Children in the foster care system are often appointed an advocate to help them through this incredibly difficult time in life. It’s a relationship that can change lives. But right now, an advocate shortage has many local foster care children stuck on a waitlist.
Sitting on the couch at her apartment in Salinas, 21-year-old Tanae Gabot can see nothing but a bright future ahead. She recently graduated from a Medical Assisting Program. Once she lands a job, she’s plans to help a local foster care child by becoming a volunteer advocate with the non-profit Voices for Children – CASA of Monterey County . “You would never think, you know, that something just a volunteer can do for a child would make a big impact, and it really does,” said Gabot. She would know. When her life was turned upside down, a Court Appointed Special Advocate, or CASA, was there for her.
It all started when her father passed away. She says soon after, the family lost their home, her mother lost her job and turned to drugs. Just 14-years-old, Gabot found herself living in motels with her mother, brother and sister. When they couldn’t scrape up the money for a room, they lived on the streets of Salinas’ Chinatown. That’s where she says Child Protective Services found them back in 2006. “It tore me up to find out that I was going to get taken away from my Mom because I felt like she was trying,” said Gabot.
That was the beginning of Gabot’s new life. She moved in with a foster family, routinely went to court in hopes of reuniting with her mother, and constantly met new adults sent to help her, from her foster parents to her social worker and judges. So when she met Jackie Steakley, she was not about to let another stranger in her life. “I thought it was just going to be another lady that’s working for the county and wants more information,” said Gabot, “so when I first met her, I was just very cold shouldered towards her.” Steakley didn’t work for the county; she was Gabot’s Court Appointed Special Advocate. Her job was to get to know everything about Gabot, to advocate for her at school and in her foster home, and to let the judge know what was in Gabot’s best interest. It’s a job that wasn’t so easy when it took months for Gabot to open up. “But I would be there in my car, picking her up from school, and she’d roll her eyes and she’d get in. And it’s now 2013, and she just left the office this morning, and we are very close, very connected. We’ve been through a whole lot together, and I’m so proud of her,” said Steakley. She advocated for Gabot throughout high school, working with teachers to get needed tutoring, and helping her to become the first of her siblings to graduate. She also advocated for her to get more visits with family members, and helped Gabot apply for college financial aid. Steakley says her reward is seeing Gabot succeed and knowing that success will inspire her siblings. “I think everybody wants to help. I think a lot of people don’t know how to help. I think people are basically good, and they want to do something that helps change the world and the generations,” said Steakley.
But right now not enough people have stepped up to help local foster care kids. In Santa Cruz County there are 15 children on a waitlist for an advocate at CASA for Children of Santa Cruz County. In Monterey County, there are 80 children on the waitlist. “So we have a very, very serious need for people in the community to get involved to come into training and get moving with this process,” said Siobhan Greene, Executive Director at CASA of Monterey County. Volunteer advocates commit to 40 hours of training. Then they meet with their foster child about every other week and spend time checking in with the child’s teachers, social worker and foster family. “It’s definitely a commitment of the heart. We do a lot of help our advocates to keep their boundaries in tack, but we need people who compassion, and who have desire to really be around a child and help a child,” said Greene.
As for Tanae Gabot, she reunited with her mother only after she became too old for the foster care system. Now with both their lives on track, they live together in this Salinas apartment. Her advocate Jackie Steakley is still a huge part of her life. “Even though my Mom, you know, she’s here right now, it’s like Jackie stepped in sort of in that place to where when she tells me you can do it, and I know I can do it,” said Gabot. After she lands her first job as a Medical Assistant, Tanae hopes one day she can return to school to become a Registered Nurse or Physician’s Assistant.