Merced Matters: CASA helps foster kids find homes

Nancy Young-Bergman, 67, is one of the founders of the Merced County branch of the Court Appointed Special Advocates, a national network of 933 community-based programs.
Nancy Young-Bergman, 67, is one of the founders of the Merced County branch of the Court Appointed Special Advocates, a national network of 933 community-based programs. tmiller@mercedsunstar.com

Nancy Young-Bergman helps foster children find their way home.

As a founding member of the Merced County branch of the Court Appointed Special Advocates, a national network of 933 community-based programs, Young-Bergman did a lot of the unglamorous administrative wrangling to help build CASA in Merced.

“Most of the children, the majority, are in the system through no fault of their own,” Young-Bergman said. “They’re victims. Their parents have been abusive, neglected them and are unsafe and they’ve been removed from unstable homes.”

The program has earned the admiration of many local officials such as Merced County District Attorney Larry D. Morse II.

“They’ve done a phenomenal job for Merced County,” Morse said. “Nancy’s a great asset. She’s done a tremendous service for those kids.”

The program was founded in 2010 and works with agencies such as the Merced County Human Services Agency to care for area foster children. Shar Herrera, CASA executive director, said the program volunteers advocate for “the best interests of the children” to the courts.

“We’re basically another set of eyes and ears for the courts when it comes to the children,” Herrera said.

Herrera said Young-Bergman’s ability to navigate bureaucracy and establish strong contacts at different levels of government was critical to the program, especially early on.

“She’s done so much, she’s so dedicated to the children,” Herrera said. “She was one of the key people that helped get the program up and going so quickly.”

According to CASA officials, Merced County has one of the highest per capita foster care caseloads in the state. Each year the county investigates thousands of child abuse reports. As of last week, the Merced County CASA program was overseeing 75 children directly. In a county with more than 900 current child welfare cases, Young-Bergman said, there’s always more work.

Young-Bergman interacts with many of the children at the group’s weekly Friday Night Fun events.

“There are a lot of rules protecting these kids, so many involving confidentiality so I can’t talk about it specifically, but they all need so much love and affection that it can be hard to not just pick them up and hug them all the time,” she said.

Helping foster children wasn’t something Young-Bergman was sure she could do when the program first came about.

“Honestly, my biggest fear was that I wouldn’t be able to be a good enough role model,” she said. “I had an intact family growing up, so maybe it would be difficult to relate or for them to relate to me.”

She quickly learned her own feelings of isolation and disconnection from her parents and her natural empathy were more than enough to empathize with lonely displaced children.

“We all have stories, we all can relate in some way and all of us (in CASA) share a deep compassion for children in troubled circumstances,” she said.

Young-Bergman was second-oldest of five children born in Arkansas in 1946. Growing up she often felt “very disliked” by her parents, she said, and later in life she “escaped” an abusive spouse, leaving with her then 11-month-old daughter.

She said she overcame early struggles, obtained advanced degrees and began administration work at large hospitals in Texas and later in California. She moved to Merced in 2005 and married her husband, Don Bergman in 2007. She said she’s close to her siblings and has a strong family now.

“Merced is really the first community that I’ve ever really felt like I was a part of,” she said. “I think some of us tend to downplay our community here, but I feel like we have a lot to be proud of and should feel really good about ourselves.”

She said she and the others involved in CASA all feel an innate compassion to help children in Merced. “Children in these situations always feel like it’s their fault, the things they’re going through with their families,” she said. “Kids always want to know, ‘What’d I do wrong?’ They often become scapegoats in these dysfunctional families.”

Similar to her own life, she said events and circumstances joined with hard work to form the program, and everything “just seemed to come together.” She’s quick to share credit with dozens of people from many organizations.

“I really think the whole organization is amazing; our youth advocates are so well trained and everyone on the board is so dedicated to these children,” she said.

The program’s ultimate goal, Young-Bergman said, is to reunite children with their families whenever possible. But, she said, reunification isn’t always the best option.

“Nobody wants to simply send a child back to a negative environment or abusive parents,” she said. “Those times, we all work together to find that child a home, preferably with an aunt or uncle, but just somewhere they can feel the love and the acceptance that all children need, that all children deserve.”