Real support for Real kids
Court Appointed Special Advocate volunteers go above and beyond to make sure at-risk kids and teens get the intimate attention they need
Jane is not a real 15-year-old girl. She’s a composite of several young people. Due to privacy concerns, newspapers don’t report the stories of real kids who get taken away from their parents. But Jane is typical of such a girl. She’s a pretty sophomore at a Carson City high school, she has a crush on a boy in the junior class, and her favorite singer is Norah Jones.Jane’s parents split up when she was little, and she rarely heard from her dad. She lived with her mom and stepfather, both of whom drank heavily and used illegal drugs. There wasn’t much money for things that didn’t support her parents’ drug habit, so oftentimes there was little food in the house. Sometimes the landlord banged on the door for rent, or the power was turned off because no one paid the bill. Jane didn’t receive much attention as a result of all of the problems.
Jane’s mom and stepdad often became angry and yelled at one another, and sometimes the stepdad hit Jane’s mother. During one fight, the irate couple took their screaming match to the front porch, and a neighbor called 911. The police came to the house and discovered drugs. They arrested Jane’s mother and stepfather, and Jane had to move to a foster home. She misses her mom.
Jane’s mom loves her and is working hard to get over her drug addiction. Because of her mother’s efforts, Jane will probably be allowed to return home within a year. However, if Mom gives up or doesn’t make significant progress, Jane may be permanently placed somewhere else.
It has been difficult for Jane to concentrate at school; she worries about her mom and her own future. She’s scared, but she’s not alone. A team of supporters is helping her: the school counselor, her social worker, her teachers, the judge and her Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteer.
CASA volunteers have helped many kids like Jane during the last two decades. The program began in 1977, when Judge David Soukup, of Seattle, Wash., noticed an increase in the number of child-abuse and neglect cases in his court. Since it was up to him to decide on permanent placements for the children, he wanted more detailed information than he was able to learn from attorneys and social workers. Soukup decided the children needed advocates outside the system, so he began recruiting volunteers to form the first group of CASAs.
Now, across the United States, approximately 52,000 volunteers advocate for over 200,000 children who have been removed from their homes due to abuse and neglect.
Chris Bayer is the director of CASA of Carson City. A tall, dark-haired man with wire-rimmed glasses, Bayer is a playwright and musician. While teaching music and lyric writing to elementary students, he saw how many problems the children faced and wanted to do more to help. When he read a newspaper article about CASA in 1993, he decided to get involved. Bayer volunteered for four years before becoming the director of CASA of Carson City in 1997.
“Some things are more important than others,” he says. “Taking care of kids is close to the top.”
Volunteers never know what their case is going to require. “We work with babies who are taken away from their mothers at birth because [the mothers are] on methamphetamines and the baby has to detoxify,” Bayer says. “We work with 17-year-olds who need to make plans to be independent—where they’re going to live, if they’re going to work or go to school, the things that normally a parent would help them with. And we work with all ages in between.”
Whatever the situation, the CASA’s job is to advocate for the best interests of the child. The ultimate goal is to place kids like Jane in safe, permanent homes with predictability and structure.
“Some of our kids have never had that,” Bayer says. “They’re in awe that dinner can be at a regular time every night.”
CASA volunteers in Carson City have full- and part-time jobs in various fields: real estate, nursing, law, restaurant service and recreation. One is a student, some are homemakers, and some are retired. Many have children of their own.
Like other volunteers, Jane’s CASA—we’ll call her Mary—received 30 hours of training and has committed to two years of service.
During the first two months on Jane’s case, Mary spent about 12 hours reading the case file and talking to Jane’s teachers, school counselor and social worker. Now that Mary knows the case, she spends a few hours per month talking to these professionals and to Jane’s mother.
At first, Mary was nervous about meeting Jane. Once she got to know her, however, she realized Jane was just a normal teenager. The two of them talk on the phone and meet regularly. Every three months, Mary submits a report to the judge and appears in court to make recommendations. Mary may request mentoring or psychological counseling for Jane. She may suggest that Jane have supervised visits with her mom, that an attorney be appointed to the case, or, eventually, that Jane return home and the case be closed.
Barbara Bordok works as the volunteer support coordinator for CASA of Carson City and as an advocate. Bordok, who has reddish brown hair and a peaches-and-cream complexion, used to live in Southern California. As a school speech pathologist, she met with students in small groups. They sometimes confided in her.
“I saw things that distressed me,” Bordok says. She decided she would like to do something to have an impact on the home life of children. When she moved to Nevada in 1999, she joined CASA. Since January 2000, she has advocated for children on three cases.
Bordok says that CASAs help keep kids from slipping through the cracks. “If we feel something isn’t being done, we’re the burr under the saddle. We let the social worker know. We make second and third calls.”
Although the court is supposed to make a decision about the child’s placement within a year of removing him from the home, some cases take longer. Bordok has one case that has persisted for over three years. Someone informed the child that Bordok would probably drop his case, and the child said, “No. My CASA would never leave me.” Bordok felt much rewarded.
“This was a kid who survived by being quiet, whether in the classroom, with his parents, or in his foster home,” she says. “He wouldn’t speak up. When he said that, it was the beginning of his standing up for himself.”
Volunteer Kristi Ann worked as an assistant director for film and television productions in Los Angeles before moving to Nevada in 2002. Ann, who has wavy brown hair and bright blue eyes, joined CASA of Carson City in order to meet new people and because she feels strongly about helping abused children.
“My daughter may go to school with some of these kids. How they’re treated has an impact on the classroom environment. But even if I weren’t a parent, I would volunteer. As a CASA, you help children get their rights. You’re the voice for the child.”
Jane hopes for a speedy homecoming. She sometimes worries that she’ll have to move to a different foster home, which could mean changing schools. There’s also the chance that a new social worker will take over her case. But, regardless of what else happens, Jane knows that Mary will be there, advocating for her all the way home.