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Speaking up for the abused and neglected…
The coronavirus pandemic may have changed the way courthouses operate or how attorneys meet with clients, even how judges hear cases, but one thing has remained a constant, and it is a pressing need among young victims of abuse and neglect to have their grievances heard and their interests met.
Retired Pearsall school principal Francie Gasch flicks through a manila folder on her lap, eyeing the details of another heartbreaking case of abuse. She won’t give details, of course, but suffice to say that there are some young children in this town who have suffered terribly within the embrace of their very own family.
Gasch knows that the case is not unique. She has seen too many of these to believe that parents or elders hurting children is a rare occurrence.
Gasch is a child advocate, a case supervisor for the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of South Texas, a nonprofit organization that covers five counties including Frio and La Salle, representing the needs and best interests of children who have been removed from their homes by the state’s Child Protective Services.
Gasch is quick to note that neither she nor her organization represents CPS and that CASA is not the agency that investigates cases of abuse or neglect, or that removes children from their homes or from the reaches of their parents.
CASA, however, steps in once a removal has taken place, and its volunteer advocates work closely with CPS caseworkers, judges, attorneys, even teachers and counselors, in assessing a child’s needs, hearing concerns, and working towards a resolution that will be in the child’s best interests.
Ideally, that resolution is for the child to be returned to the parents, if they have corrected their ways and have proved to a judge that they can provide a nurturing and safe home for their youngsters.
But Gasch knows all too well that such a resolution is often unattainable and that the children may be moved from temporary foster care to a permanent adoptive family.
The journey can be a traumatic one. Children who have only ever known their familial surroundings may be lifted from them to strangers’ arms, to new rooms and new rules, sometimes to an entirely new town or school. For them, every day may be filled with uncertainty, as adults make decisions for them and hearings are conducted in cavernous courts by strangers in hushed tones.
It is at those times – sometimes for as long as a year and a half – that the CASA volunteers come to the fore, stand by the children, communicate with them in terms they can understand, empathize, support, counsel, advise and encourage the youngsters to be brave.
Gasch knows from experience that the job of an advocate may be under-appreciated by some, but she also knows that a judge who has referred an advocate to a child’s plight will depend a great deal on the word of that volunteer.
For the child, the most chilling and fearful hour may be the time at which a caseworker conducts a removal, but a CASA volunteer will know that a child may soon see the light of a new dawn ahead, a chance to recover, a chance to tell the story, and a chance to explain where the pain and fear are at their greatest.
As soon as a CASA volunteer takes on a case, the advocate is provided with a general overview of a child’s situation as well as pertinent details of the reasons for removal from the home. It may be that parents were found in possession of drugs, had committed crimes, had left the children unattended, or had physically hurt them, perhaps once and perhaps repeatedly. In each case, the child will have suffered or been in immediate danger. In some cases, the parents may face criminal charges, while in others they may be deemed unfit to care for their children.
CASA of South Texas has volunteer advocates in Frio, La Salle, Atascosa, Wilson and Karnes counties, serving at least 200 children at a time.
In Frio County alone, CASA advocates are presently handling the cases of 55 children who have been removed from abusive homes or situations of neglect.
A young man called Anthony has provided a testimonial to the CASA organization with a view to helping young children understand what they may expect from an advocate’s help and to encourage new volunteers to step forward and serve the children’s needs.
“When I was seven, my parents were hurting me,” Anthony writes. “I was really scared. I asked my teacher if she could help me. It was very hard to tell her, but she said I could trust her.
“Then I had to talk to a policeman,” he continues, “a lady who said she had six other kids to see that day, and a judge who was so high up, all I could see was the top of her head.
“They all said I had to leave my house,” Anthony writes, “and go live with strangers. I had to share a room with three other kids. I missed my brothers a lot, and I was worried I would never see them again.”
Gasch says that she and the CASA organization will work hard to place children in the foster care of close relatives as often as is possible, but that she has found some parents unable to provide the names and addresses or contact information for dependable relatives capable of caring for the displaced children.
“Then I met Chris,” Anthony writes in his testimonial of the volunteer advocate who took up his case. “Chris would always come to talk to me, even when I moved or got a new caseworker. He listened to me when I was angry or confused, and held my hand when I was sad.
“I knew Chris would always be there for me,” Anthony writes. “He even remembered my birthday.”
Gasch says that CASA of South Texas takes pride in sticking with a child’s case throughout the foster and adoption process, and that the organization’s advocates are dedicated to ensuring a child is never left abandoned in the bureaucratic system.
“Now I’m adopted by a new mom and dad,” Anthony writes, “and I get to live with my sisters in a new home. I am safe and happy because of Chris, my CASA.”
“We are volunteers, appointed by the court,” Gasch says of the advocates who serve children removed from their homes. “We are not paid to do this. The judge respects CASA and our opinions and our observations of the children.”
The current coronavirus pandemic has made CASA’s work more challenging, as almost all visits and related consultations – as well as some court hearings – are made remotely via conference calls or on the Zoom platform.
“Yes, it’s a little bit more difficult to really connect, to have that personal interaction, with the present COVID-19 scare, but we don’t give up,” Gasch says. “Our mission is the same. We are here to ensure that they go to the best, most loving homes that they can go to.”
For CASA of South Texas, however, the number of child cases requiring attention in the five-county area far surpasses the number of volunteers fully trained and ready to serve. While the organization already has advocates working in Frio and La Salle counties, Gasch understands that the need is growing because incidents of child abuse and neglect are not lessened by the coronavirus pandemic.
“We need volunteers to go to the children’s homes, to pick up their cases, to serve them in their time of need,” Gasch says, acknowledging that the current virus pandemic prohibits some visits. “We follow the kids for at least a year, and we sometimes find that the kids should go to an adoptive home.”
CASA of South Texas reiterates that its volunteers have very little contact with the children’s parents, if any at all, and that the advocates’ work is focused entirely on the youngsters’ wellbeing. Investigation of parents, living conditions at the children’s original home, follow-up and related contact is almost exclusively handled by CPS caseworkers.
“We want the parents to turn their life around,” Gasch says of the home situation from which children have been removed by CPS. “We want them to get counseling, get drug tested, get their kids back. Sometimes it works; many times it doesn’t.”
Laredo-based CASA volunteer Jesus Mireles is a university graduate student who found himself drawn to the organization when he learned of the plight of children who suffer abuse and neglect at home.
“At first, I thought it was a small way that I could help some of the children from the community I live in,” Mireles says of his dedication to advocacy, “but it’s actually really important work, trying to make sure no child falls through the cracks in the system.”
Mireles doesn’t discuss individual cases he has handled but is certain that those children for whom he has advocated are better served in a system in which their needs and concerns are addressed.
“It’s our job to document what is best for them, what situation would be in their best interests; and it’s our job to stand up for them in court,” Mireles says, “to be their voice and to stand by their side and support them through all the uncertainty and confusion.”
Mireles says he understands that children often do not comprehend what is happening to them or how the advocacy program works to protect them and help them live a better life, free from abuse and neglect.
While Mireles works towards his counseling degree with a view to serving more children in a variety of situations, Gasch is quick to note that CASA volunteers do not need to be college-educated, do not need to have a background in education or counseling, but need only to have what she describes as a passion for serving children.
“A CASA volunteer has to be a person of compassion,” the case supervisor says. “It has to be someone who will make it a little easier for the children. If you care about children and you have a heart for helping them, this is a commitment you can make.
I’m looking for people who want to be mentors to children,” Gasch says, “people who are willing to stand up for the vulnerable, the underserved and the victims. These children deserve better, and I believe we can help them attain that.”
Those interested in becoming CASA volunteers should call Gasch at (830) 267-1025 for more information. Those willing to sign up with at least a year’s commitment to the organization will undergo extensive training and will be subject to background checks and fingerprinting. Eventually, volunteers will work with experienced advocates in observing cases, including courtroom hearings, and will work with a trainer before picking up their first case.
“This involves just a few hours a month that you will dedicate to a child,” Gasch says of a CASA volunteer’s responsibilities, “but your dedication must be devoted to the wellbeing of a child. That’s your calling.”
CASA of South Texas is affiliated with Texas CASA and the National CASA Association. Headquartered in Pleasanton, the local organization can be found online at casasouthtx.org or by phone at its offices, (830) 569-4696.
“CASA volunteers make things happen,” the five-county group writes in its promotional flyer. “Court-appointed special advocates are ordinary people who do extraordinary things for some of our community’s most vulnerable children.”