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Victim services grant will aid foster children by expanding CASA

The Merced County District Attorney’s Office will expand victim services with the Court Appointed Special Advocates program, thanks to a $373,000 grant from the federal Victims of Crime Act.

The grant will enable the District Attorney’s Office to hire a victim witness advocate who will work with CASA and also provide resources for the program to recruit and train additional advocates.

“CASA volunteers and I believe we have a moral obligation to change the life path for these children, who, through no fault of their own, often find themselves adrift and rudderless when they most need help and guidance,” District Attorney Larry D. Morse II said in his announcement of the grant. “The advocacy provided by CASA volunteers can literally save foster kids from becoming sad statistics in our community.”

CASA is made up of trained volunteers who advocate for the best interests of children in the foster care system. For an abused or neglected child, a CASA volunteer is someone who listens to and fights for that child by reaching out to teachers, social workers, mental health professionals, parents, lawyers, caregivers and anyone else who can address that child’s needs, Morse said.

CASA of Merced County has 82 advocates serving 110 foster children, according to the District Attorney’s Office.

“While we cherish each of our volunteers, there is so much more that needs to be done,” said Shar Herrera, CASA’s executive director, who co-wrote the grant application. “There are more than 550 children in foster care, and our goal is to have a CASA advocate for each and every one of them.”

Morse said the foster care system is “inextricably tied” to public safety.

“Statistics have long shown that foster kids and high school dropouts are the two most consistent categories of individuals who end up in jails and state prisons,” Morse said. “Unfortunately, fewer than 15 percent of the children in the foster care system receive the type of services and support that can be delivered to them through CASA and the District Attorney’s Victim Witness Assistance Program.”

CASA volunteers must complete 30 hours of training and 10 hours of court observation before being sworn in as an officer of the court. Volunteers are trained to advocate for foster children in the courtroom, classroom and community. Each CASA volunteer is matched with a child and a volunteer peer coordinator who guides them as they work with a child. The CASA volunteer visits with the child on a regular basis and provides information to the court. CASA volunteers spend an average of eight to 10 hours a month on their foster child’s cases.

Morse encourages those interested in helping foster children to contact CASA of Merced County at 209-722-2272 or Mercedcasa.org.

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