now the program manager for the San Mateo County Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA, an organization that provides support to children and youth navigating the foster care system.
“I really didn’t trust anyone after my family. So when CASA came into my life, I was kinda skeptical at first. But when I met my CASA worker, I realized he was actually a really good guy, and it took me a couple months, but I started to open up,” Edison said.
Many children who enter into the foster care or juvenile delinquency systems come from traumatic backgrounds of abandonment and abuse, said Patricia Miljanich, executive director of CASA. Due to the scarcity of group and foster care homes, many of the children are relocated out of the county; their development is disrupted and they are the most vulnerable population of youth, Miljanich said.
San Mateo is one of two counties in the state where the number of foster children is on the rise, Miljanich said. Last year, 634 children entered into the system, a large increase from the 525 children in the years before, Miljanich said.
Growing volunteer corps
The San Mateo County CASA branch has been operating since 1990 and started out as a very small program with only eight or nine volunteers, Miljanich said. Since she became involved in 1999, the number of volunteers has grown to 190 and CASA worked with 223 kids last year, Miljanich said.
“Often, [CASA volunteers are] the only person who is solely dedicated to the child. They meet with the child on a regular basis and develop a bond. They’re a person who is consistent, shows up when they say they will and helps facilitate a child’s interests, engaging them in enriching activities. All of the kinds of things that a parent would do, but that the child may not have,” Miljanich said.
CASA volunteers are required to spend a minimum of 18 months working closely with a child, but the average length is about three years, Ragosta said. Edison, now 22 years old, remains in close contact with Ragosta who he sees as a father figure, Edison said.
Edison currently works at a library in Atherton, but transportation is difficult because he is considered legally blind and unable to drive. Ragosta continues to assist Edison in developing long-term work solutions.
CASA volunteers participate in a child’s life in a variety of ways; from extracurricular activities to attending school meetings and court hearings, Miljanich said.
“Educational advocacy is a big thing for us. Volunteers go to schools, meet with teachers, make sure the child or youth is in the right academic program and make sure their needs are being assessed,” Miljanich said.
Ragosta worked with Edison on homework, made sure he was attending school and advocated for his placement in appropriate group homes, Ragosta said. Edison struggled with inconsistent relocation, ran away from state regulated facilities and spent time in juvenile detention.
“I was in [juvenile detention] a lot. But [Ragosta] never judged me for anything I did. We just talked about how we can change my situation when I was in there. How I can better myself and how I can mature from my mistakes that put me in there,” Edison said.
Knowing that a teenager’s brain is underdeveloped, assisting Edison in maturing into a responsible adult is socially critical and personally rewarding, Ragosta said.
“[Edison] is essentially another family member, that’s what I’ve gotten out of it,” Ragosta said.
CASA collaborates with government-regulated programs like Child Protective Services where employees are faced with large caseloads and often focus on the family as a whole, Miljanich said. CASA supplements these programs by focusing on the needs of an individual child.
“The most powerful thing about the program are the volunteers. They think differently, they focus on the child, they’re not constrained by some of the limitations an employee of social services may have. I think they’re accepted in a different way by the family because they’re volunteers,” Miljanich said.
CASA volunteers go through an extensive training process and are sworn officers of the court, Miljanich said. Juvenile court proceedings are closed to the public, but CASA volunteers can attend a child’s hearings and review confidential information such as school, medical and court records, Miljanich said.
By including reports about the time they spend with a child, CASA volunteers submit recommendations to the court that are given precedence, Miljanich said.
It costs about $2,500 for one CASA volunteer to work with a child each year and 10 percent of their budget is derived from the State Court Judicial Counsel budget, Miljanich said. However, CASA runs primarily on donations from generous sponsors and fundraisers, said Brigitte Greenstone, CASA’s development associate.
On Sunday, Aug. 25, CASA’s auxiliary members will be hosting their sixth annual Garden Party fundraiser. They are expecting about 300 people to show and have already raised $100,000; a stark increase from the $12,000 they raised during their first fundraiser, Greenstone said. Encouraging altruistic donations and sharing stories of their success is necessary to reach their goal of pairing every foster child with a CASA worker, Greenstone said.
Edison has lectured during CASA trainee sessions and will be speaking about his experiences at this year’s event. Miljanich hopes that by supporting these children, they can go on to become successful in their own lives and helpful to others in similar predicaments.
“One of the critical things that a CASA volunteer can do is just be someone who will listen,” Miljanich said. “Who [a child] can share their experiences with, talk about their fears and find out what their interests are so they can develop those skills and go on to be able to become advocates for themselves.”
For more information about San Mateo Court Appointed Special Advocates and the upcoming Garden Party fundraiser visit: www.casaofsanmateo.org.