Today we’d like to introduce you to Aishwarya Bhave.
Thanks for sharing your story with us Aishwarya. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
I have been a CASA – Court Appointed Special Advocate – for almost eight years. I first decided to volunteer because I wanted to be involved in social causes that impact families and children. I was also curious about the functioning of the foster care system that is responsible for one of the most vulnerable populations in this country; neglected and abused kids.
I am an engineer by profession and work in the tech industry. I always joke that I meet a lot of big babies in my day job but don’t have the opportunity to work with young ones. Being a CASA fulfills that wish. Understanding policies, systems and services satisfies my wonky side.
I am also an immigrant. When I first came to America, I didn’t think there were any challenges left to solve. This country had it all. I mean, there was running hot water in every faucet. Most of the rest of the world can only dream of such luxuries. Over the years, I’ve realized that every corner of the world has work still to be done, a process to be improved, a suffering to be alleviated. This country has taught me the spirit of social involvement. That our community is only as beautiful and just as we make it.
I honestly did not know what to expect and even after many years, it is difficult to describe the role of a CASA. The foster care system is very overburdened and social workers and attorneys don’t always have a lot of time to dedicate to every child. I found myself being a glue between numerous services that surround foster children; DCFS, mental health services, educational services, school districts, individualized education plans, medications, children’s attorneys, foster care-givers, group homes and juvenile justice courts. CASAs are appointed by the children’s court (LA County Superior Court, Juvenile Dependency Division)
As a volunteer, I could sometimes catch things if they fell through the cracks. It could be as simple as noticing that the child might benefit from corrective eye-lenses or tutoring. It can be as serious and bringing attention to side-effects of a psychotropic medications or help them navigate the criminal justice system. Also, I learned quickly that there are lots of experts and services available to these kids. Instead, I could fill the void of a caring, consistent adult who can show them that they are loved and help them see their own promise and potential.
I currently advocate for three foster children; two toddlers and a young adult who I have been with for over seven years. Its been a learning and rewarding experience in a unique way. I often feel that I’ve gained more than I’ve helped. At CASA, people say that love heals trauma. As a volunteer, you get to witness it. At the last court hearing to begin adoption process, my toddler CASA child sat in my lap in a three-piece suit, with the foster family next to us, and drooled over my arm. Easily the best 20 minutes of my week! A few years ago, my teenage CASA youth gave me an honorary “trail” name – ‘Moonlight Songbird’, because I “always try to shine a light on the way forward”. A bit dramatic, yes, but sums up the role quite well.
We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
The struggles and obstacles are all faced by the children. It can be gut-wrenching to witness them suffer the consequences of the actions of adults who should have protected them. But children are extraordinarily resilient, unpredictable and fun-loving. I am the annoying planner who likes to problem-solve by making lists of tasks and checking them off. This work has taught me to step back and meet the kids where they are in life, hear their thoughts and wishes. Sometimes the wish might be just a laser-tag outing and triple ice-cream. That is just as important as educational advocacy.
There are a lot of systemic challenges. Emotional turmoil of losing family, lack of resources, unstable housing, frequent changes in schooling, systemic inefficiencies and statistically adverse long-term outcomes. But there are invisible barriers too. We all had failures and set-backs growing up but had the safety net of family, privilege and involved adults to help us back to our feet. Children in the “system” often don’t have that. It is empowering to know that we all can be that safety net for some child.
Recently, I have seen the effects of institutionalized foster care as my CASA child becomes an adult. Twenty-five percent of kids aging out of the system face homelessness and a higher percentage face incarceration. Even though I have no formal qualifications in law, I’m learning that as a CASA, I am able to advocate for better outcomes and interventions even in the criminal justice system.
We’d love to hear more about your organization.
CASA of Los Angeles mobilizes volunteers to advocate of behalf of children in foster care system who face neglect and abuse. Children who are deemed to be living in unsafe home environments due to variety of reasons become wards of the court. Some cases are referred to CASA by judges, attorneys or children’s social workers if it is felt that the children could benefit from additional support.
It is a unique kind of community service; it enables common people from all walks of life to connect with kids growing up behind invisible walls of an intricate system that even adults would find difficult to maneuver.
From a volunteer’s perspective, CASA of Los Angeles is special. It is built with people that are true believers of the cause. Most of the employees and staff come from a background in social work, children’s services and social entrepreneurship. Many of the employees themselves are CASAs. Several have fostered children. Many others have adopted children from foster care. This deep connection is evident in their ardent devotion for the work. They are not just administrators running a company. Their work is fueled by empathy.
There are many organizations doing amazing work in this field, but I am certain none have a bigger heart than CASA.
So, what’s next? Any big plans?
I would love to see CASA continue to grow from strength to strength. It has come a long way since 2011 when it became a true non-profit organization to today with over 1000 volunteers and 1300 children served.
New programs and new ways of being involved are being piloted, including early childhood advocacy and juvenile justice advocacy for justice involved teenagers. It will open new paths and focus. There is a lot of institutional and policy advocacy work to be undertaken, as well.
There are 30,000 children in LA county foster care system today. My desire would be for each one to have a CASA and for 30,000 citizens to have a volunteering opportunity that will enrich their lives.
- Website: casala.org
- Phone: 323-859-2888
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Instagram: @casa.la (https://www.instagram.com/casa.la/?hl=en)
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CASAofLA/
- Twitter: @CASAofLA (https://twitter.com/casaofla?lang=en)
- Other: LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/casa-of-los-angeles/
Images were provided by National CASA-GAL for the #ChangeAChildsStory campaign (https://nationalcasagal.org/)