Marina Bernheimer: Child Advocates of Nevada County provides volunteer advocacy for abused, neglected children | TheUnion.com

Marina Bernheimer: Child Advocates of Nevada County provides volunteer advocacy for abused, neglected children

The shock of the extreme child abuse discovered last week in Perris, California has reverberated across America.

Thirteen children and young adults, ages 2 to 29, were found to be shackled in an ordinary suburban tract home in Riverside County, apparently starved and tortured by their own parents. Neighbors and others seemed shocked by the news.

Child abuse and neglect is a profound problem in the state of California. Abuse happens in families at all socioeconomic levels, with all educational backgrounds, and from every racial background. No family is immune from the possibility nor is it unusual for a family to suffer in silence.

Currently, there are 60,550 children living in foster care statewide. Here in Nevada County, there are approximately 100 youth placed in foster care each year. Child Advocates of Nevada County runs the Court-Appointed Special Advocate program to provide caring and comprehensive support for all youth who are removed from their homes.

Advocate volunteers are specially trained to help children who have been removed from their homes due to severe abuse and/or neglect. The group establishes a caring relationship with the child, researches and meets with all the stakeholders (teachers, doctors, foster parents, social workers), and actively pursues needed services for the child in collaboration with foster parents and social workers.

While stories like the recent Perris tragedy grab headlines for a day or two, we must ask the bigger question: what happens to these children now and to children like them in our own community?

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Once suspected abuse is established, Nevada County Child Protective Services usually removes the children and assesses immediate needs such as medical attention and psychological counseling. The children are placed in foster care or with a family member, and in some cases, remain in the home under close supervision.

This is an extremely traumatic time for these children, and they need caring support and comprehensive services to promote resiliency and a healthy future. In order to better meet the needs of these children, the Nevada County Dependency Judge assigns a Court-Appointed Special Advocate volunteer to support these children on a one-on-one basis.

Advocates work in collaboration with social workers and other caring professionals to ensure that the child's needs are being met. As an "officer of the court," a volunteer writes court reports, advises the judge on the child's status, and make recommendations for the most appropriate placement. Volunteers can make transformative differences in children's lives, and provide vital input to judges and the child welfare system as they make decisions for the child's future.

Advocates are usually one of very few consistent, dependable adults in a foster child's life. As a former foster youth stated, "I had an attorney and a social worker assigned to working with me, and a foster parent, but all of those adults were paid to be in my life. Except for my (Court-Appointed Special Advocate). As a volunteer, I knew he was there because he wanted to be, not just because it was his job. That meant everything to me."

The goal is to find permanent placements for all foster youth as soon as possible, where the children can feel safe and thrive. But the sad reality is that some children, especially the older ones, must live in foster care for their entire childhoods.

Regardless of how much time they spend in foster care, all kids need a caring and trusting adult by their side to help them navigate the emotional and logistical challenges of the foster care and court systems. That's what our volunteers do, every single day.

Child Advocates is currently accepting applications for our Spring Court-Appointed Special Advocate Training which will be held from April 2 through May 9. To learn about how to become a volunteer, or to find out more about the work of Child Advocates, go to http://www.caofnc.org.

Marina Bernheimer is the executive director of Child Advocates of Nevada County, which runs Nevada County's CASA program.