Volunteers make sure kids’ voices are heard
By LPR Staff
Court Appointed Special Advocates of Central Texas advocates for abused and neglected children in the community by recruiting, training, and supporting community volunteers. CASA volunteers are appointed to children who are confirmed victims of abuse or neglect to independently investigate the case an
d provide recommendations to the family court judge, what is in the best interest of the child. They often serve as the only consistent adult in the child’s life.
“CASA volunteers explain to the child the events that are happening, why they are in foster care, and the roles the judge, attorneys, and caseworkers play. Advocates offer the children what no one else can: consistency and continuity in the midst of all the chaos the children are experiencing.” Executive Director Norma Castilla-Blackwell said. “In the course of a typical case, the child will experience several foster placements, new schools, caseworker turnover and one Advocate. The trust that is built allows the CASA to encourage the children to express their feelings and to feel safe. All the while the advocates remain objective observers.”
CASA volunteers come from all backgrounds with different experiences and CASA of Central Texas provides the necessary training.
“Initially, I was very skeptical of the CASA program because they have no training, no background in psychology, sociology, no university training. Over the years, I’ve learned that may be their biggest asset,” District Judge Jack Robison said at a recent swearing in of CASA Volunteers. “They bring their experience, their common sense and their empathy to the program. Their only agenda is the welfare of a child.”
Caldwell County resident Doris Davila, herself a professional in child services, said she became involved in CASA because she wanted to get “back at the ground-level.”
“These are all our kids,” Davila said. “When you think about it, whether they are reunited with their family or released from the system, they wind up back in our community, and it’s our job to invest in them now, while they are children, so we don’t see bigger problems later.”
Because of her background in child service, Davila’s caseload currently consists of a sibling group of four children. However, in general, CASA will appoint only one advocate per child.
Last year in Caldwell County, 38 children were served by 22 CASA volunteers. Unfortunately, that number pales in comparison to the 122 confirmed cases of abuse or neglect and the 119 children in state care. According to statistics provided by CASA, this gap leaves more than 80 children without a CASA voice.
“I think that people don’t know that this is something you can put as much time as you can into, after hours, or on weekends,” Davila said. “It’s about developing a connection with the kids, understanding their needs and life experiences so you can work with the rest of the team and advocate for the interests of the child.”
The “team” Davila mentioned often includes a Guardian Ad Litem, which is a “guardian at law,” an attorney to represent the child’s legal interests, the CPS caseworker, and the child’s doctors and mental health providers, and often, the parents.
“Three of my kids live in Austin, and their mother doesn’t have transportation,” Davila said. “That’s something that we don’t think about sometimes, the logistics of having to get three children to doctors or other appointments when you don’t have a car.”
She said often, the family has to leave three to four hours before their appointments, to make sure the bus routes can get them to their doctors on time. Therefore, she said, part of her work as the CASA is to help with that transportation, and occasionally take the children to their appointments.
“Most of the time, our contact includes outings, like taking them for pizza or to the dollar store,” she said. “Again, it’s really about getting that different perspective into the child’s life, so that we can all work together for whatever the best interest of that child is.”
Children in state care, however, are not allowed to be in their CASA volunteer’s homes.
“There are a lot of things you can do, though, that teach the children other perspectives, or about other things they might not know about,” Davila said. “One of my kids, he likes to earn money, so what I do with him is take him to the Show Barn and let him help work there and earn some money by cleaning stalls and things like that. He’s becoming involved in 4-H, and that’s something he never would have been able to experience otherwise.”
In 2015, CASA of Central Texas served 445 children in Caldwell, Comal, Guadalupe and Hays Counties but there were still children who did not have the voice of a CASA volunteer. Free training courses will be held throughout the year. To enroll in a training course, please contact CASA at (512) 392-3578 or (830) 626-2272, or visit www.casacentex.org.
“If you have the time to invest in a child’s future, then CASA is something you want to look into,” Davila said. “But you don’t have to be afraid if it turns out that you’re not a good fit for the child, or if you find you don’t have the time. The supervisors are there to help the volunteers do whatever is best for the kids, and if you get assigned a case that you can’t handle, then you aren’t obligated to keep working.”
Davila said there are several other ways to serve CASA’s mission, including by recruiting and fundraising, but the biggest need for the program is volunteer advocates.
“One thing we really don’t have, that we need, is more male advocates,” she said. “Sometimes, often, the CASA could be the only positive male role model in a child’s life. We have to remember that these are all our kids, and it’s important that they have strong male role models to look up to.”
Learn more about CASA at a monthly information session, held the first Wednesday of each month at the New Braunfels CASA office, and the third Wednesday of each month in the San Marcos CASA office, both from noon to 1 p.m. Additional information sessions will be held in January in Kyle, Lockhart, Schertz and Canyon Lake. Check www.casacentex.org for times and locations.
(Additional information provided by Eloise Hudson)