Photos by K2 Images
When Mark was 12 years old, Child Protective Services (CPS) removed him from the custody of his mother, a substance abuser, for gross neglect of his health, medical, and educational needs. Mark (thin, pale and malnourished) had developed a severe bone deficiency; as a result, he had scoliosis, his legs were disfigured, and his gait was affected. In addition, many of his teeth were rotten, and he desperately needed dental care. Furthermore, Mark’s mother allowed him to stay up all night and sleep all day. He did not play outside or attend school. CPS placed Mark in foster care.
In 2005, Mark’s life took a positive turn. Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Walker County was organized and, for the first time, Mark—as well as dozens of other children who were a part of the state’s overburdened foster care system—gained a volunteer who advocated for his well-being.
“CASA is a non-profit organization that trains everyday people to become child advocates,” says Debbie Sapp, executive director of CASA of Walker, San Jacinto and Trinity Counties. “A child advocate represents the best interests of children in the foster care system, speaks up for the child, and makes recommendations to the judge. Their ultimate goal is to find a safe, permanent home for the child as soon as possible.”
Because Mark’s health was precarious, swift medical care was a top priority. Unfortunately, finding treatment presented a dilemma. His dentist said dental work could not be done until bone issues were addressed; his orthopedist said bone deficiencies could not be treated until dental work was done, due to the risk of infection. Meanwhile, Mark had begun attending middle school, where other students ridiculed him. In a quandary, Mark’s advocate and the CASA staff decided to seek evaluation and intervention at Texas Children’s Hospital.
Texas Children’s Hospital accepted Mark’s case at no cost. There, his dental work was accomplished. (Almost all of his teeth had cavities; some had to be removed.) In addition, Mark underwent several surgeries over the course of the next year and a half to correct his scoliosis and leg disfigurement. Once the staggering burden of medical care was lifted, Mark’s adult brother and sister-in-law agreed to provide a home for him and entered into a permanent managing conservatorship.
It’s this kind of outcome that is most gratifying to CASA volunteers. Now CASA of Walker, San Jacinto and Trinity Counties, the organization is proud to have 50 volunteers now advocating for children who are removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect. Currently, Debbie says, about 95 percent of these children have volunteer advocates assigned to their cases.
Having an advocate can be crucial for children in the foster care system. “Studies show kids in foster care who have a CASA are less likely to become incarcerated, and they are more likely to graduate from high school,” Debbie says. “A friend of mine who is a schoolteacher said, ‘Once you know about CASA, how can you not volunteer?’”
CASA of Walker, San Jacinto and Trinity Counties accepts all cases from the tri-county area, with CASA staff handling each case until a volunteer advocate can be found. A typical CASA volunteer spends 10 to 15 hours per month to see a case to its conclusion, which usually takes one year. Most CASA volunteers serve on one case at a time. While CASA volunteers serve as advocates for all ages of children (from babies to teenagers), about half the children served are five years old or younger.
Volunteers come from all walks of life. “They are people who want to make a difference. They have a love of kids and compassion for those who have been hurt,” Debbie says. She believes Vicki Spriggs, CEO of CASA of Texas, said it best. She said, “We offer a ‘premier professional volunteer opportunity.’”
Volunteer advocates must pass a background check and take a 32-hour training course. They must be able to write court reports and must have enough self-confidence to speak before a judge; computer skills are a plus, but are not mandatory. The duties of a CASA volunteer include talking to the professionals involved with the child’s case, including attorneys, teachers, doctors, and therapists. Volunteers also observe visits with parents or siblings (if siblings have been placed in more than one foster home). Each volunteer attends court four times a year to update a judge on the status of the case.
One of a CASA advocate’s most heavy responsibilities is to recommend whether a child should remain with his biological parents, live with relatives or friends of the family, or be put up for adoption. Because CASA volunteers are appointed by the court, they have access to all people who can provide insight into the family’s situation. Volunteers also observe visits with parents to gauge parental interest and responsiveness to a child’s needs.
“We take every case on an individual basis,” Debbie says. About 65 percent of cases result in children being returned to their biological parents, she says, but parents must show a willingness to improve their parenting skills. For example, they might be required to take parenting or anger management classes; furthermore, if they have been substance abusers in the past, they must submit to random drug testing and must test negative for drug use. “Our main concern,” Debbie says, “is for a child to be in a safe home.”
CASA of Walker, San Jacinto and Trinity Counties is committed to training and education, and offers many continuing education opportunities. The organization has sponsored two professional continuing education conferences attended by and staffed by experts in helping professions. The focus of these conferences is how to best serve the unique needs of abused or neglected children. “These kids are victims of trauma,” Debbie explains. “They can’t just be treated like everybody else.” CASA of Walker, San Jacinto and Trinity Counties is also proud to provide the Strengthening Families Program, a series of 10 classes for parents and their children, with the goal of improving the ways families function.
CASA can use more funds in its goal of reaching 100 percent of children in the foster care system. The organization needs more space, materials, and supplies for recruiting and training. A dollar goes a long way; one paid CASA staff member supports 30 volunteers, who collectively serve more than 75 children each year. One way to help CASA is to participate in its annual 5K run, its main fund-raiser. The CASA Superhero 5K will be held on Saturday, October 3. To register, or to read more about CASA of Walker, San Jacinto and Trinity Counties, visit casaofwalkercounty.org.