Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) – The toughest but most rewarding job I ever had

Why CASA?

My decision to become a CASA was not a decision I made lightly.

As a housing policy blogger, I know of the impact affordable housing has in the life of a young person. Study after study speak to this fact. Children who are raised within the context of stable homeownership have much higher outcomes than their peers who are not.

The outcomes create dramatic gaps when race is considered. Minority children, particularly black children, are disproportionately represented in the foster care system in Texas and throughout the nation. In Texas, African American children are at least twice as likely to be removed from their home and placed in foster care as white children.

A full percent of foster youth age out of foster care (meaning that they turn 18 while in the system). Further, young people who age out of long-term foster care are more likely to become homeless, addicted to drugs, drop out of school, live under the poverty line and have children who are then put in foster care.

 There are more African American men incarcerated in the United States than the total prison populations in India, Argentina, Canada, Lebanon, Japan, Germany, Finland, Israel and England combined.

The link between the foster care systematic loop, incarceration and the African American community is clear.

The Studies Show the Need, What Can I do About it?

As an African American, I culturally felt compelled to do something.

It was easy to blog furiously about this topic from the comfort of my own apartment; it was another to step out, to be comfortable with being uncomfortable and to do something about the issue.

I’ve spent the majority of my life being comfortable with the uncomfortable. As a navy brat, my father served in the US Navy. At his retirement ceremony after over 25 years of service, he reminded family and friends that my mom, sister and I allowed him to serve because we served alongside him. Missed birthdays, long tours away from home, moving from time to time and getting used to a few new schools…all were common sacrifices that later molded me into an adaptable adult. The familiarity with the uncomfortable continued as I intentionally joined the International Friends club in college (an effort by my undergrad to have foreign exchange students befriend American students). I later became best friends with Yang (a proud Beijing Native); dormed with him for 3 out of 4 years in undergrad and even boldly celebrated Christmas with him and his family in Beijing (not knowing much Chinese beyond ne how).

As a native Marylander, my latest comfort with the uncomfortable is geographic: this is my 6th year in Texas away from loved ones on the east coast.

So what was the leap of faith to CASA service?

My CASA Experience (some details are adapted to protect identities)

The statistics mentioned above continued to haunt me as I used my weekends to write and research for my blog.

After a quick visit to the CASA website, I printed out the application for volunteer service.

The application remained in the print tray for 3 months.

Unlike most forgotten prints, I was very aware of its location. As a matter of fact, whenever I returned to the tray for concert tickets, boarding passes, and directions, the blank fields stared at me and reminded me that data needed to be entered.

Confirmation of my purpose to serve soon arrived. I was on the road to visit a friend and I remember thinking: God, if I am to have the time and energy for CASA service, please have a sign appear to me to confirm that I am supposed to serve. That same trip, I saw a huge bulletin board advertising for CASA and I heard a radio ad with the same message from First Lady, Barbara Bush. God knows I an an audio-visual learner. He met me right where I needed the message.

After a thorough application, interview and training process, I was able to move forward with my CASA volunteer service.

I wanted a chance to work with a young man who looked like me.

I worked with Chris (pseudo name used to protect his identity), a 15-year-old from a north Texas town but removed to a Residential Treatment Center (RTC) near the Gulf (exact city not used to protect identity) after his care takers abused drugs in his presence and left him endangered, according to court files. I initially met Chris at the duel funeral of his two main care takers – his father and grandfather. Within weeks, he lost his two loved ones and experienced more pain than most adults feel in their lifetime.

Being located across the state away from his home, his mother was not able to see him more than once a month (and one visit included the unavoidable and unpredictable drama of car trouble in poor weather on a busy Texas, 6-lane highway).

The RTC was understaffed, phone calls were rarely answered. The facility reminded me of my first volunteer experience at a nursing home: the smell of stale cleaner failed to clean up the fresh stink of funk; poor light made for difficult adjustment during a visit. The small, but important details were not tended to…mosquitos hovered aggressively over Chris’ uncombed head when we met on the outside patio. His skin was dry and ashy from lack of lotion (a small cultural detail).

The environment was enough to keep him safe, but not enough to inspire hope.

Chris once confided: “I don’t think I will ever be placed with my family…I might as well just go straight to prison”; those statistics seemed to leap back to me and it was a challenge to be a small source of support in Chris’ life in that dark moment.

Visits from Mom were few, because of the distance, but when they were made I could tell that they were significant.

The state issued a child protective services (CPS) officer who was worked thin across a large footprint in the state but was responsive to emails and was dedicated to the case to the very end. A small legal team was equally spread thin but equally helpful.

Chris’ reunification was hard-earned by his mother. Chris’ mother applied with her uncle to become a Habitat homeowner at a Northern Texas affiliate. They were approved and the home was well under construction when I first met Chris. The judge did not know what it meant to be a Habitat homeowner (the sweat equity, homeowner college courses and the eventual mortgage note) and it was my unique role as a Habitat staff person here locally to have the chance to speak truth to that unique journey. In a small way, this coincidence confirmed that I was suppose to serve alongside Chris and his family.

By the end of the case, Chris was able to move to a new home his mother had earned.

My CASA experience deepened my faith in the important role CASA volunteers play as well as the role I play professionally via the Habitat mission-work.

It was powerful to see the transition that Chris made in large part because his mother was a Habitat homeowner. If that safe, decent and affordable home was not made available through her hard-work, Chris would more than likely still be at the RTC, his spirit and morale would continue to erode and his life outlook would remain uncertain.

CASA Volunteering – Final Thoughts

The ideal conclusion to this blog is probably to offer a call for you to become a CASA volunteer so you can change a life.

It may surprise you that I won’t end on that note.

The exact opposite: CASA work is hard. CASA work is draining. CASA work may push you to tears. The statistics scream an important fact – the stake are high and the work is difficult.

Chris taught me what it means to persevere, to remain dedicated to a reality yet unseen, to pray meaningful prayers and to realize the joy that comes when hard-work meets dedication. This work is tough.

Frederick Douglass once said, “without struggle, there is no progress”. I admire my fellow CASAs who have served alongside many children. I admire the CASA supervisors, the CPS staff, the judges and other legal professionals who walk this walk as a personal calling. I admire the work that families like Chris’ take to regain custody and to reunite with their children.

Comfort with the uncomfortable allows for tremendous growth.

I started my CASA experience looking to make an impact on a life of a youth only to have him have an impact on mine.

If you feel led to become a CASA, be prepared to have your life changed for the better.

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