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Teen girl is lonely

Who Speaks for the Children?

When I was a teacher and principal, I was occasionally involved in custody issues between parents who wanted to punish each other by using their children as pawns in their battle for control. I often thought, “Who speaks for the best interest of the children?” That’s why a small ad in the local paper inviting people to an information night regarding a group called CASA caught my eye. I had heard of CASA and knew it to be an effective resource in helping children caught up in difficult situations. I went to the information meeting and was overwhelmed by what I learned.

CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocate. A CASA’s job is to befriend a child in the foster care system and to be their advocate—to speak for them in court—especially in regard to their home placement. CASAs’ reports and recommendations are given heavy consideration because they know their children better than anyone. Social service caseworkers must divide their time and attention among 40 or more children. Attorneys may have as many as 100 clients. Teachers deal with the needs of 20–25 students. CASAs typically spend several hours every month with one child, just being together or doing something the child enjoys. Although there are boundaries, we try to be non-judgmental and simply become one consistent, caring adult in the child’s life.

I was in tears and mentally screaming, “SOMEbody has to DO something!” I looked around and saw that somebody was me. I was used to dealing with children whom both parents fought over. CASA deals with children whom, in most cases, nobody wants and who, consequently, end up in the well-intentioned but flawed foster care system. I learned about 6-year-old Jimmy, for example, whose parents were neglectful and abusive, and who was removed from his home in the middle of the night with no time to gather even the basics—not even his shoes!  Although he was placed in an excellent foster home, his one wish was to go back to his own home—a wish that most foster children harbor no matter how bad the circumstances. That wish never came true. He remained in foster care until aging out at 18 after experiencing multiple homes, schools, and challenges. By the end of the evening, I was in tears and mentally screaming, “SOMEbody has to DO something!” I looked around and saw that somebody was me.

I have been a CASA for about four years. My most recent assignment was a 4-year-old who had been severely abused by her mother‘s boyfriend.  She was living under a bridge with her mother and younger brother, with occasional nights spent in hotel rooms as her mother earned a little money. She often went hungry because food money had been spent on drugs. The court removed both children from the mother’s custody, placed them in a juvenile center, and then put them in a group home that housed six children under the age of 6. That’s where she was when I first met her. She made no eye contact and simply stood in the middle of the room, looking sad. She was finally feeling safe in the home she was in and was afraid I had come to take her away. For several weeks she was reluctant to have me come, but I brought puzzles and coloring books and just sat at the table with her, involved in the activities. Of course, her brother and the other children in that home joined in, and she gradually learned to relax and trust me.

After two and a half months, she and her brother (who were inseparable) were moved to a foster home, where there were seven children of all ages, including three biological children of the foster parents. The foster parents were nurturing and were considered for adoption, but they weren’t quite ready to make that commitment. So my child and her brother were moved to another foster home, where they were the only children and where the foster parents were on the path to permanent adoptive placement. The parents are providing a loving and rich environment, and the children are thriving. They are affectionate and are open and ready for new experiences. My child, who was afraid to make eye contact, now is involved in track, swimming, and gymnastics. She loves to participate in school performances and enjoys art and reading. She loves to play school and wants to be the teacher, which sometimes involves me sitting “crisscross applesauce” and answering questions about the story. After months of bureaucratic delays, she and her brother were officially adopted into this family. She is no longer my CASA, but she is still my friend, and I will continue to spend time with her.

I was able to be the consistent, caring adult in her life during this traumatic time. During the two years I worked with this child, she had been taken away from her birth mother and placed in four different homes and six schools, four of which were during the first eight months. I was able to be the consistent, caring adult in her life during this traumatic time, and I am amazed at her resiliency and courage.

There are many similar stories. Malena* is diagnosed with high-functioning autism. She is chronologically 11 years old and developmentally five. She was removed from her mother, who was unable to care for her due to her own mental health issues. In the two and a half years of being in foster care, Malena has lived in a group home, a foster home, a nurturing relative placement, and then a group home again. In the process, she was separated for the first time from her older sister. Throughout all these placements and changes the one steady, non-paid person in her life she knows she can count on is her CASA. Her CASA has attended countless meetings on her behalf and has advocated for her needs. She has taught her life-skills that often slip through the cracks for children in foster care, such as how to tie her shoes, how to count money, how to write her name, and when her birthday is.

Karen is 16 years old and had been in foster care for three years with the same family. Her birth parents abuse drugs and have not participated in the counseling services offered to pave the way for reunification. The foster family was on track to adopt Karen, but she ran away and accused her foster parents of being emotionally abusive. After some time in a group home, she was placed in a new foster home. But after two weeks, the foster mother found drug paraphernalia in her room, which was unacceptable. Karen is currently living in a group home and receiving counseling to help her deal with her feelings of loss and abandonment. She would benefit from a CASA’s care and advocacy.

Because CASA is a secular organization, I was concerned about my potential inability to talk about Jesus. But I have found that God opens doors.There are many personalities and needs to be addressed. CASA tries to match the volunteer with the child. In Orange County, California, 30 hours of training are involved, but each state/county has its own criteria. A background check and good driving record are required, as well as swearing in by a judge. The important factor needed, however, is the ability to love and care for a child who needs you.

Because CASA is a secular organization, I was concerned about my potential inability to talk about Jesus. But I have found that God opens doors, and I have been able to share my beliefs freely. The CASA organization in my area is “Christian-friendly.”  Many churches sponsor CASA events.

Somebody has to do something. Could that somebody be you?  Many CASAs are current or retired educators. Being a CASA has been one of the most remarkable and rewarding experiences of my life. It is the cup of cold water Jesus recognizes in Matthew 10:42 and answers His call to serve the “overlooked or ignored (Matthew 25:37–40, The Message, Eugene Peterson) in response to His unconditional love for us. Every state’s CASA program is different. In some states, a CASA is called “guardian ad litem.”  There is a national group called National CASA Association—CASA for Children, so, please, find out how you can volunteer where you are. You are also welcome to contact me to discuss more about my personal experiences (carolynsims@hotmail.com).  Be the “somebody” that makes a real difference in the life of a child.

Dr. Carolyn Sims is the retired principal at Abiding Savior Lutheran School in Lake Forest, California and is finding retirement the perfect opportunity to serve in the community in ways there was never enough time for before. She has served on a variety of synodical and district boards and committees and has written devotional and curricular materials for Synod, CPH, LEA, and Lutherans for Life.

*Names have been changed to maintain confidentiality.
**Sources for this article were provided by CASA of Orange Co., CASA/Matthew Wadlinger.

Photos © iStock/SkyNext