More than 90 children are waiting for an advocate to help them go through the court system due to reports of abuse or neglect, said Kim Davis, executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) Santa Barbara County.
“We have one of the longest waiting lists we’ve had, and we’re working really hard to recruit so all of these children have an advocate,” Davis said.
CASA becomes involved after the court and county social workers have decided that they need to intervene for the safety and well-being of the child, Davis said. CASA’s advocates will work with everyone involved in the child’s life—social workers, biological parents, teachers, and foster parents—to gather information and create a report for the judge so they can make the “best legal choice” for the child’s outcome.
Kelsey Buttitta, Santa Barbara County’s public information officer, told the Sun via email that the county is on track for about 180 entries into the foster care system for the 2023-24 fiscal year, a slight increase from 178 in the 2022-23 fiscal year.
“Although we haven’t seen a big increase in the number of children entering foster care over the past year, each child who enters care has unique needs and we work closely with CASA on a number of projects annually, including the foster care gift drive, to support the individual needs of children in foster care,” Buttitta said.
Davis said that once the school year started, there was a 20 percent increase in kids entering CASA’s care—which isn’t unusual for advocates to see since schools act as a safety net for children and teachers are legally obligated to report signs of abuse or neglect. However, there has been a shift in the demographics.
“We’re serving more babies and see more babies on our waitlist than we ever have. There’s definitely something going on there,” Davis said.
Of CASA’s 91 children on the waitlist, half of them are under 5 and a third are under 3 years old, due in part to substance use, specifically fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times more potent than heroin, Davis said.
Between 80 and 85 percent of CASA’s cases cite substance abuse as the reason the child is in the care of the court—a number that has increased since the end of 2019, Davis said.
“To say 80 to 85 percent of the cases have drug addiction as the reason why the child is in the care of the court, that to me is indicating that the county has a significant problem,” Davis said.
According to Santa Barbara County data, about 749 (35 percent) of the 2,138 adults admitted into county-funded treatment programs from April to June 2023 reported that opioids were their drug of choice. Countywide, emergency room visits for opioid overdoses are higher than statewide rates (79.5 versus 54.8), with Cottage Hospital treating someone for an overdose roughly every other day and diagnosing about 44 patients per month with opioid use disorder.
“Quite honestly I feel like if they had a way they could wave a wand and solve the problem, you would have the added bonus of much fewer children in the foster care system if you didn’t have drug addiction,” Davis said.
CASA needs about 40 more volunteers to become advocates in order to help children get off the waiting list. Becoming an advocate requires a 32 hour training, with half in-person and half online. Following the training program, advocates are sworn in and made an officer of the court for the purpose of serving a child, and they will serve 10 to 12 volunteer hours per month, Davis said. CASA also regularly needs donations of baby clothes and pajamas.
“CASA Santa Barbara County is part of a much larger network in California. There are 44 programs in California … and 950 programs nationwide,” Davis said. “We’re pretty strong and one of the largest programs in California, but that said we feel like all of that doesn’t matter if there’s one child waiting for an advocate, and right now there’s 91.
“We have work to do, and we owe it to these children and these babies to stick up for them and be that voice that advocates for them.”
Visit sbcasa.org/volunteer for more information on volunteering with CASA.