The police found 4-year-old Sammy and her baby sister crying hysterically in a blood-spattered motel room; a disheveled stranger lay on the floor. The baby was filthy and hungry, with no food–just a bottle of spoiled, moldy formula. Mom was incoherent. That night, Sammy and her sister were removed from their birth mother for the second time. And for the second time, a CASA volunteer stepped in to comfort, reassure, and advocate for Sammy in the courts so that she and her sister could be placed in a warm, safe, and loving home, and eventually be adopted.

While that true story is difficult to read, it is not rare. Not by a long shot. The statistics are not just sobering, they are disturbing; they are alarming. In California, nearly 27% of all children ages 6 – 10 are abused or severely neglected. For children ages 11 – 15, it’s 20%. And for babies less than a year old, it’s 15%. And these are just the ones who are documented with substantiated cases.

In 1977, a Seattle judge found himself making decisions about abused and neglected children’s lives without sufficient information. He came up with the idea to use trained community volunteers who could speak for the interests of these children in court. In 1990, Congress passed the Victims of Child Abuse Act, which helped support the expansion of CASA programs across the nation. San Luis Obispo County launched its first CASA year in 1993. This year, CASA of SLO County invites you to help them celebrate 25 years of service to children like Sammy.

CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocate and is the name of both the organization and the volunteer—a trained volunteer appointed by a judge to speak for the best interests of abused and neglected children in juvenile court proceedings. The advocate serves as the eyes and ears of the court, making sure that the needs of each child are met, with the goal of ensuring they grow up in a safe, caring environment. Volunteers are carefully screened and vetted, then given 30 hours of highly specialized training before they are assigned to a child.  Teresa Tardiff, CASA’s Executive Director since 2005, was delighted to talk about the growth and change in SLO County CASA since its birth 25 years ago.

Beginning with just a few staff working in a small office on South Street, CASA now has 15 staff and moved to a bigger office at 75 Higuera Street. Trainings used to be held at St. Stephen’s Church, and are now taking place in CASA’s own conference room. That growth has included that all the cases involving abuse or neglect, not just a few, are now referred to CASA. The use of Cal Poly interns who review cases and develop a priority list gives CASA the time and information needed to find the best fit for each child.

“The big difference,” said Tardiff, “is that these changes allow us to be treated as a much more professional collaborator. All the principals involved—from the judges to the lawyers to the parents—now recognize our value. CASA operates independently, bringing a unique perspective to the system. This perspective is valued by our collaborative partners.” Tardiff, an attorney with undergrad degrees in Psychology and Early Childhood Education, started with CASA in 2002. She has been a volunteer herself for 8 children, has served on numerous committees on foster care, and was awarded the prestigious John L. Seitz Award for Tardiff said another big change has been the expansion of CASA to North County. Forty percent of the children in foster care in our county reside in North County. A generous grant from North County’s must! Charities funded the salaries of two new advocate supervi- sors enabling CASA to dramatically increase the number of children served. CASA has a new office located in Atascadero where training and case management occurs.

“We are making an important impact,” said Tardiff. “The growth is satisfying to see.”

As she prepares her organization for the next 25 years, Tardiff said she hopes to see continued growth toward a goal of having a CASA for every child who needs one. That will someday mean another move to an even bigger office, maybe one with a kitchen where CASAs and their kids can come to cook and spend time together. She is grateful for the increase in her marketing budget that allowed them to hire one of the premier marketing agencies in the county, Verdin. Now more people know about CASA and more trainings are being offered. And she is especially grateful for the support of Gold Sponsors like LeftLane Sports. Six years ago, CASA’s board was searching for a way to make its income more stable than the unpredictable funds that come in from individual donors every year. They decided to find corporate sponsors who could commit a fixed amount of money every year for three years running. In return, CASA would be pleased to promote that company. LeftLane Sports was the first to step up.

Located in San Luis Obispo, LeftLane Sports offers all things sport: shoes, clothing, and gear for all manner of athletic endeavor: running, cycling, triathlon, outdoor, and action sports brands for sale at up to 70% off their retail price. LeftLane also offers fantastic travel adventure packages, including treks in Croatia, Chile, Slovenia, Egypt, Southeast Asia, Peru, Nepal, and Kilamanjaro. LeftLane is donating one of these exotic trips as a raffle prize for CASA’s 25th celebration, Rendezvous, in September. For more about LeftLane Sports, please visit www.leftlanesports.com.

“They went for it right away,” said Tardiff. “In 2013 they became part of the CASA family. Their employees are proud of the association with us, they come to all of our events, they buy auction items, they contribute amazing raffle prizes. … LeftLane really cares about our cause.”

On September 15th, the public is invited to join LeftLane Sports, along with other corporate sponsors, CASA volunteers and staff for a gala celebration. This signature event, aptly named Rendezvous, offers gourmet dining, fine wines, exciting live and silent auctions (including the now-famous cake auction!), compelling young speakers, and musical entertainment—all at the San Luis Obispo Country Club, starting at 5 pm.

For ticket information please visit www.slocasa.org. Or call 805.541.6542. If you are 21 or older, and have a few hours to donate each week, please consider becoming a CASA
volunteer. It’s an especially rewarding way to give back, and children like Sammy will never forget the difference you made.