Filling the gaps of the foster care system

Three years ago, someone asked Francisco Martinez Carreon if he wanted something called CASA.

He said "sure," but the then-16-year-old foster youth had no idea what he was getting into.

He also didn't realize that he had invited into his life a man who planned to stick with him forever — a future mentor and older friend who would encourage scholastic achievement while enjoying a movie or maybe a show with Francisco at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

Carreon had said yes to meeting John Gabriel, a Costa Mesa resident and volunteer for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Orange County.

"When you have a kid, you have a kid. I don't say to my kids at 21, 'See ya,'" Gabriel said.

Unlike Carreon, Gabriel, 72, knew exactly what he was getting into. He had been through two weeks of training and had given a lot of thought to volunteering for CASA's county chapter in Santa Ana.

CASA is a nationwide nonprofit made up of more than 70,000 volunteers appointed by judges to help abused and neglected children find safe and permanent housing, according to information posted on its national association website.

Gabriel said he was looking for a way to give back when he heard about the program.

The father of three and grandfather of eight said he was drawn in by the idea that being a CASA volunteer would entail more than sitting on a board of directors, that he would be able to do something directly.

The program is designed to fill some of the gaps for children in the foster care system. The demand for CASA volunteers is obvious to those working in foster care.

Lynda Sloan, CASA of Orange County's community relations director, said children have social workers, attorneys and judges on their side but those advocates are responsible for many youths and often spend less than an hour per month with them.

Twice monthly, a CASA volunteer spends an afternoon with the child — taking him or her on an outing or just hanging out in the shelter or foster home, Sloan said.

The goal is to have a closer relationship with the child that can result in information for the courts about lapses in health or education or even information about a shelter or home that is not fulfilling the child's basic needs.

One of the biggest hurdles for foster children is for them to make it on their own or succeed in life after they are out of the system, Sloan said.

Once a child turns 18 or completes high school, he or she is released from foster care.

Gabriel said he wanted to help slightly older youths because he strongly believes in the value of education.

"I want to talk to them on a different level," Gabriel said. "Seventeen, 18, 19 can be a tough period — they can easily get lost. I feel I can be more involved. And it's fun going to his soccer games."

Carreon said that when he first met Gabriel, he worried that he would have nothing to talk to him about because he was much older.

"He asked a lot of questions and made me talk a lot," he said.

They ultimately spent a lot of time going to movies, seeing shows and just talking.

Gabriel also helped Carreon fill out paperwork for college and financial aid.

Carreon is one of the relatively lucky children in the foster program. Though he bounced from home to home, he has spent most of his years with one family and his foster mother, Becky, who has allowed him to stay past his emancipation from the foster-care system.

"She loves him," Gabriel said. "It's not just one thing she does — it's an everyday thing. She's proud of him."

He also has a dog, Bella, an Australian shepherd that has given him a little focus in his career path.

Carreon is now in the Westminster Police Department Explorer program and plans to stick with that until he turns 21. He said he wants to be a police officer, specifically a canine officer.

"It would combine the two things I like most: dogs and police work," Carreon said.

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