Keeping watch over kids in the system

Richard Robitaille feels gratified when the twins race to him, waving greetings.

They're not his children; they're not even related. They are 5-year-old boys who he has nurtured for more than a year with his wife Patricia.

Although this responsibility befell the Huntington Beach residents as part of their work with Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), they doled out the same care that they would have given to their own grandchildren, who are about the same age.

"Watching their personalities change, although it's nothing drastic, gives me a warm teddy bear feeling," said Richard, 73.

The siblings were 2 years old when they were taken away from their mother and placed in a group home. That's where the Robitailles first met them.

According to Patricia, the boys' emotional and behavioral issues could be linked to hardships experienced in childhood. While the goal was to keep them together, CASA was struggling to place the brothers in a foster home.

"They found a really good family that wanted to adopt the boys," said Patricia, 66. "But what wound up happening, through a lot of counseling, support and time with Rich and I, is that they are going to be permanently reunited with their mom soon."

Richard deems this a "success story" because the optimum outcome is for children to return to a regular Iife with their own parents.

Patricia described an absence of stable support in the lives of most CASA children, making the advocates' contributions even more valuable.

"They've been taken away from their parents," she said. "Foster homes can be very inconsistent, and they might move frequently from one to another, so they just don't have someone who is really on their side. It is really emotionally reassuring, helps them feel good about their lives and gets them through a lot of difficult times when they have someone to spend time with."

CASA, the nation's sole provider of court-appointed advocates for foster youths, includes an Orange County chapter that serves half of the nearly 3,000 abused and neglected children in the local foster care system.

These children make their way to CASA based on recommendations by dependency court judges, attorneys and social workers, Chief Development Officer Susan Kirkland said.

"The most severe cases are referred to CASA," she continued. "These children have no family to support and love them."

The organization, always keen to enhance the services it provides, is hosting a "Celebration of Children Black and White Ball," a fundraiser featuring a silent auction, on May. The Santa Ana-based group will celebrate 28 years of community volunteerism from 5:30 to 11 p.m. at the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach.

An advocate, a child who has been successfully emancipated and a corporate sponsor will be recognized at the gala, as well as this year's Children's Champions, Jon and Carol Demorest. The event, which typically attracts 600 to 800 guests, will be emceed by Emmy Award-winning news anchor Christine Devine, who spearheaded Fox's "Wednesday's Child" segment, working alongside Los Angeles' Department of Children and Family Services.

Aspiring actor and filmmaker Darnell Cates, 18, who was adopted when he was 9, will serve as the keynote speaker, while guest performer Jamal (aka Nexus) will treat the audience to hip-hop music that took root during his stint in a group home.

Robitailles will not be present at the ball, which Kirkland said is a tradition that goes back to CASA's inception in 1985.

"The 'Celebration of Children Black and White Ball' is our main fundraising event for the year," she said. "We raise nearly $1 million each year and our budget is $2.7 million, so you can see the important role it plays. It's also about 'friend raising' since it increases our visibility in the community."

She also cautions people not to get the wrong idea about CASA. Just because its name contains the word "court" doesn't mean it receives any government funding.

"We are privately funded by foundations, corporations and individuals," she said.

What begins with an introductory information session for those interested in participating leads to an intensive 30-hour training program, made up of a background and DMV record check, finger printing, submission of an autobiography and interview. Not everyone who begins training ends up at a judge-led swearing-in ceremony, which also marks the start of the matching process between 1,000 youth and 650 legal advocates.

A longtime teacher, Patricia was forced to retire in 2010 because of the loss of nearly 95% of her vision. Derica, a black 4-year-old labrador-retriever mix, has been glued to her side ever since. The seeing-eye dog also provided an additional companion to the boys, she said, adding,"They're just in love with her."

"I got involved with CASA after I retired from teaching because I wanted to continue working with children," Patricia said. "I wanted to be able to go and do things with them, but I'm visually impaired so I asked Rich to join me because I can't drive."

Patricia's interest in education also motivated the couple to attend CASA classes equipping them to be educational representatives for children who lack that type of backing. A young girl, with whom they will soon begin work, already has a caseworker but no one to assume her educational responsibilities.

While CASA requests that advocates meet their children at least twice a month, the Robitailles tried spending 15 to 20 hours a month with the twins. The group went to the park, library and beach and took in movies.

When the boys would notice the couple waiting for them outside their school, they would run toward them to say hello and bombard them with details about their day.

They didn't always behave this way.

"The boys were very shy and withdrawn at first, and demonstrated tantrum-like behavior because they felt threatened and insecure," Patricia recalled. "Now I see tremendous growth — I've watched their confidence build. They approach situations differently since we started seeing them and also verbalize what they like and don't like."

While it is common for the brothers to build Legos and play ball with Richard — before and after which the Robitailles are showered with hugs — the couple avoids expensive outings and gifts. This creates competition within children in foster care, they said — a situation they have been asked to avoid.

"That misses the point of what CASA really is," Patricia said. "It's not to be extravagant. It's just to be a down-to-earth and supportive person."

Kirkland indicated that "trust and mutual respect" are at the core of these one-on-one relationships, which have only one goal — the children's best interests.

"Many of the relationships between an advocate and their child last a lifetime," Kirkland said, recalling one who homed in on a hearing-impaired child's need to learn sign language, or at the very least be provided with an aide, while another investigated birth and school certificates only to realize that a child had been accidentally placed in the wrong grade.

"This kind of stuff happens a lot because these kids move around so much and things fall through the cracks," she said. "CASA provides someone who cares about, listens to and respects them. And it means so much to the children that they are doing it because they want to, not because they are being paid."

Despite occasionally getting frustrated with a system that renders them "powerless" even when their boys are facing challenges that may demand extra assistance, the Robitailles offer compassion and help the best they can. Not as emotional about the siblings as their mother is, the couple have even guided her on handling diverse circumstances.

"It's just nice for us to see the boys be warm, happy and content with their lives right now, or at least most of the time," Patricia said.

If You Go

What: Celebration of Children Black and White Ball

Where: Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort & Spa, 21500 Pacific Coast Hwy., Huntington Beach

When: 5:30 to 11 p.m. Saturday, May 18

Cost: $375


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