In 2012, I read a book that really struck me. The book was “A Silence of Mockingbirds: The Memoir of a Murder” by Karen Spears Zacharias. At the time, the book was the featured reading for a community-wide book club in Baton Rouge. In this large club, the author would come speak. So, I read the book in about two days in preparation for Ms. Zacharias’ arrival. “A Silence of Mockingbirds” is the true and tragic story of a young girl’s murder. A murder that the author, Zacharias, is shockingly close to. This story was riveting on its own. However, Zacharias did a massive amount of research on the brutal murder, and then wrote it all in such a beautiful way.
I have always, always wanted to help people. And helping these boys, even if in a very small way, enriched my life in a way I never thought possible. But it also breaks my heart to know how complicated the system is;
When I went to see the author speak, there was also a panel of speakers there to talk about the various sides of this story – one of the most obvious and most-controversial: child abuse and how it’s dealt with in our country. There was a spokesperson from CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) there, and she said something that stuck with me
“A child that has a CASA volunteer is 60% more likely to be adopted than one that does not.”
At that time, I was volunteering as a Facilitator for Dialogue on Race Louisiana; hosting weekly structured dialogues across the city to educate others on institutional racism. I wanted to look into CASA, so I did. Within six months, I went through 40 hours of training in order to become a CASA volunteer. These trainings were after work and on Saturdays. At the end of the training, we had interviews, and ultimately decided whether or not we wanted to follow through with being a volunteer. It was a year-long commitment, or until your assigned case was resolved.
A CASA volunteer is assigned a case that involves a child in the system, i.e. in state’s custody/foster care. As a CASA volunteer, you meet with the child at least once a month, and in general, you make sure they are doing ok, make sure they are being treated well in their foster situation, see that they are getting fed and clothed, and make sure they are doing well in school.You also talk to people in their life; teachers, coaches, friends, etc., just to get all sides of the story. Then you write monthly reports, and you write an extensive court report about every 6 months or each time the child is to appear in court. The judge loves a CASA report because he/she can simply read it before the hearing and know what is going on within a short amount of time.
To put things in perspective, all juvenile court systems are overloaded. Each case worker has probably 200 or so cases, and the judge sees 20 cases a day. This is where that whole “CASA percentage” comes in – the CASA serves as the squeeky wheel. You stick up for your case to be sure they are not forgotten.
About 6 months after I went through training, I received a call with a pitch for a case. It was three brothers, and although I cannot reveal the details of their case, their mom had severe mental illness issues and could no longer care for them. The boys had actually been locked in a home (had not even seen the light of day) for two years. They were entered into foster care, and I took them as my case.
For the next three years, I visited the boys each month. We had pizza dinners, baked dozens of cookies for Santa, celebrated birthdays and student-of-the-month, we had Dollar Store shopping sprees, video game competitions, Easter egg hunts, flew kites, took boxing classes, killed each other in lazer tag, stomped around the mall, and snuck so much candy into many movies.
One of my favorite memories was when my boys and their foster family were chosen to receive a Thanksgiving dinner; a turkey and all the trimmings. I had the honor of delivering the food to the family, and they were so grateful.
Sadly, I wasn’t able to see my case fully close. The oldest brother aged out of the system, and on his 18th birthday, he got on a plane with a one-way ticket to California. His biological father’s family invited him to live there. Shortly after, I moved to Austin for work. I remained their volunteer for about seven months – traveling back and forth each month for our visits. I really wanted to see my case to the end, but without sounding terrible, the communication between the foster home and the court system became a battle I could no longer fight.
I have always, always wanted to help people. And helping these boys, even if in a very small way, enriched my life in a way I never thought possible. But it also breaks my heart to know how complicated the system is; and how many kids get tossed in there, completely innocent, and they may not find their way out until they “age out” and turn 18. I hope, I hope, I HOPE, the boys get a new, fresh volunteer who is ready to kick some ass and resolve their case. They deserve it – they deserved it years ago.
If you have any questions or interest about becoming a CASA volunteer, please don’t hesitate to contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org). I know it’s an experience that changed my life, and one I’ll never forget. And, I am always down to help others who want to help others!