Judge Stephen Ellis has been working in law in Brownwood for a long time. Brownwood is still pretty sleepy from a big-city perspective, but Ellis can remember a time before all the courthouse renovations and overfull dockets and associate judges.
“It was a smaller time,” Ellis said. “A less busy time.”
Ellis has been the district judge for 20 years now. He could tell, even in the mid-90s, that the children in foster care weren’t succeeding nearly often enough. “It seemed to me that kids would get in the system and they’d stay forever,” Ellis said. “I was wanting to do something better. I didn’t really know what.”
That’s when a judge friend down in Burnet, Texas introduced Ellis to the local CASA program. The Court-Appointed Special Advocate organization was just catching on around the state and the nation, and Ellis attended a swearing-in ceremony for new CASA advocates where he learned more about the program.
In every case involving child custody, the court appoints an attorney ad litem (a Latin phrase that simply means “for the suit”) and a guardian ad litem for the child. In many cases, attorneys were serving both roles simultaneously — and being paid to do so. “And you can” do both, Ellis said. “But the roles are really distinct.”
A guardian ad litem is meant to look after a child’s best interest, to be his or her voice in the courtroom. Most of the time, children don’t attend their own custody trials. It’s up to the guardian ad litem to advocate for them during one of the most important decisions of their lives.
“The only representatives that the kids had were attorneys, and they were appointed,” Ellis said. “They’re overwhelmed anyway. They would never meet their kid, and the only time they’d see them would be in the courtroom, if they even saw them then.”
The CASA program, Ellis saw, was a way to fulfill the guardian ad litem role with a dedicated volunteer who would actually get to know the child, and the child’s wishes. “So this ad litem role for the guardian is what the CASA then became,” he said.
Ellis founded Brownwood’s CASA in the Heart of Texas in 2000. He approached local clubs and churches to spread the word for an introductory meeting, which he held in the district courtroom. “It was packed,” Ellis said. “We had people from all walks of life.” One in particular stood out to him — an interested volunteer named Holly Hapke.
“Turns out,” Ellis said, “she’d been a victim of abuse and neglect herself. She’d been through the system, had graduated from high school, but grew up in foster care and knew the heartbreak of that and wanted to help kids get out of it.”
Hapke became the first director of CASA in the Heart of Texas.
Ever since then, CASA has been serving the guardian ad litem role for abused and neglected children throughout the Pecan Valley. CASAs meet and get to know the children they represent in the courtroom, as well as all the important members of their life — parents, foster parents, teachers, doctors, counselors, friends. As the final court date approaches, about a year after the child’s removal, the CASA works with the child’s parents to try to make their household a suitable environment for children once again.
And when it’s time for court, the CASA prepares a report on the case that proves an invaluable resource for judges, attorneys and everyone involved.
In the courtroom
Ellis doesn’t hear child custody cases very often any more. There’s a dedicated court for that, the Child Protective Court of the Hill Country, that visits Brownwood about twice a month to hear CPS cases. But when Ellis does hear them, he said the CASA’s report is one of the most valuable resources he has.
“These are little synopses,” he said, “and I can read them before the hearing. It gives you a little background on the case. It tells you the people and what they’ve done, and how things are going.”
There’s a lot to unpack in a child’s CASA report, but it ends with the most essential material for any case — the CASA’s recommendation. Ellis said he certainly doesn’t side with CASAs 100 percent of the time. But he said their insights are often invaluable and irreplaceable.
“The CASAs know the kid probably better than anybody else other than the immediate family, and they have the most objective view, usually,” Ellis said. “They’re there for the child in a commonsense way. They’re there because they have a compassion for the child. It’s a great thing.”
County attorney Shane Britton tries CPS cases regularly, and has been for almost 20 years. “I started doing these in 1998,” Britton said. “We might have 50 or 60 cases active at a time, and that kind of grew over the years. Now we’re up to 130, 135 cases.
“It’s kind of a full-time job,” he said. That’s why having a CASA’s report is so important for him.
“CPS, they’ll write reports before every hearing,” Britton said, “but theirs are so wordy. CPS is a big governmental agency, so there’s all kinds of rules and regulations about what you have to include in a report, the majority of which means nothing to me.”
As for the CASA reports? “What they’re putting in there is what I need to know,” he said. “That is kind of the CliffNotes of the case. So court reports and, ultimately, their opinion, that’s a wonderful thing to me.”
Britton said CASAs aren’t always popular with lawyers. They can be seen as meddlers, unpaid third parties messing up lawyers’ cases. “Sometimes they get kind of a bad name,” he said. “Attorneys usually don’t like that, especially if that person is giving an opinion that is contrary to your client’s position.
“But really, that’s the whole purpose of CASA, is to have kind of a regular person who can be the guardian ad litem for a child and just kind of come and give their opinion,” he said.
Britton said he works hard to utilize CASAs in the cases they work. After all, he said, they’ve worked hard for months to look out for a child and generate a report. They deserve a few minutes on the witness stand. And Britton’s affection for CASA has impacted his immediate family, too.
“One time, a long time ago,” he said. “My parents were in town, and they came and watched me in court one day doing a trial. They immediately go home, call their local CASA and say they want to become volunteers.”
Britton beamed. “I’m so proud of that.”
Judge Cheryll Mabray is the associate judge of the Child Protective Court of the Hill Country. She sees Brown County’s CPS cases more than anyone and, like Ellis and Britton, finds CASAs an invaluable resource in the process. “They’re really, really good investigators,” Mabray said. “They’ll go out and watch people’s houses at night to see who’s coming and going.
“So it’s made the cases go smoother, it’s made the cases go faster. In my opinion it has accomplished what’s best for the children and most of the time, it’s what the children want, too,” she said.
Of course, one of the best things about having a volunteer CASA serving as guardian ad litem is that a lawyer doesn’t have to do it for them. “If you have one lawyer as attorney ad litem and one lawyer as guardian ad litem, guess who’s paying for that?” Marbray said. “Your tax dollars.”
CASA training director Alex Garcia said his organization saves Brown County hundreds of thousands of dollars. “Because they’re not having to pay an attorney to be the attorney ad litem and then be the guardian ad litem at the same time,” he said. “When we step in, we’re not being compensated for it and our advocates aren’t being compensated for it. So the county’s able to save money because of that.”
The faces of CASA
When CASA in the Heart of Texas began, Michelle Wells was a supervisor at CPS. The young organization reached out to her, asking her to help with one of the earliest training courses.
“I actually was curious about how this was going to work, how to have volunteers involved in the cases. And so I talked to my program director and asked if I could actually sit in on all the training,” Wells said. “It turned out to be a good thing for me, in that I was able to really understand what it was that the volunteers were being told, how they were being trained and the information they were being provided.”
That background proved useful 13 years ago when CASA’s executive director position opened up. Wells wasn’t sure about applying — she had just left CPS. “I had just jumped out of the frying pan,” she said. But she did, winning the job and leading the nonprofit ever since.
“When I started,” Wells said, “we had one case manager who worked with the volunteers and then we had a part-time administrative assistant. Then with some growth in terms of the number of children we were serving, we needed to increase the number of staff.”
Today there are two case managers, a full-time administrative assistant and a training director, Garcia, on staff.
The CASA staff is constantly on the lookout for new advocates. But it’s not an easy task. “I think that we need volunteers who are interested in helping children and interested in the needs of abused and neglected children and their families,” Wells said. “Someone who has time to give, someone who is willing to really spend time with a variety of people. Because sometimes when you think about being a CASA volunteer, you think you’re just spending all this time with the child. And you are spending a lot of time with the child. But then you also need to spend time with the adults in the case as well.”
The average volunteer, Wells said, spends 12 to 15 hours with their assigned child each month.
Jody Davis has been volunteering with CASA for about three years. She lives in Star and works at TexasBank in downtown Brownwood. Davis said she got involved with CASA through her work, helping them with fundraisers and events. “I knew they helped children,” she said, “but I really didn’t know a whole lot about exactly what they did.”
With two children out of the house, Davis was looking for a way to re-engage with her community. She decided to give CASA a closer look. “I wanted to use my time and resources in an organization that there was really a need,” Davis said. “I feel like CASA’s one of those areas that it’s hard to find volunteers because of the sacrifice you make. It’s pretty emotionally hard on people, and time-consuming sometimes.”
But Davis, now on her third case, said the support from her employer and the CASA staff keeps her going. “The organization itself, I have a lot of support there,” she said. “They respect our time as volunteers.”
At first, Davis said, she didn’t understand why it takes an entire year to work through a CPS case. “That’s a long time in a child’s life,” she said. But a lot can change over the course of a year. “I understand that now,” she said. “I would say that you definitely make a difference, but it’s not always seen immediately.”
Micki and Louanne Stanley, meanwhile, are still on their first case. They work on it together, and it involves a sibling group rather than a single child.
Micki Stanley said most CASAs are sworn to secrecy because they’re privy to a child’s personal records, medical files and other sensitive information. They’re not allowed to discuss the specifics of an ongoing case with anyone, not even their spouses. But because the Stanleys have teamed up, they can support each other through the hard times of the case.
“Any time I have a thought or idea about the case,” he said, “instead of writing it down or trying to remember it later, I can bounce it off Louanne right away.”
But Stanley said there are “pros and cons” to working as a couple — after all, they could each be working with their own child. “I know they need more people to cover all the cases they’re getting,” he said. “But we talked about it and we felt that this was the best way for us.”
Stanley said it can be hard to walk into a case without preconceived ideas and value judgments. Often there are no ideal solutions, only less bad ones. “But it’s important to set aside your own ideas of how things should be,” Stanley said, “and just think about what’s the best possible situation for these children.”
Lynette Oines has yet to learn all of this. She’s yet to experience the thrilling victories and gut-punch lows that come with shepherding a hurting child through the hardest year of his or her life.
Oines has been raising children for 20 years. The nest isn’t empty yet, but it’s getting closer. “After my daughter graduated and went off to college, you come to the realization that my time as a mother — I mean, you’re always a mother, but they don’t need me as much any more,” Oines said. “I was struggling with, what do I do now? Do I go back to work? Do I go back to college and do something completely different?
“I was in a little bit of a funk,” she said. Then in January, a newspaper article mentioned that CASA was looking for new volunteers. “I wanted to make a difference,” Oines said, “not just in my own kids’ lives, but I wanted to make a difference in the community and make the world a better place.” So she decided to apply and go to training.
Oines met with other trainees for five three-hour Tuesday night sessions. “They provided us food,” Oines said, “which was very nice.” She also did 15 hours of training on her own time, mostly reading. And the volunteers were required to attend a court date.
“I was only supposed to go for about three hours,” she said, “but I ended up going like three different times and sitting and listening. I found it just fascinating.”
As a parent, Oines said her primary goal is to keep families united and help parents get back on the right path. Although that doesn’t always work out, CASA’s focus is always to keep children with their parents, or at least with extended family members.
Oines said parenting is “the hardest job in the world.” She hopes to bring clarity to hurting family units and, ultimately, to put children in a position to thrive. After all, she’s had three of her own. She knows what it takes. And she said the CASA staff has been behind her all the way. “Alex is great. He was wonderful, and so was Michelle. They were both at all the trainings,” she said. “I feel like they’ve prepared me well.”
The little things
Child Protective Services, by most measures, is in a tough spot. In his State of the State address this year, Texas governor Greg Abbott named CPS reform an “emergency item” for the 85th Texas Legislature. In an era where bipartisanship is considered dead, both the Texas House and Senate voted unanimously to reform the organization earlier this month.
CPS is short on workers, funds and foster families. And Brownwood police detective Robert Lee said that even when they do find foster parents, not all of them are in it for the right reasons. “There are some amazing foster families,” Lee said, “and there’s some that do it because they want a paycheck.
“The ones that do it for a paycheck usually don’t last long,” he said.
Lee specializes in child welfare cases at the BPD. He works hand-in-hand with CPS and organizations like the Heart of Texas Children’s Advocacy Center to remove children from dangerous situations, prosecute abusive adults and get accurate, truthful statements from traumatized kids.
Lee calls his job the “worst best job ever.”
“I absolutely love it,” he said.
Lee doesn’t deal directly with CASA much, though he does recall a CASA advocate who helped soothe a child through a sexual assault forensic investigation. “They came out and stayed with her and made her feel a little more comfortable,” he said.
But from Lee’s side of the case — trauma, abuse and removal — to the ultimate court date is a long year of changes, challenges and fears. And CASA’s Garcia said the scars of that year, and the abuse that preceded it, never go away for affected kids.
“You never get over what’s happened to you,” Garcia said. “I had someone in their 50s who sat in my office and said, ‘All these years I’ve been dealing with this and I just got diagnosed with PTSD from the abuse I suffered as a child.’ Think about this. Someone who’s in their 50s, who was abused as a child, has been dealing with it for the last 50 years and is just now being diagnosed with PTSD.
“The abuse and neglect that they face stays with them for a lifetime,” Garcia said.
And then, often, they’re plopped down in a brand-new home surrounded by strangers. “Think about that as a child,” Garcia said. “How is that not going to be traumatic? How is that not scary?”
So his organization tries its best to place children with, if not their biological parents, at least their extended family members. “Children are going to thrive in a family unit,” he said. “Now the child at least knows these people.”
Lee said removing children from abusive situations can be the first step to a rebuilt, successful life — if they have the right support structure around them. “We just interviewed some kids on a case that are just witnesses, and they’re talking about their old family, their mom and dad using drugs,” Lee said. “They were mean to them, beat them, choked them.”
The child was asked what he enjoyed about living in a foster home.
“He said, ‘I get to eat every day. I have to take baths. I get to watch TV until I’m told to turn it off.’ It’s the little things in life that they just love.”
Volunteers interested in becoming CASA advocates can contact CASA in the Heart of Texas at 325-643-2557 or www.casabrownwood.org.