ENCINITAS — Shortly after moving to Encinitas 30 years ago, Kate Gibson received a visit from a neighbor looking for help.
During a short walk to her new acquaintance’s home, Gibson learned her neighbors were a foster family who had just taken in a nine-year-old boy the previous night. The boy was set to start school that morning but had locked himself in a closet.
Gibson had previous experience working with children but nothing quite to the extent of raising foster youth.
“He was just the sweetest boy that had the look of terror on his face,” Gibson told The Coast News. “There was just something about that moment. I always think that once your heart is touched by something, you can’t turn that off.”
Gibson said that what she saw that day led her to become a direct advocate for foster children.
However, it wasn’t until years later when Gibson became a court-appointed special advocate, or CASA, through the organization Voices for Children.
According to the group’s website, Voices for Children trains volunteers to serve as CASAs in San Diego and Riverside Counties and a judge appoints them to get involved in a child’s life. Unlike social workers with high caseloads, court-appointed special advocates “are able to focus on just one child or sibling group at a time.”
“Years later I heard about them and kept telling myself this is the year, I’m going to become a CASA this year,” Gibson said. “And every time I thought I chickened out or thought I was too busy or whatever the case was, but that moment with that boy is what kept me coming back.”
Gibson finally took the leap about four years ago to become a court-appointed special advocate. Just recently, Gibson saw the first child she worked with find a forever home.
According to the County of San Diego Health & Human Services Agency, 38,653 referrals were made to the child abuse hotline concerning the safety and well-being of 44,500 children in San Diego County in the fiscal year 2019-20. Of those children, approximately 1,200 entered the foster care system, with 62% of children in foster care in San Diego County being five years old or younger.
Currently, there are roughly 3,530 children and youth in the county are receiving some kind of child welfare service, whether extended foster care or other kinds of social services.FY19-20_Triangle_Chart_Data (1)
Gibson said her work as an advocate can help to keep some of those children from falling through the cracks of the system.
“Like most systems that are large, nothing happens quickly. It’s a slow process,” Gibson said. “And I think the more professionals on one of our kids’ cases, the more time put in, the more energy and hard work that is put into it, it speaks to the foundation of what CASAs try to do.”
Gibson said the work of a court-appointed special advocate is to build relationships with abused and neglected children. For many kids in the system, an advocate is the one person that sticks with children through a variety of difficult moves, ranging from homes to schools.
A CASA works with other caseworkers, teachers and school administrators, lawyers and others attached to a child’s welfare case to make sure they are getting the care they need.
“A CASA has a very unique view when it comes to advocacy. We can look at their school records and say what’s this pattern going on here, then we connect it with the fact they haven’t been to therapy in three months. There’s just a nice consistency there,” Gibson said.
Even after her experience helping the young boy with her neighbor 30 years ago, Gibson had a lot of doubts about her ability to become an advocate for children. But once her heart was touched during that interaction with a scared little boy, her heart has never stopped caring for foster children.
Kelly Capen Douglas, president and CEO of Voices for Children, said the organization is grateful for local advocates such as Gibson who help thousands of foster youth children every year.
“It is an honor for us at Voices for Children to support Kate and more than 1,000 community members who stepped up this year to serve as CASA volunteers for children in foster care in San Diego County,” said Douglas. “This year, we will advocate on behalf of more than 2,000 children, ranging in age from birth through 21. Time and time again, CASA volunteers serve as a trusted voice for children, providing crucial advocacy to ensure that they have access to the resources they need during their time in the foster care system. We are inspired by and grateful for their dedication, their tenacious advocacy, and their caring and consistent presence in the lives of our community’s most vulnerable children.”
And for those considering joining the profession, Gibson believes that anyone can be a strong advocate for a child struggling in the system.
“I truly believe that if someone has the tiniest doubt about looking into becoming a CASA, they should follow through with it,” Gibson said. “Because it will take you places that you never could have imagined and I can say that for myself.”