When I wrote, a few days back, about Bethany House shelter for abused and battered women, I said it was my favorite cause in Toledo, and my favorite story of uplift.
But I actually have a second — one that inspires me just as much.
It is CASA — Court Appointed Special Advocates (for children and adolescents).
CASA is a nonprofit organization of volunteers, who work under the supervision of two juvenile court judges in this county, to help abused and neglected children find safety and stability. Each volunteer undergoes 40 hours of rigorous training, plus updating and refresher courses each year. Volunteers are carefully screened before they are accepted and equally carefully supported and supervised after they are accepted and trained. Most are already well educated and experienced with children and/or the legal system.
Each CASA volunteer works just two cases at a time — many fewer than a lawyer who might be assigned to a child-welfare case. This allows the CASA volunteer (often called “a CASA”) to dig much deeper into the case and become much more involved with the child and his situation than a lawyer could ever be. Unlike the lawyer, the CASA volunteer is not paid. CASAs do it for love. The purest and best kind of love there is.
Theirs is hard and heartbreaking work. Many of the cases are infinitely complex, with multiple shades of gray. And many CASAs burn out after four, five, or six years. But they save lives. And they raise up the hearts and minds of many more young children who, though their very lives might not have been in danger, never before knew what it was for someone to have their backs. Many young people stay in touch with their CASAs for life, once their situations have been stabilized, because their CASA gave them this solidity — the first sure thing in their experience. One young woman broke down in tears when her CASA brought her a cupcake with a candle in it on her birthday, which happened to also be a day in court. She had never had any sort of birthday cake in her life.
I first learned of CASA years ago, researching a special project on child-welfare programs that really work. And I had a friend who was a CASA volunteer in California, who talked to me about what happens when the rubber actually hits the road. The Lucas County CASA Program stands out even among the nation’s 1,000 fine programs. It is one of the oldest and most successful and distinguished in the nation.
It succeeds, and CASA in general works, because the CASA volunteer advocates for the best interest of the child, and ONLY for the best interest of the child. And also because the caseload is kept low, so as to allow intensity of involvement. And, finally, because of the care given to screening and training of volunteers.
CASA is not for talkers, hand-wringers, or the faint of heart.
We are talking about kids who have been endangered by people who love them, and whom they love the most. Some parents have mental problems, many have substance abuse problems, and some just don’t know how to parent but keep having babies anyway. The CASA’s job is to find a way to make a specific child in a specific circumstance safe — and if possible find a way for that child to prosper. The CASA’s job is not to judge or impose his own ideals or standards on a family. Neither is it the CASAs job to keep the child with his or her biological parents at any cost.
There are not easy needles to thread. A CASA must have “the wisdom of the serpent and the gentleness of the dove,” as scripture has it.
Some 692 children came into the system anew in Lucas County last year. And 243 were assigned to CASA volunteers. The rest were assigned to lawyers, who cannot possibly do as good a job. The average case is in the system 18 months.
Approximately 19 percent of the children whose cases were closed in 2014 were returned home; 38 percent were placed with legal guardians; 22 percent were adopted, and 6 percent aged out of the system.
About half the children in the program are African-American, about 40 percent Caucasian, and about 6 percent Latino.
As you might guess, 79 percent of CASA volunteers are women. Most are busy women, with children of their own and demanding jobs. In other words, living saints. One CASA I met the other day is a pediatric intensive case nurse. In her spare time, she gives CASA another 20 hours a week.
You might not guess that some 58 percent of CASA volunteers work full time.
Approximately 4,000 allegations of child abuse and neglect are investigated annually in Lucas County. CASA volunteers work with about 1,000 children each year.
Imagine trying to advocate for the children of a mom who is hooked on cocaine, and whose own mother brings drugs to her in the hospital. Or for the kids of a woman who, at 22, has three children and just as many jobs, but no car and no family to help her with child care. Suppose one child is autistic. Or for the daughter of a woman who is deeply bonded to her child but tells so many lies about things that have happened to her, her husband, and the child that no one can be sure how safe or unsafe her child is. Or for the kids of a single father who deeply loves and feeds and clothes his children but refuses to take them to school.
As I say, not for the faint of heart.
The kicker is that there is almost no parent who endangers his child intentionally or out of malice. Parents, no matter how messed up, love their kids, and most kids want to be with their natural parents.
I went to Lucas County CASA the other day to see my friends Carol Martin, the director; Deborah Lipson, CASA’s staff attorney; and Judy Leb, training coordinator. And to meet three relatively new CASA volunteers and hear their stories. I admire these women more than I could ever possibly articulate. They prove to me, again, that the world is not without heroes. And some day, when I grow up, I want to be like them. And be a CASA volunteer.
CASA is a miracle in our midst.
CASA always needs volunteers. If you want to do something that really makes a difference, you have the time, and you think you are tough enough, call for more information at 419-213-6753, or go to the CASA website: www.casakds.net.
Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6266.
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