Today my sister Erin was sworn in as a CASA volunteer. I have always thought this organization was amazing and wished I had the strength to be a part of it. I am very proud of her.
If you don’t know what CASA is, I have included an article about the director of our Local CASA. Really it’s a shame there is a need for it, but so very important.
RAYS OF HOPE
Rescuing children: CASA director finds adults who will speak for kids in need
This is another in a series of profiles of people who have quietly made significant contributions to our community. If you know of such a person, please contact Ann Weber at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6126.
They don’t wear action-hero tights or angel wings, but both would fit nicely on the volunteers who serve as voices for some of Lucas County’s saddest children.
These are the kids who are victims of sexual, physical, or emotional abuse and neglect. And when their cases come to Lucas County Juvenile Court, one of the volunteers flies in to try to help.
“These kids ended up here through no fault of their own,” declares Carol Martin — who is chief action hero/angel in her job as director of the Court Appointed Special Advocate department of the court. “Can we make it right?”
By “right,” she means a home with “someone who loves you, someone who sets limits, someone who is there for you. I want these kids to have a chance to have that,” she says.
CASA, the program she has directed since 1992, offers that chance by matching each child’s case with an adult whose job it is to be their advocate — speaking for them alone, making sure they don’t get lost in the system, investigating the circumstances that brought them to court, and making recommendations to a judge or magistrate about services and placement. With the goal being a safe, permanent, and loving home for the child, in most cases there are three options: returning to parents or guardians, living with relatives or foster parents, or being freed for adoption.
A fourth option applies to teens who do not want to be adopted and for whom the court approves what is called a “planned permanent living arrangement.” That means they remain in their foster home until they reach the age of 18.
“Our focus is always the best interest of the child,” Ms. Martin declares.
Last year Lucas County Children Services referred 554 cases of abuse and neglect to juvenile court. CASA volunteers — who are called CASAs — handled 48 percent of them, logging more than 10,800 hours of service; the rest of the cases were assigned to attorneys (their services paid for by taxpayers, Ms. Martin notes), who are called guardians ad litem or GALs.
A mother of two and grandmother of four, Ms. Martin, 62, of West Toledo was not trained in social work, “but I think I probably have always had a little social worker in me.”
That interest was awakened while she was working as a freelance writer after earning a degree in English from the University of Findlay. In 1989 the now-defunct Toledo Metropolitan Magazine assigned her to do a story on CASA — a program she had never heard of — and she spent about a week tagging along with three volunteers.
“I saw this incredible level of caring and skill and energy that these people gave to their CASA kids and to the families, trying to help children heal, trying to help these families heal. … It was really just a level of commitment that I hadn’t seen before,” she recalls. “They just advocated so hard to make good things happen for kids who’d been dealt a really lousy hand.”
She began to think about becoming a CASA herself.
“I thought about it for about two years before I volunteered. It just sort of kept lurking, hanging around my brain. I couldn’t get rid of it. I thought, I’m spending so much time thinking about this that I really should do it.”
In 1991, a year after moving from Findlay to Toledo, Ms. Martin went through CASA training and started taking cases. She handled five in her first year.
She remembers thinking she didn’t know if she’d be good at it.
“Did I read some things when I first started that I couldn’t believe? Absolutely. Even today, just when you think you’ve heard it all, a complaint will come across my desk and I’ll [think] ‘I can’t believe it.’ Everything that [people] have heard happen in New York City or Chicago or San Francisco or L.A. also has happened in Toledo, Ohio. It’s no different. We have the same heinous things happening to children that happen elsewhere in the United States,” Ms. Martin says.
The 40-hour CASA training program prepared her for some of what she would encounter. Experience taught her the rest.
“I learned to trust my gut. To observe, not just listen,” Ms. Martin says. “To look at the whole picture. To use common sense.”
She learned to suspend her middle-class values and to respect the bond that can exist even between a child and a drug-addicted, neglectful parent.
“There was a language I was unaware of. I had a lot of learning to do if I was going to be effective,” she admits.
“It opened up an entirely new world to me that I never knew was there and it challenged me to be stronger than I ever thought I could be — but not for me, for the children.”
One of the skills CASAs develop is to understand — rather than to despise — an adult who has hurt a child.
That doesn’t mean excusing the behavior, Ms. Martin stresses.
“The CASA gathers so much information. They understand where these parents come from, they understand the whole dynamic of the family because they’ve interviewed all these people, and in 18 years I don’t think I’ve ever had a CASA who said ‘I just don’t get it.’ … They may not like it, they may think this person should never parent their children again, and they might make that recommendation to the court, but they’re going to understand how that parent got to that point,” Ms. Martin says.
Results come from facts, not feelings, she points out.
“Knowledge is power. If you go into court and know the facts of the case those facts are all that matter in the legal system, not emotion, wishes, desires.”
Ms. Martin says her early experiences with CASA also taught her “that collaboration goes a lot further than head-butting. I think I was a head-butter at first.”
After just a year as a volunteer, Ms. Martin was asked to apply for the director’s job when it opened up.
“When I took the job as director, I felt like that’s where I was supposed to be,” she says.
Dan Pompa, juvenile court administrator, says the program has flourished under her leadership.
“It’s gotten larger. It’s gotten better,” Mr. Pompa says. “Years ago most CASAs were female and Caucasian, and a lot of our children come from the central city and are children of color. She has brought in a lot more men and a lot more minority CASAs. She has done an extraordinary job.”
In 1992, there were about 40 CASA volunteers. Today there are 220.
Ms. Martin says she brings good organizational skills to her job along with creativity and a love of children. “I’m especially passionate about kids who have less than they deserve,” she adds.
Ms. Martin says that she and her staff aren’t daunted by setbacks or overwhelmed by a problem that never goes away. “We can’t heal every child but we can heal some of them,” she reflects.
So she proceeds one child at a time, knowing she can make a difference, “and that’s enough for me. I don’t need to save the whole world.”
If you’re interested in becoming a CASA volunteer, you can find more information or apply online at casakids.net.
Contact Ann Weber at: