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Foster children get a voice in Silicon Valley

By Danielle Radin | 4 Apr 2013

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(Photo: www.bemyadvocate.org)

(Photo: www.bemyadvocate.org)

In a small office, Karen Scussel holds a pile of paper in each of her hands, carefully reading her notes on top of each stack. On the pile in her right hand the words ‘adopted or legal children’ is written in big black letters. In the other hand, three words are stamped that have made her lose countless hours of sleep: ‘wait listed children.’

Scussel has been advocating in court for children of the foster care system for more than a decade. Her mission is to change the way the court system takes on foster care cases so that judges and attorneys can be more understanding of the child’s background and needs. She is currently on two committees advocating reform within Santa Clara County’s foster care system: an independent living skills program for foster youth ages 16-25, and a committee looking at reforms in education within the county that would help foster care children integrate into the school system better.

In October of 2012, Scussel was appointed to the position of Executive Director of Child Advocates of Silicon Valley— an agency dedicated to helping foster-care children within the legal system. The agency, representing Santa Clara County, was formed in 1987 under the national court-appointed special advocate organization. Scussel first got involved with the program in 2000 as a volunteer—for that she underwent extensive training to help children of the foster care system.

The training entails 30 hours, spanning more than five weeks, of classes, lectures, and case studies. Child Advocates of Silicon Valley trainers include: a Santa Clara County judge who gives hours of training on the court system, attorneys who represent children and parents in the foster care system, specialists on child development and the effects of abuse, professionals dealing with domestic violence and substance abuse and employees/supervisors already working for the program who talk about “cultural competence” and understanding the difficulties of poverty. On top of this, volunteers are taught how to work with care givers, write court reports, mentor children and receive a three-hour lecture on California education law.

It is hard for a judge to preside over a foster-care case. Often times children in the system cannot articulate their needs, progress, or lifestyle to the court. This is where Child Advocates of Silicon Valley comes in. The organization sends a trained volunteer—called a Court Appointed Special Advocate— to speak on the child’s behalf in dependency-court hearings.

How does the volunteer know what is best for the child? By spending time with him or her, becoming a good friend, mentor and role model, the volunteers say The Court Appointed Special Advocate can then talk to social workers, foster parents, lawyers and others to paint a complete picture of the child’s needs and requirements. The child then has a better chance of being placed in a stable environment. Child Advocates of Silicon Valley’s mission is to provide a strong voice for those in the foster care system who do not have their own.

Scussel fondly recalls one of her favorite cases. She took on a sixteen-year-old African American boy in Gilroy who loved to skateboard. Scussel met him at the end of his freshman year of high school after he had failed all of his classes. The first time she approached him, she told him she’d heard he was smart but was having a tough time in school. She smiled warmly and said she was there to help. Every week, Scussel met with the boy and tried to bond with him through activities like going to the beach, shopping, and trips to San Francisco. She also taught him life skills including how to balance his bank account. By the end of his senior year, not only did he graduate on time, he also received the Most Outstanding Student of the Year award.

“I know he would not have done that had I not been involved,” Scussel said.

Through her weekly interactions with the boy, Scussel said she was able to determine what his personal needs were. Every six months she would make recommendations to the court on his behalf. She recommended to a judge that he have a psychological evaluation because she suspected he was mildly depressed. He was, and was put on medication that he said helped. She also recommended to the court that he get braces.

Child Advocates of Silicon Valley strives to cater to as many abused and neglected foster children as possible within the County. However, t 120 children are still  on the wait list for a trained advocate. For these children it could take two weeks to years before an advocate is assigned.

Unfortunately for many children, geography plays one of the most important roles in who is assigned as an advocate. Most Child Advocate volunteers live in Palo Alto, while most foster-care children who need an advocate live in South and East San Jose. A child in Los Altos has a better chance of getting off the wait list then one who lives in San Jose because volunteers do not have to drive as far. Age also plays a role in who gets an advocate. Unexplainably, in highest demand are girls ages six to ten. These children are usually only on the wait list for two weeks, while a sixteen-year-old boy is most likely going to spend a lot longer on the wait list.

The more time a child spends in the already-broken foster care system, the more chance he or she has of becoming a statistic. About 40,000 infants are put into foster care in the United States each year with 126,000 children currently available for adoption. Sadly, thirty percent of the nation’s  homeless population was once in foster care. A staggering twenty-five percent of those in U.S. prisons were once in foster care. On average, a child will stay in the foster-care system for almost three years before being adopted. It is not uncommon for a child to have been in twenty to thirty different homes before an adoption takes place.

Scussel and others are working to show the court system that every single foster care child has a name, history, and special desires for his or her own life. Scussel hopes to carry on as an advocate for children through Child Advocates of the Silicon Valley as long as she possibly can. So far, she has already helped fifteen children have their needs heard in court.

Scussel looks down again at the paper pile in her hand of ‘adopted or legal children’ and smiles as she says, “It’s just amazing to have a child say thank you.”

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