This week, KMUW News is telling the stories of volunteers who donate their time and talent to Sedgwick County organizations and nonprofits. Many people do their volunteer assignments year round--not just at the holidays.
When a child is living in an abusive or neglectful home in Sedgwick County, their future is often decided by the family court system. Judges determine whether children will remain at home, stay with extended family or end up in foster care. It’s a lengthy process that can be difficult to understand. But, there are local volunteers who sit side-by-side with some of these children and their families, helping them determine the best option. KMUW’s Sean Sandefur sat down with one CASA volunteer and the family she helped.
On a bright and clear December day, Christmas decorations adorn the lawn of a large brick home in east Wichita.
Stephanie quiets her dog as she walks into her parent’s home. A tall Christmas tree is decorated with white lights, colorfully wrapped presents underneath.
She lives here with her two kids. While life is better now, that wasn’t always the case.
“I had never been in trouble a day in my life," she says. "Ultimately, it was addiction that got me in trouble.”
Stephanie is now sober, but for a time, she and the father of her two kids were both addicts. She says Sedgwick County was already threatening to take away her kids due to his drug addiction and legal problems.
“So, we were already in the system trying to prove we were good parents," Stephanie says. "And then when I got in trouble, they just put their foot down.”
Stephanie was arrested and lost custody of her children, who had moved in with their grandparents. The oldest child, now 12, says she was confused by all that was happening.
“I wanted to run away, but I’m not that kind of person. I’m not going to do that,” her daughter says.
Instead of running away, the children met with a court-appointed volunteer from CASA.
“I had this lady right here, Sarah,” Stephanie's daughter says while hugging Sarah Crick, a volunteer who has served Sedgwick County’s CASA program for more than two years.
CASA, or Court Appointed Special Advocates, was started in Seattle in 1977, and there’s now 1,000 of these programs across the country.
Crick believes--as does the organization as a whole--in advocating for the best interests of the children.
“CASA is a community response to a community problem," she says. "These are our community’s kids. And these families and these children need their community to wrap around them as much as possible.”
CASA volunteers aren’t lawyers, and they’re not social workers. Instead, their job is to simply get to know the children they’re assigned to. For many of these kids, a CASA volunteer will be the only consistent adult presence during custody battles or foster care.
“At least once a month, we talk to anybody who’s relevant to that child’s life," Crick says. "So, teachers, therapists, doctors, family members, extended family members--we talk to anybody who’s important to that kid.”
A CASA volunteer also spends a lot of time with the children themselves. They play games, draw and read. The volunteers get a sense of where a child feels most safe and comfortable.
Once the investigation is complete, a report is provided in court. Without this information, a judge could simply be staring down arrest records of parents or weighing one parent’s story against the other’s.
The CASA volunteer essentially helps fill in the rest of the story.
“This kid is a person and they have thoughts and dreams and desires," Crick says. "Maybe they want to go home; maybe they don’t. Maybe they don’t know. I can’t necessarily help them figure it out, but I can be their megaphone.”
When Stephanie first lost custody of her children, she says the court saw the issue as two drug addicted parents unable to care for their kids. But after spending time with the family, Crick was able to see that wasn’t necessarily the case. She saw one parent willing to do whatever she could to be a better parent. Crick saw a mother that had stumbled, but was now on the right track.
Crick was able to provide that information to the court, and Stephanie knows the difference it made.
“I want to be the best mom I can be," Stephanie says. "And without my CASA, I don’t know if I would be sitting here with my children today.”
Not all cases end this way. Crick says that many times, children don’t go back to their parents. Instead, they remain with extended family members or end up in foster care.
But whatever happens, CASA strives to find the best option from those available. Crick says no child is beyond help.
“You can help them maneuver the maze that is adoption and help them find that ‘forever family.’ Not every outcome is pretty, but it’s always worth fighting for. Each and every one of these kids needs someone who’s absolutely crazy about them and the CASA can be that person,” she says.
Potential CASA volunteers have to pass multiple background checks, complete a 30-hour training program and commit themselves to the entirety of a case, which averages 10 hours a month for about year and a half. But Crick says, in the end, it’s more than worth the commitment.
“It’s indescribable," she says. "Just that feeling of knowing that [Stephanie's family] was once on the brink, and now they’re back, and they’re better than ever and it was all through their own strength. Maybe you helped clear the way.”
Sedgwick County’s CASA program needs about 300 volunteers in order to cover the amount of children in the family court system. Currently, they have only 60.
Crick is on her fifth case as a CASA volunteer. In addition to her volunteer work, she has also taken on a full-time position with the organization.
Follow Sean Sandefur on Twitter, @SeanSandefur
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