By JOYELL NIVENS | Downtown & Uptown News
Sometimes, it’s the little things that ma ke the biggest difference.
In the San Diego Juvenile Dependency Court system, the arm of the San Diego Superior Court focusing exclusively on foster youth, children 10 and over have the right to attend their dependency hearings and to speak on their own behalf.
According to the Judicial Council of California, San Diego’s dependency courts handle more than 1,200 cases a year. However, a plethora of obstacles have made that appearance right for many of those children’s cases sometimes difficult to enact. So, Children’s Legal Services of San Diego (CLSSD) and Voices for Children have teamed up to reduce one of those stumbling blocks.
A Comfortable Space
The private non-profit CLSSD, founded in 2016, focuses solely on representing juveniles in the dependency court system. It is the first of its kind in San Diego County, and consists of four law firms.
The teams of attorneys and investigators can also serve as guardian ad litem for their juvenile clients. According to Executive Director Carolyn Griesemer, CLSSD provides “vulnerable clients with zealous advocacy in and out of court.”
She said that these advocates noticed that while their clients often wanted to be at their own hearings, many felt uncomfortable in the court setting.
Youth would have to sit in court hallways on long benches for up to several hours at a time, waiting for their case to be called. Often, they were seated close to the person who had caused the abuse or neglect. They would also have to miss school for these appearances, which had academic consequences.
Enter in Voices for Children, the non-profit organization designated by the San Diego Superior Court to provide trained volunteer Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) for foster youth. CASAs and CLSSD minors’ attorneys were already working closely together to provide for their clients. That collaboration extended when CLSSD reached out to Voices to help provide an inviting space for foster children in the court building.
“We asked Voices for Children to partner on this issue after receiving input from former foster youth about the importance of feeling like they are part of a decision which determines major issues in their lives,” Griesemer said.
There are now two special supervised and private spaces for foster youth awaiting court procedures. The first, the Children’s Waiting Room, was remodeled through efforts by CLSSD and funding from the San Diego County Board of Supervisor’s Neighborhood Redevelopment Program.
The grant funds, along with monies from the Superior Court, provided new toys, colorful furniture, and age-appropriate technology for young children awaiting their hearings. The room is not only supervised from within, but outside access is also carefully monitored to keep the children safe.
The second room was renovated through the talents and efforts of Voices for Children, with funding by the CLSSD. It is a Teen Resource Center for the older juvenile clients.
The room includes computers, a phone, and a host of resources provided by community service organizations who support foster children and transitional age foster youth in San Diego County.
Resources are organized by region and support category. Categories include housing, tutoring, higher education, aptitude and strengths testing, extracurricular activities, employment, professional development support, and healthy living. Teens can learn about job fairs, work on homework, and even build a resume, all while waiting for their hearing.
The center is staffed by a Voices for Children representative. It can also be a space for youth to meet with their attorneys in confidence.
“The changes made through this collaboration provide an age-appropriate space for [youth who are victims of abuse or neglect] to await their hearings away from people who might make them feel uncomfortable or unsafe,” Kelly Capen, president and CEO of Voices for Children, said.
Griesemer added, “While these spaces previously existed within the juvenile courthouse, an overhaul was required in order to make the youth feel encouraged and welcome to attend their hearings.”
She noted that this overhaul is just one of many improvements being made within the San Diego Juvenile Dependency Court system to ensure that the minors have a “positive and empowering experience” even in the midst of their trauma.
How You Can Help
Although the waiting rooms are fully stocked at the moment, CLSSD is still seeking donations for the new Care Bag Program. Children coming into foster care often are doing so in an abrupt situation, leaving them little time to pack or grab favorite possessions. What they do bring often is packed into a trash bag.
CLSSD is endeavoring to provide a “Care Bag” to youth in these situations. This is an actual duffle bag or suitcase with basic necessities and comfort items for the youth to keep. This program is in conjunction with the Thursday Club Juniors, Forever Kids: Case for Character, Just in Time for Foster Youth, and D&K Engineering.
For more information or to get involved, visit clssandiego.org/carebag. You can also call (858) 221-0404.