More than 400,000 kids are in the U.S. Foster system today. In California alone, there are 60,000 in care. For many, change is the only constant. They live in different homes with different people, switching schools frequently. Many become homeless after they exit the system as young adults.
SF CASA, or San Francisco Court Appointed Special Advocates, is a nonprofit in the Mission district whose aim is to help these vulnerable youth. Founded in 1991, it’s part of a national network of independent organizations. CASAs are volunteers who work one-on-one with a kid in foster care. They’re sworn in as officers of the San Francisco Juvenile Dependency Court. While a foster youth may have several adults working on their case — caregivers, social workers, lawyers — a CASA is there to thread together the details. They try to provide some stability for children growing up in the midst of a complicated system.
Former foster youth Nick Sullivan moved into his 580 square-foot apartment a little over a year ago. He says it’s the first place that’s felt like home since he entered the system at age six.
"She always listened"
Nick’s Court-Appointed Special Advocate, Chris Unruh, is visiting his new place. It’s been awhile since she’s seen it. He gives a tour and shows her a new black couch and mattress he got on Craigslist. She hands him a bag of sheets for a queen size mattress and warns him that one of them is floral patterned, but he doesn’t seem to mind.
Nick pulls the shutter up in his living room and lets in the sunlight.
“When did you get this T.V?,” Unruh asks, walking around and casually inspecting, as she would do with her own two kids.
Next, Chris checks out the refrigerator. It’s packed.
“Well, there’s healthy stuff. Carrots. Good for you Nick, “ Chris says. “Salad stuff!”
Nick chimes in, “And I got cilantro because I made some tacos [and] pico de gallo the other day.”
Nick’s freezer is equally well-stocked with waffles, pizza rolls and frozen turkey and chicken. Chris is impressed but not surprised.
“He’s quite the cook. He’s always coming up with recipes,” she says.
Chris looks around the one-bedroom apartment and smiles. Nick clears a spot for her on his couch and they sit down together. The two talk about getting a vacuum cleaner and about the past weekend.
When they met in 2010, Nick was 15 and living at the St. Vincent group home for boys in Marin. He was being bullied and getting into fights, but he was also getting pretty good at horseback riding, which the group home offered as a therapeutic activity. One day, sweaty and dirty after a session, he went to the stables to meet his new CASA.
“It was pretty awkward,” Nick says. “I knew someone was coming. No idea who this person was. All I heard was Chris -- not Christine -- so naturally I thought it was a guy. Next thing I know, this sweet lady who, no offense, but older than me is walking towards me and 'oh so that’s her!'”
Although it was awkward, Chris had the inside scoop from his therapist. She had been a CASA before and knew it was important to do her homework.
Nick had one main obsession. So, she asked him, “Seen any good movies lately?”
When he heard that, he thought, “Okay, now we’re getting somewhere.” It was nice to talk to somebody who wasn’t a therapist, teacher or social worker for a change.
Chris and Nick went to a lot of movies to get to know each other. Horror and action movies, like Rambo or Nightmare on Elm Street were some of his childhood favorites.
“Some of the movies…I wouldn’t have chosen on my own,” she admits. “I can’t say I didn’t enjoy them but I wouldn’t have gone there if it had been my choice.”
Going to the movies and out to lunch though, was a way to develop a strong friendship, which Chris says was key.
It was the only way the two could work together to get things done, like staying on top of social workers or making sure Nick graduated from High school
Becoming a CASA taught Chris a lot about the U.S. Foster Care system and foster youth. She’s reluctant to call Nick lucky but she says other foster kids end up changing schools and homes too often.
“The total impermanence of their lives,” she says, is difficult for people to relate to.
Some foster kids sometimes ask their CASAs how much they get paid. When Nick learned that this wasn’t Chris’ job and she was freely giving her time, that was big.
“Kids like us who never had anyone who just wanted to be there for you because they wanted to help you, it changes our view, our perspective on things and it makes us change how we feel about opening up about things that we’ve been through,” Nick says.
It was a transition, getting to know a new person. It took time and patience. Chris visited Nick about once a week over several years, and their relationship grew stronger.
“I’ve told Chris some really damaging stuff that's happened to me. Stuff that would give a shrink PTSD almost sometimes,” Nick says. “No matter how dark, no matter how deep and sometimes no matter how silly it got. She always listened.”
Chris comes from a more typical family structure and didn’t have a mentor while she was growing up, but she’s “glad that [she] could provide some help to somebody else.”
Nick disagrees with her use of the word 'some' and says to her, “What do you mean some? You’ve helped me loads!”
Chris smiles and looks down, hesitant to accept the praise, but Nick continues on. “Not just helped me improve my life, but helped me be the kind of person I am today with her constant persistence on getting things done.”
He lets out a sigh and acknowledges, “As annoying as it was sometimes, it helped. It really helped.”
"It just feels normal"
A big part of a CASAs job is making sure kids receive safe housing. In Nick’s case, he spent half his life in a group home. But a year and half ago, Chris helped him get his own apartment through a supportive housing non profit.
“I’m really glad for him,” she says. Nick “always had a roommate in a very small place. And I know that's not unusual for people, but it’s always nice to have your own space and i’m glad that he has it.”
As happy as he was to move into his own place for the first time, it felt foreign.
“The first 6 months that I was living here, it was actually really lonely cause I was so used to having someone there all the time in my room with me.”
Over time and as he furnished his apartment, he got used to it and now “it just feels normal.”
“I wake up, brush my teeth, I do everything normally,” Nick says. “For someone who grew up like me, feeling normal is all we really want.”
For Nick, feeling normal is not having to worry if the people you’re living with are going to kick you out, or those around you are going to leave.
Like a lot of foster kids, trauma and constant change left him little time for learning how to do things like manage a bank account, or pay the electric bill. Nick says his life started out like a horror or crime movie.
“But now it’s more like a feel good movie,” he says. “You know, something like The Big Friendly Giant.”
Nick is enthusiastic and spouts off factoids about the movie, adapted from a book written by Roald Dahl. “Amazing movie!” he says.
Since Nick aged out of foster care, Chris isn’t his CASA anymore. After 7 years though, they’re like family. The two still go out to lunch and catch-up about once a month.
Nick says now that he’s on his own feet, he feels like he’s finally able to begin life. He’s working and saving up to go to film school.
For more information, visit sfcasa.org. A new CASA training starts October 18, 2016.
Editor's note: In the audio for this story, the host says more than 400 million kids are in the U.S. foster care system. That should have said more than 400, 000. The text has been corrected, and we apologize for the error.