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Couple Put Interests of Children First

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

By the time Charles entered the lives of Sue and Steve Forstadt 1 1/2 years ago, the 6-year-old was foundering in his 12th foster home, his prospects for surviving childhood intact sinking with him.

The husband-and-wife team, who volunteer as Los Angeles County Court Appointed Special Advocates--or CASAs--jumped at the chance to help the youngster, whose life, they learned, had been marred by sexual, physical and psychological abuse.

“These kids have been dumped by their parents,” Steve Forstadt, 56, said. “There’s no one in their lives who provides any consistency. We’re there to advocate for them, one child at a time. And we’re hooked.”

The Forstadts’ commitment to help abused and neglected children turned out to be a blessing for Charles, for whom they found a loving foster home. He received immediate psychological and educational help and a lavish amount of affection.

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“It’s a helluva feeling to be able to help a kid like that,” Steve Forstadt said.

“As you get to know the child, you get to see you’re making a difference,” Sue Forstadt, 56, said. “No matter how little I feel we’re doing, I know we’re doing more than anyone.”

The Calabasas couple are actually doing a great deal. Five years ago, the Forstadts, recently retired, were seeking a hands-on volunteer experience. They heard about the CASA program, whose 300 volunteers assist more than 50,000 abused and neglected children in Los Angeles County.

After about 40 hours of training, a judge appointed the Forstadts as officers of the Dependency Division of the Los Angeles Superior Court, and they were handed their first cases.

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As advocates, they investigate every detail of their child’s circumstances--from checking school and medical records to interviews with family members and neighbors--and then submit a formal recommendation to the court for the child’s placement. They stay with the child’s case for two years.

“The judges are eager to hear our assessment,” Steve Forstadt said. “We’re unbiased and factual.”

“The Forstadts are a remarkable couple who approach their CASA duties with big, open, loving hearts, and they’re able to maintain objectivity and a sense of humor,” said Sue Thompson, assistant director of the Child Advocate’s Office. “They balance each other so beautifully.”

The high school sweethearts, who have been married nearly 37 years, are indeed a team, finishing each other’s sentences and clarifying each other’s thoughts.

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The New York natives moved to Los Angeles with their two daughters 28 years ago. Steve Forstadt worked in the women’s apparel business while his wife raised the children.

“Like most people, we lived in our own worlds,” Sue Forstadt said. “We didn’t have any background in dealing with abused kids. . . . I quickly realized you don’t need much training. You just need to care.”

Thirty-five cases later, the couple continue to advocate for their charges, recently helping to place three young brothers with an adoptive family.

Today the couple will stand by Charles’ side in court and put their weight behind his foster family’s request to adopt him.

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“We’re just trying to do what we would do for our own kids,” Steve Forstadt said.

“With all the bad parents and the horror stories we have seen, we still come across the best people,” Sue said.

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Personal Best is a weekly profile of an ordinary person who does extraordinary things. Please send suggestions on prospective candidates to Personal Best, Los Angeles Times, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth 91311. Or fax them to (818) 772-3338. Or e-mail valley@latimes.com.

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