By Lisa Morgan
Do you want to hear some appalling numbers and facts? Probably not, but I’m going to give them to you anyway:
There are 4000 children in the foster care system in Riverside County alone.
100% of gay children in our foster care system have reported abuse in their foster homes.
58% of human trafficking victims come from foster/group homes, IN RIVERSIDE COUNTY.
California is one of the top three states with the most human trafficking, with victims smuggled from around the world, as well as locally.
If you are anything like me and get extremely angry and upset at these numbers and facts, you too will be relieved to know that there is a local non-profit organization fighting daily to make this change. Recently appointed to the Human Rights Commission for Palm Springs, Deborah Weiss has a long tenure standing up for the voiceless. She has done so for the last seven years through the non-profit organization, CASA: Court Appointed Special Advocates. This program provides heavily trained volunteers who become the voice for children in a system that that it is admittedly, overwhelmed and broken – our foster care system. CASA is a program developed by a judge. “Through it, CASA can access necessary information to help these kids a lot easier, bypassing a lot of red tape. We are able to make some great choices to help these kids struggling in this system,” boasts Weiss. “The foster care system sucks. I used to think, ‘They’re safe’… but it’s not the best situation at all.”
“Our foster care program is the only one of its kind that re-victimizes its victims,” shares the impassioned Weiss. “While there are a few good homes out there, and we sure don’t need to lose any of those, so many provide another bad situation for displaced children. Children are removed from a home for a reason, and put into another home that can be just as bad or worse. Meanwhile, the parents of the original home are given counseling and education, the foster homes receive money and support, and the kids get nothing. Often, what the court orders for these kids is never implemented by the assigned home’s caretaker. Things as important as a root canal are ignored. Kids are wearing used shoes when money is assigned for new ones,” explains Weiss. “An advocate becomes the most consistent person in a foster child’s life if they are fortunate enough to be assigned to one. The advocate makes sure that the judge’s orders for the child’s wellbeing are being implemented.” In a case where three girls in foster care were being kept in a garage, CASA of Riverside County made history when, for the first time, an advocate was allowed to sit next to the victim on the stand when they testified against their abuser. CASA of Riverside County was also the first to implement a curriculum that included the first gay-paired advocate.
“I was at this conference in Colorado. I’m not this over achiever or anything who gets up early to start the day. I just happened to be awake and downstairs looking for coffee and wandered into the meeting. I sat down, and the stories were unbelievable. When I heard the statistic that 100% of gay kids in the foster care system suffer some form of abuse, I didn’t believe it.” Weiss shared a heartbreaking story: “A girl was told by her foster care that she didn’t have a place on earth or in heaven because she was gay. She ended up committing suicide.” With this awareness, Weiss took action. “I took a year to learn everything about it, because I’m not gay, and I needed to be informed and understand fully to represent the issue. I partnered up with Equality in California and Pride Honor Award recipient, George Zander. We started the LGBT Advocacy Program for children in foster care. We worked with the department of social services and the courts. Palm Springs really rallied around it and helped us raise money. CASA of Riverside County was the first one to develop this curriculum. Three years ago, nobody wanted to touch this issue. Since then, I’ve presented our curriculum nationally.”
“We had our first gay-paired advocate, providing a voice for Angel.” Angel was a gay foster child whose placement in a religious home forced him to hide his sexual identity. He was being beat up and bullied at school in Banning. “When we first met Angel, he wouldn’t even look up,” shared Weiss. “Now he’s graduated from high school and is college bound. Most foster kids don’t graduate. Angel has even started his own LGBT support group among his peers. Gay kids in the system usually disappear into prostitution or worse. If I was a foster kid I would run away. We have to do a better job. When the whole system knows that it’s broke, we just have to start doing a better job.”
CASA really needs more community support. With so many valuable charities in our valley, and severe cuts to government funding, raising funds is a challenge. “We have the volunteers,” says Weiss. We have people who go through a tremendous amount of screening and training to become the voice for these voiceless kids – kids who are first made victims by their circumstance, and then victimized by the system designed to protect them. These volunteers are incredible individuals. They aren’t always greeted by kids who are grateful to see them. They have to earn their trust. There are 4000 kids in Riverside County foster care. We can only serve 300 now, and have a waiting list of 100. These kids have been to hell and back by the time they’re assigned an advocate.”
The 11th Annual Leo Party will be helping to raise funds for CASA, Saturday, August 17th at the Skylark Hotel in Palm Springs. And their Second Annual Rainbow Fundraiser will be held at Bill’s Pizza July 17th from 11am to 9 pm. Bill’s Pizza will contribute all profits from the day’s events as well as match all customer donations up to $500.
For more information on this extremely important program, follow CASA on FB at https://www.facebook.com/CASARiversideCounty or their website www.casariversidecounty.org