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ANN CONWAY

Some Special Ports in a Storm for Abused, Neglected Youngsters

February 13, 1995|ANN CONWAY

Imagine welcoming two toddlers into your home who fear darkness, light and water, who have hardly known a hug, kiss, or tender touch.

That is what Linda and Fred Port beheld that weekend in 1985 when, as volunteers for the newly established Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), they committed themselves to the emotional renewal of two physically abused children whose parents were involved in drugs, prostitution and other criminal activities.

Because of their neglect, the children had become part of the juvenile justice system, assigned by the court to a foster home until a permanent residence could be found.

The Ports, trained by CASA to advocate the best interests of children who are dependents of the court, agreed to relieve the foster family on weekends. They hoped to integrate the toddlers into their family, which included three teen-agers.

"Within less than six months, these very shy and fearful children became members of the family," said Fred Port on Friday night at CASA's 10th anniversary dinner held at the Sutton Place Hotel in Newport Beach. "They were hugging, kissing, crying, loving, bonding--we were doing all the things that a family with five children would do."

Said Linda Port: "It was wonderful to see our 'babies,' as Fred and I called them, learning to take care of each other, to hug and kiss each other. When someone reaches out to these children, they respond so incredibly. A little goes such a long way."

CASA, a nonprofit organization that protects the rights of abused children involved in legal-dependency proceedings, was founded by the Junior League of Orange County after research into the county's foster-care system revealed a sore need for help.

"Junior League has always been involved in children's issues," explained Marcia Adler, one of the founding members of CASA and a past league president. "Founding CASA is our biggest endeavor in terms of a league project for our community."

CASA volunteers not only establish a personal relationship with dependent children, they provide the court with the information necessary to reunite them with their families or provide for their adoption.

"It is important to keep in mind that we are working with these children because of their abuse or neglect--not because of something they have done," Adler noted.

Anyone who wants to become a child advocate is eligible to serve CASA, which is solely supported by community funding. "All a person has to do is contact our CASA office in Orange," said Adler. "They have two training sessions per year and they are quite interesting and intense.

"Each volunteer learns exactly what the system is, how a child is removed from its home and becomes part of the system," she said.

"They learn the concerns and legalities of the process and discuss the rights of the parents, the children, and the county. They also learn about their own legal responsibilities and those of social service."

Cases can range from a baby who is addicted to crack cocaine to a 15-year-old with a history of sexual abuse, noted Fred Port, who was chairman of Friday night's "Celebration of Children."

"The challenge for CASA is to find the right course for the right child," he said.

After volunteers complete their training, they are sworn in by the juvenile court, and as cases come up, are appointed to them.

"Advocates look over a situation and make a determination of what the needs of the child are," said Susan Leibel, CASA's executive director. "They come up with recommendations and objectives about what's in the best interest for a child--a special support role, a friend role.

"And, of course, there is always the court advocacy role--making sure a judge has all the information he or she needs to make a decision about a child. CASA volunteers become a child's voice in court."

Since it was founded in 1985, CASA has provided support for more than 2,000 abused and neglected children and trained more than 900 volunteers.

*

Friday night's festivities--which included a tribute to Adler and her CASA co-founders Nica Sheward, Cele Donath, J. Michael Hughes, and Lydia Tyler--began with a cocktail reception, continued with a sit-down dinner, and concluded with dancing to the sounds of Barry Cole and his orchestra.

One of the evening's highlights came when Cindy Davis--an advocate who supervised one abused boy's case for nine years--was named outstanding CASA volunteer. "Hopefully, I gave him a feeling of security," Davis confided during dinner. "He knew I was always there, no matter what happened.

"Sometimes the answers for these children aren't exactly what you want them to be," she said. "But I've learned that, even though they may not be perfect, there are good answers.

"You may not be able to turn a child totally around, but you can help him begin to make steps in the right direction."

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