She shuffled into the courtroom, wrists and ankles cuffed, clad in the standard orange attire of a county jail inmate. A sheriff’s deputy escorted her across the room to a desk where she sat down next to her lawyer. The trial was about to begin.
The woman was pale and slender, almost emaciated, with a thinner face than its bone structure would normally wear. She could have been 23 or 35, or anywhere in between.
She was shackled, of course, because of the drugs. But that wasn’t the reason for the appearance. She was in court that February afternoon because she wanted to retain custody of her two children, an infant and a toddler, and the state of Texas didn’t think that was such a good idea.
She rose with the others when Judge Stephen Ellis entered the courtroom. Ellis doesn’t normally hear these cases — not any more, at least. But some procedural wrangling took the matter all the way to the District Judge, to his desk. He had a big decision to make.
County Attorney Shane Britton took the lead for the state. He called the CPS worker first involved with the case. He called the mother, though her attorney made it clear to her that she didn’t have to answer any questions that might complicate the separate drug charges she was facing.
One point in particular held up Britton’s line of questioning. “So you failed a drug test in August,” Britton asked, “and had a baby in September. But you didn’t fail a drug test while you were pregnant?”
The woman paused. She had been adamant that the drugs and the pregnancy were not concurrent, but this line of questioning was not helping. “No,” she finally said. Britton passed the witness.
Finally, Britton called up another woman. She wasn’t a CPS worker or a narcotics expert. She wasn’t a cop or an employer or even a family member. She was, essentially, a volunteer. And she was there to speak on behalf of the woman’s two children, too young still to do any speaking for themselves.
And she had written a report about exactly what she thought should happen to them.
A CASA’s purpose
That woman was a CASA, or a Court-Appointed Special Advocate. In the yearlong run-up to the mother’s loss-of-custody trial, the CASA had spent hours talking to countless individuals — the CPS worker, the mother’s friends and family, doctors, employers, counselors and teachers — in an effort to decide who should care for the children.
The woman was trained at CASA in the Heart of Texas, the local offshoot of the national CASA nonprofit organization. Housed on the second floor of Brownwood’s Family Services Center, the local CASA has only a handful of employees and one daunting task: to recruit, train and equip volunteers to be a voice for children who have been removed from their homes by CPS.
Interested volunteers undergo a thorough training process before they are assigned a case. It’s all to make sure that CASA volunteers are serious about the journey they’re about to take. It’s not an easy one.
What are CASAs? CASA volunteer trainer Alex Garcia said in large part, they are investigators. “Our advocates are talking to parents,” Garcia said. “They’re talking to the foster parents, they’re talking to schoolteachers, doctors. They’re talking to attorneys. They’re talking to everybody.”
A CASA needs as much information as possible to make sure they understand the facts and make the best recommendation. But there’s one source, above all, that CASAs rely on. “Most importantly,” Garcia said, “they’re talking to the kid.”
Being removed from home is a tumultuous experience for any child whether they’re 3, 6 or 16. With kids bouncing between CPS caseworkers, foster homes and lawyers, Garcia said a CASA is often the only consistent presence in a child’s life during this time. “There’s trust that’s being built between the Court Appointed Special Advocate and the child,” Garcia said. “With the children who can talk, you find that they begin to build a trust with this person and reveal things to them about their desires and about how this whole entire process is affecting them.
“That’s a big trust,” he said. “My life is on the line, my future is on the line, and I’ve got to trust this person that’s sitting across from me saying I’ve got your best interest at heart.”
It is a big trust, and a big responsibility. But Garcia said CASAs are often the only impartial presence in the courtroom during custody trials. The children usually don’t attend. “We’re unbiased. The only thing we’re biased to is the best interest of the kid. We’re not trying to win a case,” Garcia said.
Ideally, there would be a CASA in 100 percent of removal cases. But Garcia said ever since the recent spike in CPS removals, that just hasn’t been possible. “Foster care numbers in our community have skyrocketed,” Garcia said. “There used to be a time when they hovered in the 70s and 80s, and now we’re well past that. They’re sitting probably somewhere between 125 and 140.”
Which is dozens more than the number of volunteers CASA has to cover the cases. “The numbers are just beginning to climb and climb and climb,” Garcia said.
Still, Garcia and the rest of the CASA staff do their best to train as many qualified volunteers as possible. “We’d like to have a volunteer for every child in foster care. We’re only meeting about 50 percent of that right now.”
So what’s behind the dramatic rise in foster care numbers?
‘This is something that’s not getting better’
Aaron Taylor is the lead narcotics detective at the Brownwood Police Department. He doesn’t much look like a cop, though, which is entirely the point. He has a secretive line of work. And far too often, Taylor said, that work involves children.
“I’d say the majority of time children are involved with the drug investigations,” Taylor said. “A lot of times when we run search warrants, either children are there or [the suspects] are involved in co-parenting, so there has to be some type of involvement with Child Protective Services.”
Taylor said he was working a case recently that involved some “sensitive investigations.” It came to light that a child was involved. “Even though you want to maintain the sensitivity of the investigation,” Taylor said, “you have that juxtaposed with the child’s safety. The child’s safety is going to win out every time.”
CPS removed the child before the police acted.
According to Garcia, Brown County’s substance issues have played a major role in the area’s rising foster care numbers. “I think people know there’s a drug issue in Brown County,” Garcia said, “but we tend not to think about things if they’re not directly affecting us every day. We sit and think, ‘Well, it’s not happening in my neighborhood.’ But in reality, it probably is.”
Garcia said the issue “goes beyond” the headline-grabbing drugs like meth and heroin. “It is those things,” he said, “but it’s also prescription drugs. And it’s also alcohol. It’s a community problem.”
Taylor said Brown County grapples with the same prescription painkillers problem that has made news across the nation. “It’s just not talked about as much because it’s not as flashy,” Taylor said. And the problem isn’t nearly as cut-and-dried as the narcotics issue. “If I walk in and you have a bottle of hydrocodone that’s 150 tablets prescribed to you validly by a doctor, even though I know you’re selling them illegally, I can’t charge you with that,” Taylor said. “I can’t seize that. The only thing I can do is maybe do some control purchases where I buy them from you undercover.”
Taylor said hydrocodone has only increased in street price since it became a Schedule II controlled substance. “I watched a lady one day pick up her prescription. I think she got 120 hydrocodone,” he said. “I watched her make $600 in less than 30 minutes.
“I would say pills are rampant,” Taylor said. “You sell 10 pills, that’s $100. So you do the math.”
CPS removal cases generally take one year to work through the court system and reach an ultimate decision. That means addicted parents who lose their children have to get clean — fast — if they hope to retain custody rights. CASA’s goal is to return every child to his or her parents, but that’s not always possible. Sometimes the addiction is just too strong.
“I hear people all the time say, ‘If that was my kid, I’d do whatever it takes.’ Yeah, but you don’t have a 10-year drug addiction to meth,” Garcia said. “And you’re telling me you’re just going to break it in three months? You’re not going to do it any more? Heck, ask me to stop eating cheeseburgers.
“We’re asking people who have 10 years of the most addictive things on the planet,” he said, “and you’re saying in three months, you’ve basically got to go cold turkey.”
Taylor said sobriety is about more than willpower. It’s about breaking away from the friends and acquaintances who lead users down that path. “That’s the whole deal to staying sober,” Taylor said. “It’s not detoxing, it’s not going to the rehab. It’s when you come back and it’s your associations, the networks you keep. If you continue to keep those same networks, you’re going to use.”
Staying sober for a year? “The people that I deal with on a daily basis,” Taylor said, “five minutes is difficult.”
“It’s tough,” Garcia said. “And it’s hard on these families. Sadly, some of them just give up because they see it as a no-win situation. They will sign their parental rights away because they just can’t cut loose from it. It’s got such a hold on them. And they need more than 12 months, 18 months, to get through it.”
And even if they do get clean, Garcia said, there’s no guarantee they’ll stay that way. “They get their children back, and what happens? They relapse, and we’re right back where we started.”
Brownwood police chief Terry Nichols said it doesn’t take illegal narcotics to create a dangerous situation for a child. “We have some folks in the community that are alcoholics and don’t function well,” Nichols said. “If they have children, that leads to a bad environment at home, which leads to a bad environment at the schools. It’s just this compounding problem.
“If you were to look at most of the cases, there’s probably some type of illicit drug activity going on in very many of these,” he said.
Garcia said it’s time for the Brownwood community to recognize how its drug problems affect everyone, whether they know a user or not. “These foster kids are sitting in our schools and they’re sitting next to our children,” Garcia said. “They’re all in the same room together, and if we honestly believe that the trauma and the issues that these kids are facing is not affecting the classroom and our own children who are not in foster care, we’re being very naive.
“I think we’ve seen the reports of arrests and the uncovering of drugs in our community increase, and that news being put out to the community is making people aware that, yeah, this is something that’s not getting better,” he said.
‘Stuck in a cycle of the system’
One word that came up over and over again with the police and the CASA workers was the idea of a “cycle,” an insidious loop where abusers and addicts create a new generation of abusers and addicts. The statistics for children in foster care are not encouraging.
Sometimes, children are able to break that cycle, often with the help of exceptional adults. “I’ve seen some of the most damaged children,” Taylor said, “but I’ve also … seen some of the most resilient children that have come from circumstances that you think, there’s no way they’re going to survive this, and come out on top. And they’re some of the best kids.”
But Taylor said such cases are very much the exception. “The rule is, generally, it’s cyclical, it’s generational, and they learn by seeing,” he said.
Garcia said children in foster care can end up supported by the state for the rest of their lives, whether that’s in rehab or jail. “Violence and drug abuse, it’s a cyclical thing,” Garcia said. “It is a repeated offense that is passed down through generations, unfortunately. If we don’t do our job as a community, of stepping in and helping these children break those cycles and be put into healthy, safe environments where they can be productive members of society, what we’re going to end up doing is moving them from one system into the next system.”
It’s not hard for Taylor to think of examples of kids whose lives may never recover from the trauma they’ve endured. He met a young man last week on suicide watch in the county jail, tired of living a chaotic, abusive life. “Bless his heart, he was born to two parents that have been in and out of prison,” Taylor said. “He’s just worn out. He’s already been to prison. He’s 22 years old. He’s got tattoos all over him that have to do with gangs and things of that nature. He looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, ‘My family doesn’t want me. I’m tired of the drug use. I’m worn out.’”
Taylor paused, remembering. “He’s 22 years old. You know?”
When Taylor meets people in that condition, it’s hard to be optimistic about their chances for a turnaround. “Honestly, what can he do? That’s all he knows,” Taylor said. “Maybe if he’d had somebody step in when he was young and advocate for him, maybe things would have turned out differently.”
Taylor does see positive signs for the community. He said the relationships between CPS and the police have improved “drastically” in the last several years, allowing them to coordinate more effectively. He stressed the need for all organizations to be on the same page when it comes to child welfare.
Nichols said the Brownwood community has some “incredible resources” for people in need. “Compared to many cities our size and towns our size, we have some incredible resources here. It will help us break that cycle.”
CASA is one of those organizations, but Garcia acknowledges that all CASA can hope to do is limit a child’s trauma as much as possible. Being removed from home, he said, is never not damaging. “One of the things that we have really been trying to push with our advocates is ‘fierce advocacy.’ We’ve got to be really fierce about what we do,” Garcia said. He compared abusive homes to houses on fire. “If your house was on fire, and you called the fire department, what do you want the fire department to do? You want them to get there as fast as they can with the best equipment available to get that fire out.
“The person who gets there fiercely — who got there fast, quickly, got the job done — did what? They minimized the damage,” he said. “It’s our responsibility to do that.”
Garcia said there are lots of indicators that just having a CASA makes a difference. “Kids that have Court Appointed Special Advocates are more likely to have better grades than kids who don’t,” he said. “They’re more likely to graduate, less likely to be suspended from school and less likely to have conduct issues at school. And they’re more likely to become productive members of our community.”
Brown County residents who want to learn more about becoming a CASA volunteer can contact the organization at 325-643-2557 or www.casabrownwood.org.
Next week, the Brownwood Bulletin will speak with CASA volunteers about their experience with the organization and talk to local judges about how CASAs help them make the most important decisions in a child’s life.