This essay is part of an occasional series provided by our partner organization Encore.org, which is building a movement to tap the skills and experience of those in midlife and beyond to improve communities and the world. Read more stories and share yours at Encore.org/story.
I live in a small community – Tennessee Colony, Texas – about an hour and a half from Dallas. One day, someone spoke at our church about the need for volunteers to be advocates in court – and in life – for children living in foster care.
Immediately, I knew this was my calling. When I was in high school, my own mother became a foster mom, and I had always wanted to do the same. As I reached my mid-60s, I thought this volunteer opportunity was the next best thing.
The organization that needed help was CASA of Trinity Valley, the local office of the national organization called CASA, or Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children. CASA volunteers are trained to be advocates for children who have been abused or neglected, as their cases make their way through the system.
We are not there as legal experts. We are the voice of the children. We learn about the situation that led to a child’s removal from the home and about the particular challenges the child is facing, and we recommend to the judge what is best for that individual child.
I’ve been a CASA volunteer for eight years and have spoken on behalf of children who range from 3 months to 18 years old. The cases have lasted anywhere from nine months to four years. Currently, I have five active cases involving seven children.
Sometimes, I am the only stable person in the children’s lives. I’m someone they see often, someone they get to know, someone who asks them, “How’s it going in your foster home?,” someone who sends them cards on their birthday.
After losing their children, and with a court standing over them, the parents typically are on their best behavior for the first six to eight months. The goal is to reunite the family, but often the court and the child welfare agency can’t see everything we CASA volunteers see. So we are empowered to intervene and tell the judge if we don’t believe the parents are ready to have their children back.
I had one little boy – a 3-year-old – removed from his home because his mom and dad were both doing drugs. In court, his mom said she had stopped using after having a new baby, vowing she would never use drugs while pregnant or nursing.
When the judge recommended sending the 3-year-old home, I raised my hand. “Why not wait until she’s not nursing and see if she stays clean?” Sure enough, six months later, the mom was back on drugs and the little boy was back as one of my cases. The good news is that she and her kids are doing well now.
CASA needs more volunteers – desperately. Here in Anderson County alone, there are 104 children and only 19 CASA advocates. I will even take a case that is 90 miles away – that’s how passionate I am about these kids. A social worker asked me once how much I get paid and was shocked when I said “nothing.” I’m not joking when I say that I hope to be doing this until I’m 90, even if they have to wheel me into court in a wheelchair.