Maricopa County processes thousands of kids through the foster care system each year. There are currently 6,300 children under the age of 18 who are in some form of foster care, whether it is living in a foster home, shelter, group home, a detention center or correctional facility.
The process of who gets admitted into the system isn't as cut-and-dry as one might think. It can be drawn-out and complicated, especially when the children are reluctant to leave their families, even if they are coming from an abusive household.
When Child Protective Services receives a tip that children may be in danger, they investigate. If there is enough evidence that yes, the children are in danger, CPS removes them. Within 72 hours of removing a child or a group of children, the information gathered in the investigation is presented to a judge, who decides if the child should stay in foster care or be returned to their family.
If the judge decides that the child's parents are not capable, that is when Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA, steps in.
CASA of Maricopa County currently has 350 volunteers that serve about 650 of the 6,300 kids in the foster system.
The organization is there to do many things for these children. On the legal side, volunteers give them a voice in court hearings to influence where they will be living for the next six months or longer of their lives.
On the social side, volunteers take on a significant role - to show them that the environment they grew up in may have been dysfunctional.
"The families have been living in dysfunction for so long, they don't know it isn't normal," Ahwatukee Foothills resident and CASA volunteer Tracy Ryan said. "You try to get them to understand that it has gotten to a crisis where your health and safety and welfare are being questioned."
Ryan has worked on two cases since she started volunteering with CASA six years ago.
A spokeswoman said that each case, from the time the children are removed by CPS to the time they are reunited with their family or find a permanent home, lasts a little less than four years.
Ryan's first case involved three girls and lasted three years. She would visit with the girls each week or every other week, pick them up from their foster care and take them to movies, out to eat or whatever else they wanted to do.
"It was almost like a field trip for them," she said.
The most important part for the girls, Ryan noted, was that she became a constant at a point in their lives where things were constantly changing.
"They were all separated at one point and I would pick each one up to take out and I think to them I was the one unchanging aspect of their lives," Ryan said. "They shared with me lots of things and not things they share with foster parents. I eventually helped get them back together in a foster home."
The volunteer's input in the courtroom can be influential in determining where these kids will be living.
They have at least four court appearances each year to lobby on behalf of the children. Two visits involve meeting with a judge and two are meetings with the Foster Care Review Board.
"It's huge because the kids aren't there," said Justine Grabowsky, outreach specialist for CASA. "They share information on behalf of the child to the judge that he might not necessarily know is happening."
Right now, only about 10 percent of children in the foster care system have someone to represent them in theses hearings.
Grabowsky said they are always in need of more volunteers, but it takes a special type of person to complete the review process and training it takes to become one.
"We get hundreds of applications each month but only about one in 10 are eligible to become volunteers," she said. "We need more volunteers, but the training is intense."
It usually takes 90 days from the time a person initially turns in an application to the time they pick up their first case. In between are background checks, a two-hour polygraph, and a 32-hour training session which involves information on child abuse and trauma.
"You have to be a little more dedicated," Ryan said. "I feel blessed to be able to do it and I know there is a great need for it."
Ryan described her experience as "just being there" for whatever the children need. However, when the case is completed and the kids move to a permanent home, everything about their relationship must be erased.
"I had to shred all the documents, delete all the emails and sign an affidavit that said I did these things," Ryan said. It was after three years that the three girls she represented were returned to their mother.
"I always wonder about it, I wonder what they are doing and what happened afterwards but I know I can't pursue it," she said. "But I got an email from their mom recently, wishing me a happy Mother's Day."
While their time together may be short, you can bet that these volunteers make long-lasting impacts in the children's lives.
To find out more about volunteering, visit CASA at www.MaricopaCASA.org or call (602) 506-4083.
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