Being a volunteer for CASA isn’t easy. Qualifying to become one may be even tougher.
But that hasn’t deterred 34 people from serving as advocates for 178 children in Brown, Comanche and Mills counties in recent months whenever heartbreaking circumstances mean that the future of those youngsters is placed in the hands of the courts.
“It’s the knowledge that I’m helping a child have a better life, and the parents to have a better life perhaps with their child, that makes me want to do this,” said Linda Brumbelow, a Texas Youth Commission employee who has been a CASA volunteer since it was formed locally in 2001.
The seriousness with which Court Appointed Special Advocates in the Heart of Texas approaches its mission will be give way to some fun Tuesday night, though, when supporters gather for dinner at the Brownwood Country Club. They will be served by what may be the most distinguished wait staff ever assembled in Central Texas. Members of the judicial and law enforcement community will be waiting on tables as a fund-raiser for the organization.
“The idea wasn’t exactly original,” Lisa Wells, who with Elsa Romero is one of two case managers working at CASA, said. “We were at a state CASA meeting and were discussing ideas that had been very well accepted. People here liked the idea and thought we could have some fun. We have some real characters, so I think it will be a really neat evening. Hopefully, we’ll be able to grow it, and add some more judges.”
The event will begin at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, and wait staff will include District Judge Stephen Ellis, Brownwood Municipal Judge Don Clements, Brown County Judge Ray West, County Attorney Shane Britton, Justice of the Peace Bryan Thompson, Brownwood Police Chief Virgil Cowin, Early Police Chief Junior Pinson and Brown County Sheriff Bobby Grubbs. Advance tickets cost $20.
“These are the people we work with all the time,” CASA Executive Director Michelle Wells said. “And of course, Judge Ellis is the father of CASA here. We’ll also have tip jars on every table, so we hope people who come out will have a little fun with that, and see what their waiters will do to earn tips.”
The funds the dinner will help raise are needed to help sustain the program, but raising awareness is a goal that’s no less important, said Lisa Wells, who has been instrumental in planning the event. With the number of court cases involving children increasing dramatically in Brown County over the past year, the need for CASA volunteers is growing. They are called upon when a court’s decision affects a child, and cases can involve situations ranging from abuse and neglect charges to foster home placement.
“We’re just not able to keep up,” Michelle Wells said. “It’s a difficult volunteer job, and some people simply get stressed out. But also, some people move away, or they change jobs and can’t continue, or they have health problems.
“We do get lots of inquiries, but the application can be a little scary. There are questions about their background, and some people don’t realize it involves that kind of commitment.”
A new training session — which involves 30 hours of class work as well as three hours of courtroom observation — is being planned, but she would like to have a few more volunteer applicants to join before it starts.
“There’s a group dynamic that’s really important in the training,” Michelle Wells said. “And we’ve got a new — or, really an updated — curriculum.”
Volunteers must also complete 12 hours of continuing education each year.
Marsha Pittman, who has been a CASA volunteer since 2004, explained that when a child is removed from a family and court proceedings begin, a CASA volunteer “talks to everyone involved in the case — relatives, neighbors, counselors — to learn about the situation. We provide support for them and sometimes the parents as well. We write a court report, maybe six court reports, recommending what’s best for the child.”
A family crisis can develop for many reasons, but substance abuse in some form is a frequent factor — either directly or indirectly, Michelle Wells said. And while many families who are under the poverty line manage successfully, Pittman said financial woes and the frustration they can cause are also issues facing parents and their children.
If a CASA volunteer like Pittman or Brumbelow is not available when the courts become involved, typically a guardian ad litem is appointed, who is often an attorney involved in the case. The national CASA movement began over 25 years ago when a judge in Seattle decided he needed to know even more about the children whose lives were in his hands, and a group of volunteers was trained to provide that input. Now, more than 900 CASA organizations are in operation nationally, including 67 in Texas covering 199 counties.
“One of the advantages is that a CASA volunteer has a lower number of cases,” Michelle Wells said. “Usually, it’s just one or two cases at a time. There are exceptions to that, but our guidelines are to have no more than five cases per volunteer. We want to balance the needs of the child and the needs of the volunteer.”
Michelle Wells said in an ideal world, court cases are decided within a 12- to 18-month time period, but appeals can stretch that into several years. More of a volunteer’s time, however, is needed in the initial stages of the case.
“The CASA volunteer’s report includes placement recommendations and addresses service needs,” Michelle Wells said. “Sometimes some of those needs are forgotten about.”
“I’ve seen some good outcomes,” Brumbelow said. “But not always… Sometimes even the best decision that can be made at the time doesn’t work out.”
Local CASA volunteers are predominantly women, and they range in age from the upper 20s to senior citizens. The majority of them are employed.
“Of course, their jobs have to give them some flexibility in their schedules,” Michelle Wells said. “Unfortunately, most are caucasian. We would like to have more Hispanic and black volunteers. We’re seeing more Hispanic children.”
The vast majority of CASA’s cases have been in Brown County, with 147 of the 178 youngsters it has served living here. Comanche County has had 26 children assisted, and Mills County five. Of the 34 different volunteers who have been involved with CASA, 19 have active cases. Eight other volunteers are available, but they are unable to take on cases for various reasons.
“Volunteers — we desperately need them,” Michelle Wells said.
Brumbelow said she became involved with CASA as an extension of her career with the TYC, where she sees and learns of the difficult lives children have had.
“Child Protective Services tries to intervene, but they’re just overwhelmed,” Brumbelow said. “The TYC deals with a lot of the end result of that. The children weren’t taken out of the home when they should have been, or they have other needs. It’s easier to intervene because when they get older, they don’t want your help. At TYC, they’ll tell you as much.”
The CASA office is located inside the Family Services Center building at 901 Ave. B. Its telephone number is 643-2557.