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LOCAL HERO

Acting in the Best Interests of Children

March 06, 1997|LIBBY SLATE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"In the back of my mind, I always knew I'd be a lawyer," says first-year UCLA law student Erica Bristol. "I'm a good arguer. I always stand by my point of view, no matter what."

Since fall of 1995, Bristol, 30, has been putting that conviction to good use in another legal-related endeavor: volunteering as a court-appointed special advocate (CASA) to champion the rights and wishes of one of the 47,000 minors caught up in the Los Angeles County foster care system.

"Social workers have 60 to 90 cases, and attorneys have more. They're extremely bogged down, overworked, under a lot of pressure," says Bristol, whose charge is "Judy," a 14-year-old girl whose identity she cannot reveal. "CASAs can save time, make it easier to get information. They get the child's point of view. I'm totally advocating on behalf of the child and nobody else. Her needs and desires come first. She knows that."

Besides visiting regularly with Judy, Bristol's responsibilities include talking to Judy's social worker, attorney and teachers; making sure everyone has accurate, updated information; visiting the teenager's school; submitting status reports for court hearings and reporting verbally at those hearings; and being on call should an emergency arise. She also provides a consistent presence in a system with rapid social worker and attorney turnover.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday March 10, 1997 Home Edition Life & Style Part E Page 2 View Desk 1 inches; 13 words Type of Material: Correction
Local Hero--In Thursday's Life & Style, Erica Bristol was misidentified in a photo caption.

"An advocate has a two-year required commitment. During her experience, the child can interact with so many people who are temporary, so she never builds a lasting relationship with anyone in the system," Bristol says. "If a child is taken out of her home, which is pretty traumatic, and then is with someone temporarily, it's difficult to learn how to trust anybody because she won't know how long they'll be in her life."

Judy has been in the system since she was 8, removed from her home because of her parents' drug abuse and handed off from one relative to another when her troublesome behavior proved too difficult to handle. Judy has since settled down, in large part because of Bristol's empathy and support in the absence of appropriate parental influences.

Bristol, a vivacious self-described "go-getter" who last summer toured California playing electric bass in a five-woman rock / rhythm and blues band, tries to be a role model for the teenager. She was assigned to Judy by a CASA supervisor who thought Bristol's own experience would serve as encouragement to the girl.

Though Bristol grew up in Altadena in a "typical middle class family," she says, she dropped out of college after two years and worked as a secretary. She returned to school in 1994, studying political science full time at night at Cal State Los Angeles while keeping her day job, graduated last year and entered UCLA Law School in September.

"Not completing college right after high school, you see how limited your world is, how people are passing you up," Bristol says.

Accordingly, she emphasizes to Judy the value of education, the importance of good grades and the possibility of attending any college the girl aspires to regardless of her current lot in life. When Bristol decided that Judy's public school was not challenging enough for the talented writer, she located a magnet school offering journalism and got Judy admitted.

Since last May, Bristol has also served as the CASA for Judy's 17-year-old brother, guiding him away from the temptations of gangs and drugs in favor of school and helping the two, who live separately and had not seen each other for some time, to reestablish a relationship. "I'm just trying to keep them out of trouble," she says. "They're good kids, in their hearts. You can tell."

"These two teenagers really like Erica," says Donna Carson, a program supervisor for the Child Advocates Office of the Los Angeles County Superior Court, who matched Bristol with Judy. "It's a rare find to get someone just turning 30, who's already achieved so much in her young life and is as inspiring as Erica is. She's always able to put forward their best interests, their feelings. Because of her educational advocacy, she is not letting these bright kids fall through the cracks."

Bristol's charges are not permitted to give interviews, but a now-20-year-old Los Angeles woman who had been assigned a CASA volunteer as a teenager described perhaps the greatest benefit she received from her. "Your social worker won't go to your graduation, but your CASA worker will," she says. "Having a CASA makes you feel like someone cares for you. A lot of kids in the system need to know that. They need to know that someone cares."

For information about volunteering to be an advocate, call (800) 628-3233.

* This occasional column tells the stories of the unsung heroes of Southern California, people of all ages and vocations and avocations, whose dedication as volunteers or on the job makes life better for the people they encounter. Reader suggestions are welcome and may be sent to Local Hero Editor, Life & Style, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.

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