Photos Courtesy of CASA
Perhaps April’s mom thought she was being a good parent because she allowed April (her five-year-old daughter) to sleep in her bed with her every night. A concerned neighbor, however, knowing that a steady stream of disreputable men also occupied that same bed, contacted Child Protective Services (CPS) on April’s behalf. April was removed from the home—but once she became a part of the overburdened foster care system, her hope for a normal life dwindled.
Fortunately for April, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for Children was able to help. Susanna, a volunteer advocate, dedicated herself to April’s welfare. “We make sure that, while they are in the care of the state, they get what they need,” says Ann McAlpin, executive director of CASA Child Advocates of Montgomery County. “Things tend to slip through the cracks. The state is not the ideal parent.”
Finding a suitable home for April was at the top of Susanna’s to-do list. While some biological parents are willing to take steps to remedy a harmful home environment, April’s mother was not. So, Susanna interviewed family members who lived nearby to see if any were willing to take custody of April. Just when Susanna was about to give up hope, Sarah, a relative in her early 20s who lived out of state, presented herself as a candidate for guardianship.
Although statistics show abused or neglected children fare better with relatives than with strangers, Susanna had reservations. Sarah, a high school dropout, did not have a good job or a suitable home for April. Susanna, however, realized Sarah genuinely cared about April’s welfare. She challenged Sarah to earn her GED so she could get a better-paying job and provide adequate housing.
Sarah accepted the challenge, but instead of a GED, she earned a high school diploma. She then acquired a better job and, in turn, an apartment. Unfortunately, all the news was not good. While Montgomery County CPS approved April’s placement with Sarah, the sister agency in the other state did not, which meant Sarah would not receive any state assistance for April’s care.
“I don’t care,” Sarah told Susanna when she heard the news. “I still want April.” Delighted, Susanna paid her own way to accompany April and her CPS caseworker to her new home, just in time for the holidays.
Seven years later, April is a happy 12-year-old who has an enjoyable day-to-day routine with Sarah. Susanna, although her contribution was significant, does not want any praise for her part in helping April find happiness in a safe and nurturing home. Seeing April’s smile, she says, is all the thanks she needs.
The mission of CASA Child Advocates of Montgomery County is to provide and promote court-appointed volunteer advocates “so that every abused and neglected child can have the opportunity to thrive in a safe, nurturing, and permanent home.” National statistics indicate a child who has a CASA volunteer is half as likely to languish in foster care, and twice as likely to find a safe, permanent home.
Recently, CASA Child Advocates of Montgomery County reached an exciting milestone—a volunteer agreed to be the advocate for the last child who needed one. It was, however, a temporary victory. “Kids are coming into the foster care system here in Montgomery County at almost four a week,” Ann says. “We need to find advocates for the new kids coming into the system.”
In 2014, 215 CASA volunteers advocated for 606 abused or neglected children in Montgomery County. CASA volunteers come from all professions, Ann says, including many retired schoolteachers and nurses. Some are stay-at-home mothers; others are grandparents. Many advocates are retired, but some have full-time jobs. Volunteers can do much of their work when it suits their schedules, but court dates and some appointments must be handled during normal business hours. While some volunteers are in their 20s or 30s, 67 percent are over the age of 50. What volunteers have in common is the desire to make a difference in the lives of children who desperately need their help.
“I think they have a great sense of community, in addition to a passion for children,” says Pat Creighton, program director of CASA Child Advocates of Montgomery County. “They want to make Montgomery County a better place to live. Each of them wants to give back. Each of them feels very fortunate and feels they have been blessed. They, in turn, want to do something for someone else. We have incredible volunteers. They answer the call.”
“One of the reasons our volunteers like advocating is because they feel they make a difference for the child,” Ann agrees. For example, supervised visits with parents, therapy, or special education needs might not be addressed while children are in foster care. “We speak up for them and sometimes fight for them,” she says.
Most cases are resolved in one year. During that time, an advocate may speak with a child’s therapist, attorney, schoolteachers, and physicians. “They are the champion for that child. You can’t have too many pairs of eyes on a child who has been through the trauma some of our children have been through,” Pat says. “Every child deserves an advocate.” A surprising 60 percent of abused and neglected children in Texas are under the age of 6.
One of an advocate’s most sobering duties is to recommend to a judge whether a child should return to biological parents, live with relatives, or be put up for adoption. Always seeking what is best for the children, advocates talk with relatives and observe children interacting with their parents at supervised visits. Because they are appointed by the court, Ann says, advocates have access to everyone who can contribute information about the child’s situation. As in April’s case, advocates consider a child’s relatives who might be willing to take custody before recommending adoption. Typically, 29 percent go back to their biological parents after they have demonstrated a willingness, and have proven their ability, to improve an abusive or neglectful situation. Another 25 percent are placed with relatives, while about 6 percent are placed with family friends; 29 percent are adopted. The remaining 11 percent stay in foster care or age out of the system.
CASA Child Advocates of Montgomery County is always in need of more advocates. While there are roughly the same number of boys and girls in foster care, about 80 percent of advocates are women. Both men and women make good advocates, Ann says, but sometimes boys respond better to male advocates. In addition, there is a particular need for advocates who speak both Spanish and English. Becoming an advocate is a one-year commitment, as it takes a year to resolve most cases. New advocates represent one child or one set of siblings at a time, although more experienced advocates may handle two or three cases at a time.
CASA volunteers must be at least 21 years of age, must pass a background screening, and must complete a 35-hour training program. Classes are available during the day, at night, and on weekends; some classes may be completed online. CASA volunteers must be able to respect the confidential nature of cases, but an outgoing personality is not required. Some of the most effective advocates, Ann says, are people who are normally reticent; when a child’s welfare is at stake, even people who are usually soft-spoken generally rise to the occasion to advocate for the child.
A perfect example is Jane Funke, a six-year veteran of CASA, who received the 2013 Jane Quentan Piper Volunteer Advocate of the Year Award for Texas CASA. “I find it difficult to stand up in court sometimes, but I have also found a depth to myself I didn’t realize I had,” Jane says. “It’s not about me. It’s about the child.”
CASA also needs donations. CASA is a 501(c)(3) organization, so donations are tax deductible. CASA appreciates the support of grants and corporate support (from companies like TETRA Technologies, Bayside Printing, Woodforest Charitable Foundation, Northside Lexus, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas, Scientific Drilling International, Strike LLC, Huntsman Petrochemical, Baker Hughes, Anadarko, and Sabine Oil and Gas), but can always use individual donations. Ann encourages those who receive a jury summons to donate their juror pay to CASA by checking the appropriate block on forms they receive at the courthouse. She notes that, because the bulk of the work of CASA is done by volunteers, donations go a long way toward helping children.
CASA Child Advocates of Montgomery County’s primary fundraisers are its Boots and Ball Gowns Gala in January of each year, a golf tournament each spring, and the annual CASA Superhero Run, a 5K/10K trail run that will be held on October 3. Participants dress in superhero costumes in keeping with the race’s motto: “Every child needs a hero. Abused and neglected children need superheroes.” CASA also appreciates the efforts of volunteers who organize fundraising events.
For more information about CASA Child Advocates of Montgomery County, visit casaspeaks4kids.com.