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CASA volunteers in Rocklin reflect on helping endangered children

Child Advocates of Placer County still have a waiting list of foster kids needing court advocates
By: Scott Thomas Anderson, Editor
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Working from its base in Rocklin, Child Advocates of Placer County has trained more than 300 adult volunteers to help nearly 550 kids immersed in abuse and neglect cases from the court system, as well as a host of at-risk youth teetering on the verge of becoming part of a bleak statistic. But even having sent that cavalry of support into the field, officials from the nonprofit say they still have a waiting list of Placer County children in dire situations that don’t have access to a Court Appointed Special Advocate or volunteer mentor.

“The purpose of a Court Appointed Special Advocate, or CASA, is to be the eyes and ears of the court, and the voice of the child, in foster care cases,” said Don Kleinfelder, Executive Director of Child Advocates of Placer County. “If you are a CASA, you are a legal voice in the courtroom who reports to the judge. We ask for a one-year commitment for a child, meeting with that child a minimum of once a week.”

Victims of child abuse and neglect are cloaked in a protective right to privacy by the California judiciary, and because of these safeguards such cases are rarely reported by Placer County media. While such rights are aimed at the future health and emotional stability of the victims, they can spark a communal environment of ignorance and denial around the fact that such crimes are a widespread problem in the region.

“There are far more children in these types of situations — and far more of these cases in Placer’s court system — than most people would ever realize,” Kleinfelder observed. “But it’s important for people to know that even though these kids have been through horrific circumstances in some cases, they are extremely resilient when they have a committed adult around them, who they can trust. Some of these children have never had that in their entire lives.”

Kleinfelder also noted that, while some in Placer County may have a stereotype that many of the abuse and neglect cases — especially those rooted in parental addiction — happen in the Auburn area, the fact is that 75-percent of the cases referred to CASA by the legal system come from Rocklin, Roseville, Lincoln and Loomis.

“There are some people I’ve met who basically don’t think child abuse happens in this area,” Kleinfelder acknowledged.

One person who agrees with Kleinfelder’s assessment, both in terms of how startling and plentiful Placer County’s endangerment cases are, as well as how remarkable the young victims end up being with support, is Rocklin resident Peggy Stapp, who currently volunteers as a CASA. Peggy went through the rigorous training and screening to work with children in the local foster care system, and she strongly encourages others who want to make a small but meaningful difference to consider the mission.

“It can be a rollercoaster because the situations the children are in are difficult,” Peggy said. “You are trying to be the lighter side of things for them — the happier side of things. With all of the stuff that’s happening around them in the court process, you are the one trying to show them that they’re the focus.”

She added, “If you have a heart to bless a child who’s in a hard position, this is a good opportunity to do it." 

Peggy’s husband, Clifford Stapp, works with Child Advocates of Placer County as a volunteer mentor. Unlike being a CASA, a mentor assumes the role of an adult friend and role model to at-risk youth who are not directly in the foster care system, but may be at risk of ending up in the juvenile justice system. The referrals for teens and young adults who need mentors typically come from local teachers, social workers and Placer County Probation officers. In some cases, such referrals involve college-age teens and young-adults who have turned 18 and technically “aged out” of Placer’s foster care support network.

Clifford Stapp said that he has enjoyed mentoring the 14-year-old young man he’s met through the program.

“I’ve never met anyone in this program who’s become a CASA or a volunteer mentor and then later said, ‘I wish I never did it,’” Clifford observed. “Not one person.”

Anyone interested learning more about volunteering for Child Advocates of Placer County can call 530-887-1006 or visit casaplacer.org.

For Kleinfelder and his co-workers, the caliber of volunteers that have recently been sworn in by the court is encouraging, but the knowledge that some of the kids in foster care are still on their own continues to weigh on them.

“The bottom line is, we’re always going to have a waiting list,” Kleinfelder said.  

  Scott Thomas Anderson can be reached at scotta@goldcountrymedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at scotta@goldcountrymedia.com.