Two weeks into her new job, Joanne McCraw has quickly picked up the terminology and the mission of CASA in the Heart of Texas.
    McGraw has been working for two weeks as the volunteer recruiter and trainer for CASA — Court Appointed Special Advocate — which assigns trained CASA volunteers as advocates for children who’ve have been placed in the foster care system.
    CASA in the Heart of Texas serves Brown, Mills and Comanche counties, and the organization is in need of more CASA volunteers — which McCraw will recruit and train.
    “I”m very impressed with the CASA system,” McCraw said in the CASA offices at the Family Services Center. “I love that I get to be here. It’s a privilege. I feel a burden for these children of getting volunteers in here, and getting them equipped to be a powerful advocate. I’m exploring some new ideas, maybe somethings we haven’t tried before.”

Children need to thrive
    McCraw, an Abilene native, and her husband, David, have two sons and a daughter. McCraw has previously worked in domestic abuse and CPS settings. “So these unsettling situations are kind of familiar to me,” McCraw said. “I used to run the local domestic violence shelter when it was the Noah project.”
    Children need to do more than simply survive — they need to thrive in the safety and love of a family, McCraw said. Children who’ve been abused or neglected to the point they have been removed from their homes and placed in foster care have already had that scenario dashed, she said.

A CASA’s role
    McCraw described a CASA volunteer as “a qualified, responsible, compassionate adult who will fight for and protect a child’s right to be safe, to be treated wth dignity and respect and to learn and grow” in a loving family. A CASA will stay in contact with the child, the child’s parents, foster parents or placement, school, medical and other professionals, CPS and the court, McCraw said.
    If parental rights are terminated, a CASA stays connected with the child and participates in the decision-making team for adoption or other permanent solution, she said.
    “The CASA gets to know the child and their situation better than anyone else involved,” McCraw said. She said that makes a CASA “a powerful force to advocate for that child in every part of the system. There is no one else like a CASA volunteer.”

The hidden population
    Michelle Wells, executive director of CASA in the Heart of Texas, stressed the need for more volunteers. “We’re not able to take on all the cases of children who are being removed and placed into foster care,” Wells said. “We’re having to take select cases because we just don’t have the capacity in terms of volunteers to take them all.
    “Unfortunately the foster care population, a lot of times, is kind of the hidden population. We assume there’s somebody out there taking care of these kids, so we kind of try to not think about that, but these kids are there. They’re in school with our kids, they’re in the community, and without CASA being involved, they’re more likely to not get their needs met, to have their needs fall between the cracks. The people involved in the system are trying to do a good job, but they just don’t have enough time to focus on each individual child and their needs.”

A safe, permanent home
    Wells echoed McCraw’s statements about the value of a CASA, saying the volunteer “is someone who is focusing specifically on this child or this sibling group to be able to advocate for what this child needs. Our goal is to get them to a safe, permanet home so that they’re not lingering in foster care. We want to be back into a position where we’re able to accept 100 percent of the kids coming into the system. Foster care is necessary, but it’s not a good long-term option for kids.”
    McCraw said a big part of her job will be “to spread the word until everyone, at least in our three counties, understands that the lives of these children arehanging in the balance. Children continue to flood into the system, which has wonderful people in it who care and do their best.”

About volunteering
    McCraw said she’s looking for adults to volunteer and is planning a training for the next group of volunteers. Anyone interested can contact McCraw at:
    • 325-643-2557
    • or by email at casa.tr@familsysc.net
     McCraw also said she is available to speak to community groups or organizations including Sunday school classes and college classes.
    CASA welcomes donations of money and time from people who have skills such as IT, but don’t necessarily have to time to volunteer as a CASA.
    A CASA must be at least 21 and might be someone who’s still in college, in the middle of rising a family or retired. A CASA volunteer will be provided training and will have an advocate coordinator who will guide, coach and supervise the CASA, she said.
    CASA is also planning a New Year’s Eve fund-raiser — a George Strait tribute concert featuring a Strait impersonator at the youth fair home economics building in Brownwood.