+ By Patty Speakman Hamsher + Photos courtesy of KRR Photography
We’re all born with a voice. Bawling or quiet, we come into the world with needs, and a mouth to express them. Sometimes our voices are too small to be heard, and at other times they are drowned out by negligent caregivers or a world that spins on without us.
In Anne Arundel County, there are nearly 230 children in foster care. Their world is often changing, their past is often haunting, and their future is uncertain. But last year, 145 of those children had an amazing opportunity to be heard.
They were partnered with a special advocate appointed by the local circuit court. CASA volunteers have one mission: to ensure that each child’s needs remain a priority in an overburdened child welfare system.
Anne Arundel’s Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) is one of 951 members of the national CASA organization started in the late 1970s by a Superior Court judge, Judge David W. Soukup, in Seattle, Washington. Judge Soukup, knowing that the decisions he made regarding each child often had a lasting impact on his or her future, wanted to be sure he was getting enough information about each child’s unique circumstances. His idea to train community volunteers was well received and has since blossomed into an organization that has helped more than two million abused or neglected children.
CASA volunteers are daytime professionals with time to spare, retirees, or people happy to make a difference in someone else’s life. After their initial training session, they spend time with their assigned child and gather information from people who are involved in his or her life: teachers, family members, doctors, and caregivers. With the full picture of how this child’s world is or is not working, a CASA makes recommendations to the court about his or her best interests.
“I absolutely love what we do,” explains Rebecca Tingle, executive director at Anne Arundel CASA. “Our only agenda is to represent the best interest of the child in each case. There’s a lot of freedom when that’s your only agenda, because you can really be the voice for that child.”
There are heartbreaking stories of love and hope from the partnership of CASA volunteers and children in the Anne Arundel area. There is Jeremy, a baby born prematurely with a heart defect to parents who already couldn’t care for their other eight children. His infancy was spent hooked to machines and traveling between hospitals under the care of a constantly rotating nursing staff; he had no family by his side. When he entered the foster care system, following the path of his siblings, Natalie was assigned as his CASA.
After visiting him weekly in his foster home, Natalie met regularly with his case worker and the attorneys involved in his case. She also searched for information about his siblings. Jeremy was later adopted into the same family they had all joined. Today, he is growing and thriving in his supportive family unit.
Another success story involves a boy named Lucas’s, who was assigned a CASA when he was a teen. Lucas’ mother had abandoned him as a toddler. He and his father had lived an itinerant life until his father was arrested and sent to jail. Lucas was suffering the sting of rejection and dealing with his own feelings of rage, stemming from his circumstances. Peter, a CASA volunteer, worked hard to gain Lucas’s trust. With Peter’s support, encouragement, and advocacy, Lucas began to turn his life around. Last spring, he graduated from high school and is currently attending community college while living in an off-campus apartment.
When CASA first began in Anne Arundel County in 1997, it had 20 volunteers serving 28 children. Last year, they had 103 volunteers serving 145 children—a laudable growth, but one that leaves room for improvement. With additional funds, Anne Arundel County’s CASA organization could grow its staff, expand the number of CASA volunteers, and reach the ultimate goal of serving every child in foster care.
Court-appointed special advocates are important members of the small village it takes to help a child navigate his or her way through foster care. Their collaboration with social workers, family members, teachers, doctors, and therapists often means the difference between a small voice being heard and cared for now rather than later. With a CASA by their side, children often spend less time lingering in foster care and more time embracing what life holds for them.