'To speak for the child is priceless'

STEVE NASH steve.nash@brownwoodbulletin.com
CASA volunteers Susan King (left) and Cleve Johnson, and Janet Nash, who recently completed CASA training and is waiting to be sworn in, are pictured during a recent visit to the Bulletin.

 Susan King of Brownwood has a question for the public: "Could you be the next CASA?"

King hopes someone — a lot of someones — will say "yes."

CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocate, and King is a CASA volunteer. A CASA volunteer is "one who works with a child who has been removed from his or her biological family and is now living with a foster family," King said.

"The removal may occur for a variety of reasons, but is of no fault of the child. The CASA becomes a voice for the child and goes to court on behalf of the child."

The local CASA organization, CASA in the Heart of Texas Inc., has a paid staff of four and 35 volunteers — and more volunteers are needed, King said.

Added another CASA volunteer, Cleve Williams: "Twice the number would be great."

CASA in the Heart of Texas, a member of national and state CASA associations, serves Brown, Mills and Comanche counties.

An informational meeting for anyone interested in learning more or becoming a CASA will be from 5-6 p.m. Wednesday, March 19, in the Waldrop Room of the Family Services Center, 901 Ave. B in Brownwood.

Light refreshments will be served, and CASA volunteers will attend to answer questions.

CASA volunteers undergo extensive training, as well as volunteer checks. A CASA spends time with the child but also visits with others involved with the child including family members, teachers, counselors, CPS workers and lawyers.

"This is a volunteer position, but the volunteers are 'paid' in abundant amounts of satisfaction, knowing they're providing a much-needed service," King said. "The opportunity to learn more about the child's story and then to speak for the child is priceless."

King became a CASA volunteer in August 2012 after retiring from the Brownwood school district as a speech pathologist. 

"Some people are hesitant about becoming a CASA because of the idea of having to speak in court," King said. "That was a little scary to me at first, too. However, most of the work for CASA is done before court."

A report is written up under the guidance of a CASA supervisor and turned in to the judge, King said. "Once in court, the CPS staff does most of the talking and the CASA is asked if they have anything to add," she said.

The CASA may have nothing to add, but is given an opportunity to speak if he or she does have something to add, King said.

' I've got to find out about this ...'

Williams has been a CASA for five years and is retired from Texas Oil and Gas. Williams said he became a CASA after seeing a CASA billboard while driving on C.C. Woodson. The billboard had a photo of "a little girl with a black eye," Williams said.

"I just thought 'man, I've got to find out about this,'" Williams said. "I can't stand the thought of a little kid being beaten up."

Williams said a CASA usually encounters a child who is very shy during the first meeting. The child has been taken away to live with "strangers" and "they need somebody they can depend on to be there for therm," Williams said.

"Then after you visit them a few times, they look forward to seeing you."

Williams recalled his first case: the family lived in "a shack" and four boys, ages 2-10, slept on an old filthy mattress on the floor, Williams said. The home had no working toilets. The parents were "doing drugs and alcohol," Williams said.

But the parents completed their court-ordered service plan and the family was able to be reunited — and reunification is the goal, Williams and King said.

Williams described other cases: a child who, at age 3, watched his father kill his mother and ended up in 18 different placements; a child whose parents are both incarcerated; and, on a happier note, a child who went from being a runaway, in trouble with the police, to a star athlete.

King recalled going with a CPS worker to a home, and the CPS worker told her "there would be a lot of people there." They encountered another situation to have to deal with: one of the people living in the home was a sexual predator.

"It can be hard, you know," King said. "That was the concern I had — am I going to be able to handle this emotionally?"

But although it's hard, King stressed, "it's rewarding."