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UNIVERSITY OF SAN DIEGO / Fall 2012

Fall 2012by Sandra Millers Younger

Serve Every Child

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Kathryn Ashworth is on a quest to help kids navigate more easily through San Diego’s foster care system

Even now, more than 30 years later, attorney Kathryn Ashworth hasn’t forgotten the disappointing grade she took away from a summer school section of juvenile law at USD. Each student drew a topic to research during the short session. Ashworth ended up with a real head-scratcher: “Is foster care good for foster children?”

“Finding out the issues took the whole time,” she recalls. “I certainly didn’t come up with a solution.” But potential solutions were exactly what the professor expected; he marked her final paper down. Way down.

“That really annoyed me,” she says, in a tone that makes it clear her annoyance still lingers.

Far more upsetting, however, was the insensitive and often illogical nature of the foster care bureaucracy her research uncovered. Reviewing case after horrifying case, Ashworth eventually did conceive of a real solution to the system’s deficiencies: assign volunteers as official advocates for foster children.

A sympathetic judge put her in touch with retired social worker Elizabeth Bacon, who loved the idea. In 1982, the two women founded Voices for Children, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping foster children navigate a byzantine bureaucracy and find “forever homes.”

Voices for Children became one of the first in a nationwide network of programs that train and deploy volunteer Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) as champions of foster children. Today, the organization provides more than 800 CASAs, who accommodate nearly a third of San Diego County’s 5,000 foster care children.

Kathryn Ashworth recently received San Diego’s 10News Leadership Award for her seminal role in humanizing the foster care system, but she deflects accolades. Her focus remains on the children. “I’ve always 
liked kids,” she explains.

Ashworth came to USD’s School of Law later in life than her classmates, and with a specific goal in mind. A mother of three, with years of volunteer experience in child advocacy programs behind her, she was determined to become the most effective possible advocate for children. She knew that meant earning her law degree, since she’d seen firsthand “that the people who got respect were the lawyers, even though the volunteers knew more.”

After graduating with her JD in 1981 and launching Voices for Children the following year, Ashworth settled into a career in family law, eventually co-founding the firm Ashworth, Blanchet, Christenson and Kelemkiarian, with fellow USD law alumnae Lesa Christenson ‘82 and Sharon Kelemkiarian ‘89. At the same time, she continued to push for improvements in the foster care system with undaunted zeal.

“You can’t treat children the way they’re treated in these systems, embedded in a bureaucracy created only to process cases, without any consideration of child development,” she says. “There’s a saying that a foster child’s luggage is a paper bag, and it’s true. Imagine being uprooted in the middle of the night and taken away from your home and parents, not told why, not understanding. Who can stand that?”

Looking back, Ashworth is gratified to see so many changes in the way the system works, including a shift of priorities from parental rights to child safety; a shortened time frame for unfit parents to “get their act together” and reclaim their children; an end to cavalier labeling of “unadoptable” kids; and official recognition of CASA volunteers.

“When we started, there was no legislation regarding CASAs,” she says. “Now, in California, if there is a CASA program, courts must consider the CASA’s report on a child.”

Voices for Children continues to grow and recruit more volunteers. Just last year, the organization added a special program to better serve infants and preschoolers, who constitute the largest percentage — up to 25 percent — of San Diego County’s foster kids.

USD alumna Christine Consecci ’06, who joined the Voices for Children staff shortly after graduation, directs the infant and toddlers program.
Kathryn Ashworth is retired now, happy to leave the legal work to her colleagues at Ashworth, Blanchet, Christenson and Kelemkiarian, and to her son, James ‘90, also a USD School of Law graduate. But she herself remains active as a CASA.

“I always have a child,” she says. “The last one was adopted by a wonderful couple.”

Nothing could make Ashworth happier.