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A Caring Friend in a Callous World

Advocacy: In the county's overcrowded foster care system, a volunteer's help can make all the difference in a child's life.


If you are one of the 73,000 children under the protection of the child welfare system in Los Angeles County, it can be a struggle to make yourself heard.

You have been abused and neglected, so the government has assigned you a county social worker. But that beleaguered civil servant likely has more than 100 other children to worry about. You probably have a lawyer, but one who might represent 500 other kids. And when it comes to life's dilemmas--where you will live, when you will go to school, whether you will see a doctor--a judge often will make decisions that your parents can't be trusted with.

Into this bleak and sometimes callous system steps a rare group of people like Sandra Jefferson.

They are volunteers for the Child Advocates Office of Los Angeles. They help to resolve the cases of some of the most troubled foster children in the county.

The publicly and privately funded office trains and deploys 275 unpaid volunteers who investigate complicated cases and then report their recommendations to the Superior Court judges who have appointed them.

What volunteers like Jefferson, of Culver City, bring to an overwhelmed system is time and focus.

These court appointed special advocates (or CASAs, as they are commonly known) usually carry just a case or two. They spend months trying to determine what will be best for foster kids, who are more accustomed to receiving scant attention.

Jefferson, who has a bachelor's degree in sociology, works full time as an administrative assistant for a television production company.


In her off hours, she is one of the best at the difficult and emotionally taxing task of serving as an advocate, according to attorneys, judges and her supervisors, who this year named her the system's volunteer of the year. The Los Angeles Superior Court also proclaimed her its top volunteer.

"She is somebody who is a born advocate. She is just wonderful," said Rita Cregg, director of the Child Advocates Office of Los Angeles.

"In 12 years, Sandra has never been without a case. There is just a real quality of commitment, while she is working a full-time job."

Her supervisors cite a litany of cases in which Jefferson has altered the course of children's lives.

In her very first case, she was assigned a 12-year-old boy who was angry and lashing out after his mother died and he was placed with an uncle who abused him. Jefferson soon discovered that the boy had never had a chance to grieve; he had never even been allowed to visit his mother's grave.

When she arranged a special graveside ceremony for him, it began a cathartic healing process that continues.

The ceremony also helped Jefferson track down a godmother, who soon won custody of the boy, taking him from the uncle.

A dozen years later, the young man still calls Jefferson occasionally to report that he is a salesman now and doing well.

In another case, Jefferson was assigned a boy who was about to turn 18 and be "emancipated" by the foster care system. He had little training and few prospects. But Jefferson recognized the teenager's potential and helped him apply to colleges, eventually winning not only admission but a full scholarship to Grambling University.


Just last month, Jefferson completed a three-year-long assignment as the advocate for a hearing-impaired girl whom she had served since birth. She spent much of that time analyzing the girl's foster family to decide whether she should be kept in their home and separated permanently from her birth mother, a drug abuser.

The state's child dependency courts terminate the rights of birth parents only in extreme cases, but Jefferson's reports to the court showed that the mother consistently failed to care for the toddler. Even her grandmother failed to believe that the girl had trouble hearing.

In contrast, the foster family rallied around the girl, all learning sign language to better communicate with her.

Over the vehement objections of the girl's blood relatives, Jefferson helped the foster family to win custody and begin the legal process to adopt the 3-year-old, a result that leaves the child advocate smiling.

Such successes keep Jefferson going despite the emotional drain of dealing with an unending parade of drug-addicted mothers, hungry children and absentee fathers.

"The more problems I see, it makes me want to fight more, to find a life for these kids," said Jefferson, who is single. "I always think, 'There has got to be somebody, somewhere who will work with his child.' I just have to keep working."

Superior Court Commissioner Marilyn Kading Martinez--one of 18 judicial officers who decides the fate of foster children at the Dependency Court in Monterey Park--calls the contributions of Jefferson and her cohorts "invaluable."

"If she determines that something needs to be done, she will pursue it and not take no for an answer," Martinez said. "She is very persuasive."


Regulars at the children's court only regret that there not more of the special advocates for children.

"People like Sandra can make a tremendous, tremendous difference for a child," said Jo Kaplan, who is receiving an award from the CASA program for her law firm's advocacy on behalf of children. "It is like having a guardian angel on your side."


The Beat

The Child Advocates Office of Los Angeles recruits and trains volunteers to act as advocates for abused or neglected children who are wards of the Los Angeles County Dependency Court. For more information, call (213) 526-6666.

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