I met the girls a few months after the morning their dad killed their grandmother. They slept in the next room as their grandmother took her last breath. When their mother arrived home from work, she discovered their dead grandmother lying on the floor of the bathroom. The girls’ father fled, and was later charged with murder and taken into custody. After questioning by the police, the girls’ mother admitted to frequently using methamphetamines, along with the girls’ grandmother and father, triggering removal of the girls from the home.
In a single morning, the girls – not yet in first grade – had lost their grandmother to murder, their father to prison, they were headed to a strange place with unfamiliar people, and they didn’t know when they would see their mother again.
After the judge granted temporary managing conservatorship of the girls to the State, they were placed in foster care. To get her children back, the judge ordered the girls’ mother to compete outpatient drug rehab, to take parenting classes, and to provide a safe home environment for the girls. The girls were placed in a lovely foster home where they were able to walk to school, attend swimming classes, and, most importantly, have every need met.
Though they were happy in their foster placement, they wanted nothing more than to be back with their mother. The judge approved visitations between the mother and her girls, which were held weekly at a location approved by Child Protective Services (CPS). Without fail, the girls sobbed uncontrollably at the end of each visit with their mother. They made it abundantly clear that the only thing they truly wanted was to live with their mother again.
Fortunately, this story ends much more positively than it began. Getting her children back became this mother’s entire reason for living. She got clean, completed her services, and worked two jobs to secure housing for the girls. At the final hearing, the judge asked each person involved whether they believed he should order reunification. Everyone was in agreement.
This is the story of my very first case as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). Assigned to the case shortly after the children were placed in foster care, I spent time with the girls each month, driving them to and from school functions, observing visits with their mother, reading stories and doing art projects. I consulted my CASA supervisor along the way, as I drafted court reports and attended permanency conferences and hearings. I got to know the girls’ CPS caseworker, their attorney, their foster family, their therapist, and their mother.
Shortly after the case was closed, I remember being asked to name someone I admire. Without hesitation I told them that I truly admired the children’s mother. She overcame years of abuse by her own mother and her children’s father. She kicked a terrible drug habit. She made the decision to overcome her circumstances so she could get her children back. She made a lot of mistakes, but she persevered and ultimately turned her life around.
I remember being told by seasoned child welfare advocates at the time that this was a very uncommon outcome. Many times, parents don’t try that hard, if they try at all. Sometimes siblings get split up into different foster homes. Sometimes the older children get into legal trouble, drop out of school, get pregnant, become addicted to drugs, or they grow up in foster care, never having the opportunity to experience the love and stability of a forever home. Sometimes parents relinquish their rights to their own children. Sometimes a CASA is the only person who isn’t paid to be in these children’s lives. Sometimes a CASA is the only person who really listens to them, spends time with them, and works to get to know them because they truly care.
CASA is different from other organizations that focus on child welfare, because its volunteers advocate for children in court. It’s not just about mentoring, though there certainly are great opportunities for that. As a CASA, you can play an outsize role in determining your child's future. If you work to build a solid rapport with your child, he or she will feel comfortable sharing things with you that they may be unwilling to tell the CPS caseworker or their attorney. You will have information others involved in the case may not, information that may drastically alter the direction of the case. You will have the opportunity to make connections in the case that may have gone unrecognized without your involvement. The judge will care about what you have to say about the case. In fact, in my experience, regardless of whose court, the judge has addressed me directly and asked for CASA’s perspective in nearly every hearing. At the very least, you serve as an extra set of eyes to ensure the child's needs are met and the judge is provided a perspective that won't come from anyone else involved.
Last year, the State confirmed 66,703 cases of child abuse and/or neglect. Unfortunately, we know that there are many at-risk children who haven't been checked by CPS, and even more instances of abuse and neglect that haven't been reported. The safety of all at-risk children is in the hands of an imperfect system, causing too many children to fall through the cracks. As the effects of a broken child welfare system continue to make headlines, it's hard not to feel helpless. Crises like this can seem too overwhelming and too complicated for any one person to do anything about. The good news is that you have the power to do something. You can make a difference in the life of an abused or neglected child. Serving as a CASA is one of the most meaningful things I have ever done, and I encourage everyone who is interested to attend an information session. If you feel strongly about protecting children from abuse, becoming a CASA will fulfill your calling to serve.
If you’d like to get involved with CASA, but don't have time to serve as an advocate, the next best way to help is to give financially. CASA's first priority is to secure volunteers, striving toward the ultimate goal of assigning a CASA to every case. To do this, CASA uses different strategies to recruit volunteers, and pays staff to train and supervise them. There are countless organizations that do many great things, but I’m asking you to consider supporting one that makes a monumental difference in advocating for some of our society’s most vulnerable members. If you’re looking to make a charitable gift before the end of the year, please consider CASA. A small investment will make a big impact on improving the lives of abused and neglected children.