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Overcoming Obstacles, Creating Connections

Anthony Pico and Chris, his chosen family
Anthony Pico (left) considers Chris a member of his chosen family.

Anthony Pico spent most of his life in and out of the foster care system.

Anthony entered the foster care system when he was left behind by a drug-addicted mother. He was placed with his mother’s Aunt, Donna, who later adopted him. Anthony describes his time with Donna as being defined by years of neglect and the failures of the child welfare system. When Donna died when he was 14, Anthony moved in with her sister, the first caring person in his life. She died in front of him three years later.

Despite what might seem like long odds, today Anthony is not only leading a successful life—working as a legislative aide and preparing to go to college in the fall—he has made a name for himself as a very vocal foster care advocate. Anthony has spoken at conferences, fundraising events and on college campuses. His drive to share his difficult life experiences with others was featured in an episode of This American Life (20 minutes).

Like many former foster youth, Anthony will tell you that “he’s had a really crappy life, but he’s come out stronger because of it.” One source of Anthony’s strength has been his ability to make meaningful connections with caring adults. We asked him to describe a few of those relationships—both formal and organic—and share his thoughts about how CASA volunteers can support those connections.

The thing about growing up in foster care is that you can have a place to stay, but you can be without anyone. Just because you live with someone does not mean that they care.

A lifesaving pairing

I met my first mentor, Jacob, through a college AmeriCorps program. He was integral to my ability to live through my teenage years. I met him at 16, about a year before my aunt Joan died. She was the first person who ever cared for me, and she had a heart attack and died in front of me. I felt utterly hopeless and alone. The family I had left blamed me for everything that was going on, including Joan's death. Their treatment drove me to contemplate suicide—to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge—but Jacob stopped me.

In addition to being the person who saved my life, Jacob was the person that I could go to for friendship, for being a role model. Eventually we parted ways—he transferred to Berkley, I moved to Sacramento. But I never resent my mentors and friends when we part ways. I live my life by remembering that people are in your life for the time they are needed. You never lose them, you keep them in your heart.

Requesting a CASA volunteer

I learned about CASA volunteers when I was speaking at the National CASA Conference. I didn’t know much about CASA, but after I heard about CASA from other foster youth—what a difference their CASA volunteers had made in their lives, that their CASA volunteers really listened and really cared—I asked that one be appointed for me.

My aunt died a year after I got my CASA volunteer, Jeff, and I started shifting through the system. Jeff was really good at making sure we sat down and went over our court case and discussed what I was needing at that point in time. And he served as my educational advocate. We still stay in touch, talk periodically, and I’m sure that when I graduate from college, he’ll want to be there.

The thing about stability in my life is that I don’t need you to be there every day, every waking moment, I don’t need you to answer every one of my calls. I just need to know that you will get back to me sometime.

Chosen family

Chris is the executive director of a commission—the Blue Ribbon Commission on Children in Foster Care—that I have sat on for five years. The year my aunt died he invited me over for Thanksgiving, then for Christmas. That was four years ago. Our relationship has gone from his doing his job to his wanting to be sure that I was not alone to what it is today: We are close friends and chosen family.

I was talking with Chris about college the other day, what happens if I leave the Bay Area for the East Coast in the fall. I asked him if I could I stay with him when I came home for the holidays. He was surprised. He said, “Of course you could stay with me. Why would you even ask that question?”

The CASA volunteer’s role

It is not the main goal of CASA to provide lifelong relationships for youth like me, this is true. But it is inevitable that we feel close to our CASA volunteer, that our volunteer may be one of the few people we can trust. That our CASA volunteer is one of the few people who genuinely care about us. It just comes with the territory.

I’ve been lucky to have some outstanding mentors and role models placed in my life. But I’m also the kind of person who will seek people out. I’ll say to someone, “I feel that you would be an asset in my life. How would you feel about being a person in my life that I can turn to?” And people generally say yes! How do you turn away someone telling you that they feel you are a strong person?

For young people who are not as outgoing, I believe their CASA volunteer can help by identifying the other caring adults in the youth’s life and helping to make connections. For example, when a CASA volunteer goes to an IEP meeting and notices that a teacher is very caring, and cares about the youth or child as a person, not just as a student, the CASA volunteer might ask that teacher how he feels about being connected to that youth in the future.

Thank you to the San Francisco CASA Program, who introduced Anthony to us.

 

The US Department of Justice has supported CASA advocacy since 1985 through its Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
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