by Trisha Humphries
CASA volunteers get to know their court-appointed child by talking with everyone in that child's life: parents and relatives, foster parents, teachers, medical professionals, attorneys, social workers and others. They use the information they gather to inform judges and others of what the child needs and what will be the best permanent home for them.
You are probably thinking that can’t be so hard, right? Go play for a few hours a month with a kiddo and then report back on his progress. How hard is that? That’s what I thought too. I thought maybe it would look good on my resume and help me find a job. I didn’t for a second think that I actually would make a difference or that it would change me as a person.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
During my time as a CASA, I learned that the children in the program have seen things, heard things and had to go through things that most of us can’t even imagine. They have been scarred so deeply that you will wonder how they possibly could have survived or how they will ever grow up to be “normal.”
I first received the name of my CASA-child the same day I completed my training and was sworn in as a volunteer. I leafed through a huge, three-ring binder full of children that need a CASA. I wanted to find a case that was new and hopefully not too far from my home. It wasn’t hard to find children that met my basic requirements.
“Stephanie” (whose name has been changed to preserve confidentiality) was 7 years old and had been in foster care for about a month when I first met her. As I read her file, I couldn’t help but fall in love with this sweet, little girl that already had been through so much in life. Stephanie had been severely neglected: there were signs of sexual abuse, physical abuse and emotional abuse.
I set up a time to meet with Stephanie and her foster parents. Super excited and nervous, and not sure how I was going to gain this little girl’s trust, I arrived at the house. However, Stephanie would not look, talk or even be in the same room with me. She hid from me the entire time. I was crushed and went home thinking that I failed and I would never be able to do this.
Despite the initial difficulties, I scheduled another visit and, this time, Stephanie allowed me to be in the same room with her. After a few more visits, we became friends, jumping on the trampoline, going for walks and playing hide and seek. Over time, Stephanie began to open up to me telling me little things about her home life and her parents.
But one of the things I’ve learned from PRLE 295 CASA Special Project is that these kids go through it all and nothing adequately prepared me for what I was to see or read.
My hardest times are my visits with Stephanie and her parents. I can see that all she wants to do is please them, but she doesn’t know how. The first time I went out to her parents’ home, I could see she was so excited to see her mom. Stephanie ran over to her, but her mother turned her back to Stephanie. Stephanie’s excitement suddenly deflated. She was done, and there was no coming back. I was shocked that a mother could be so hard, so unloving. I come from a fairly modest background, a mom and dad, couple of brothers, good community and a great school. As Stephanie’s CASA, I was in a position to immediately recommend a direction for Stephanie, so I sent my CASA supervisor an email stating what I had seen. I concluded it was not best for Stephanie to be in a place where there was no emotional connection.
Over time, my relationship with Stephanie has progressed. When I go to see her, she is happy to see me and tells me what is going on at school and her foster parents’ house. She even will talk about her mom and dad a little, although they still are not her favorite topic. My relationship with Stephanie has grown but she still will not let me touch or hug her, not even a high five! She will tell me a little about her problems, but she stops herself when she realizes what she is saying. When this happens, she changes the subject very quickly. I walk away from every visit feeling sad, but more dedicated to helping her. I refuse to let what happened destroy Stephanie’s life. I have made a commitment to help her; I am not going to fail her.
Since becoming Stephanie’s CASA, I have met a variety of legal and support professionals assigned to her case. We decided to put together a team of people to help her family so someday they can live together. The team, consisting of a social worker, attorneys, a therapist for each family member, Stephanie’s teacher, her parents and me, met every week for six weeks (and still meets). When we first started, her parents would come in yelling, saying this effort was stupid, talking about giving up parental rights and wanting to know why we were “all in their family’s business.” The parents didn’t understand that we were there to help them get their daughter back. It took several meetings before the parents figured it. The meetings continue, and we are still teaching them basic matters, such as how to greet their daughter. For instance, we demonstrate how, when someone enters the room, they can recognize that person by saying, “Hello,” and perhaps shaking their hand. We tell them eye contact is important and urge them to be friendly and cordial. So, in Stephanie’s case, when her parents greet their daughter, they need to say “Hi,” and ask her how she is or how she is doing at school.
Stephanie has told her parents that she doesn’t what them to hug her or touch her. They have rejected her so many times that it’s going to be a while before she is ready for physical contact. Tragically, the one thing this little girl needs from her parents is something they won’t or can’t give to her. At first I couldn’t figure out why they couldn’t, and then I met Stephanie’s grandparents. It’s a family that only knows how to communicate by yelling and hitting. This cycle has repeated itself through generations.
As Stephanie’s CASA, and a part of Stephanie’s team, I believe we can help effect a change in her situation. Hopefully, we will be able to reunite this family in a healthy and, somewhat, normal home.
This case still is ongoing and I see that it probably will be for a while. The good news is that if they all continue to work hard, we will be able to reunite them, and that is a rarity. (However, often times, a child ends up in foster homes, or is adopted.)
Being a CASA is one of the most difficult and yet rewarding things I’ve ever done. My paralegal classes were fine, but nothing could fully prepare me for this experience. So many kids out there need someone like a CASA to fight for them. As a CASA, I am helping a child through the most difficult time in his life. The child counts on me to be there for him. As a CASA, I feel my voice is heard by the court, social services, school teachers and administrators, attorneys and more.
Help children have a voice! PRLE 295 CASA Special Project, as a service-learning component within Clark College, directly links the student to the community need in child advocacy and protection, organized and coordinated with the Clark County YWCA's CASA Program. Students are enabled to reap substantial social and service rewards and permit numerous community children to have an independent voice.