Among all the investigators, caseworkers and lawyers assigned to Susana Delgadillo when she was in the custody of the state, her court-appointed special advocate was the one constant.
Delgadillo, now 21, of Northbrook, said her advocate helped her in lots of ways, from checking in on her younger siblings to helping her further her education. The two keep in touch regularly now that Delgadillo is an adult.
"I tell her my goals. She sends me pictures of her dogs," Delgadillo said. "It's a true friendship."
The nonprofit CASA Kane County, the largest such program in the state, needs more Spanish-speaking volunteers in the dual role of court appointed special advocates and guardians ad litem. The volunteers advocate for the best interests of abused and neglected children within the juvenile court system.
Out of 265 active volunteers, just 13 are bilingual, or less than 5 percent, program coordinator Maria Casas said. That's compared with 468 youths in the program, 15 percent of whom are bilingual with families who mostly speak Spanish.
Having bilingual volunteers means sharing the same language, but ideally also the same culture, Casas said. "It makes them feel that they are understood," Casas said.
The Daily Herald won't identify the advocates by their last names, also omitted from court documents, to protect their privacy.
Volunteer Paulita, a native of Puerto Rico and Aurora resident, said it's easier for families to accept that her role is not adversarial, but about ensuring the child remains safe.
"It helps them understand the process better,"said Paulita, who's been volunteering for CASA Kane County since 2008.
Not all youths want to keep in touch once they are out of the foster care system, but that's OK, Paulita said.
"If I can help a child out there to have a better way of life, then I'm going to do it," she said.
Gabe, also a Spanish-speaking advocate from Aurora, said the role is all about speaking on behalf of the youths, with their well-being the primary concern.
He visits the youths about once a week, communicates regularly with the program supervisors and attends court dates every six months or so.
Gabe said he has lobbied for a variety of things for the youths, from better backpacks to securing rides to school and helping kids join sports programs.
"Some (kids) might want to shut you out and some accept you as a friends. It's always different," he said. "The more you're involved, the more they see that you care. ... Once they see that, they feel more open to you."
The task can take an emotional toll, but it's well worth it, he said.
"When you reunite the family and you see the joy on a child's face at being reunited, it's worth it," he said. "Sometimes they don't go home but they go to a better home. Either way, it's a win-win for them."
Volunteers go through multiple interviews; a comprehensive background check, repeated every four years; 40 to 45 hours of training, including a live case simulation; and 12 hour per year of continuing education on topics such as internet safety, said Catherine D. Battista, vice president of advocacy and operations.
Volunteers are assigned a supervisor, who becomes the "go-to" person for questions, concerns and even frustrations, Gabe said. The agency also has an attorney that represents them in the courtroom.
"They treat you as a member of the team, as if you're getting a check with them," Gabe said.
Paulita agreed. "When I need help, when I get stuck," she said, "I can tell them to help me out."
Delgadillo said she hopes more Latinos will volunteer to help children who are living through the uncertainty and turmoil of the foster care system, as she once did.
"I didn't have that (shared culture) with my (advocate) but that was OK because I grew up here," she said. "Many kids just have that Latino culture and that's all they know. So how can they relate to someone who doesn't understand their culture?"
For more information, contact Casas at firstname.lastname@example.org or (630) 232-4484.