Stories of Hope
CASA Volunteers Turning Hurt into Hope
One Youth’s Life-Changing Experience and why Michigan Should Expand CASA to Help More Children in the State’s Care
I was born in 1989, and by 1994, I was in the family court system in Kent County. I have six brothers and sisters. From 1994 to 2002, three of my siblings and myself lived with my grandparents. It was a chaotic and unhealthy time. My father was in prison and my mother was gone, in and out of jail and bad situations. My grandfather passed away in 2002 and my grandmother remarried. At that point, things started going from bad to worse. I was 13 and barely attending school. My older brother was 15, and unmanageable with a criminal background. My younger sisters were struggling to cope, feeling isolated, and lashing out.
Eventually, it was revealed that we had been sexually abused by a family member, and that is when I feel my experience with the welfare system truly began. In 2004, my grandmother and her new husband chose not to cooperate with Child Protective Services to prevent contact with the family member. Taking that position meant they could not keep us in their home. Essentially, they chose to support the family member’s professed innocence. What followed were half a dozen attempts to rehome us – first, with our recently paroled dad; next, with our recently sober mother; then with ill-prepared family members; and even with people from the church. None of these placements were our idea; we were all really scared. After trying and failing to fit into these new places, I ran away for over three months. Living with friends, I was found by the police and taken to juvenile detention. The first day I was there, a little over two years after I was brought into the system, I met Marlene, my Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), a trained community volunteer appointed by a judge to speak on my behalf.
I was skeptical in the beginning. “Great, here goes another case worker,” I thought. At that point, I had been through more than five or six workers at multiple agencies. My experiences with Marlene and the CASA program were different, though. She stayed with me and my family throughout everything. After switching agencies and failed attempts to reunite with our family, after moving 16 times in two years, after sheltercare, foster care, group homes, mental health assessments, independent living, and aging out, I finally had someone at my side through an overwhelming and complex journey. Once assigned to a case, CASA workers stay with you until your case is closed. What a deep and moving commitment to a child this is, especially for a child whose own family may not even care to see them through such an incredibly challenging time.
Marlene connected me with my siblings, who I had had limited contact with, but desperately missed. As an adult today, I have a strong bond with my siblings and a healthy support system, directly as a result of Marlene’s continuous efforts. In addition to ensuring that I was able to retain a relationship with my family, Marlene gave me a voice. She asked my opinion and help push the courts into placements where I could excel, not just shots in the dark with people my mother randomly suggested, including strangers to me, or later, state-assigned placements. Early on, I had no opportunity to choose a “fictive kin.” Marlene advocated for my well-being by speaking up in court on my behalf and voicing my concerns and opinions.
Marlene was able to speak up for me because she was very involved in my life, understood me, and knew the details of my ordeals. Without her, it would have been hard to move from foster homes to group homes, retain my therapist and doctor information, and keep all the new “families” I met in the loop. To keep going through my history and exposing my emotional wounds to temporary people becomes painful. Thankfully, I didn’t have to repeat these hurtful details to more than one CASA because Marlene never left my side.
She also set a shining example of how I could be a good person and a great parent. My list of real life role models was slim at the time, and Marlene expanded my view on how normal happy and healthy families live, grow and thrive.
There are a lot of programs available to support kids in foster care but access and information can be limited. Having a CASA guaranteed that I was connected to the resources available for me. Marlene connected me to donations for my first apartment, funding for my first car, resources for clothes, help signing up for school and looking for grants. Marlene made sure that I received any help that was available for me to succeed and further my goals. Going off on your own at 18 is scary, but without any family, it is frightening. With CASA and Marlene’s help, I was able to pursue my education, work, and be an example to my younger sisters to achieve success, too.
By continuing to fund CASA, we are giving other kids in foster care the hope and support they need to transcend their struggles and live a good life. CASA supports each child it advocates for on the deepest level, in addition to ensuring that children are connected to other state-funded programs they’re eligible for. Continuous funding and support of CASA is not only the right thing to do to support kids emotionally and mentally, it is also the most logical way to distribute access to all state funded resources available to children in the welfare system.
As a child, Calver spent seven years as a ward of the state, and experienced nearly 20 different placements, beginning in Kent County. Nichole Calver, 30, is today a champion for CASA, speaking publicly at fundraisers and state conferences, and sharing her experiences with elected state leaders and judges. Professionally, she has worked in finance in the auto industry and currently works part time while raising a daughter and staying active in her nieces’ lives.
Nichole Calver spent 14 years in Michigan’s child welfare system, and decided to write about her experiences with Michigan’s Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program to address the need to continue expanding CASA services to more children living in state care across Michigan. Legislative efforts to expand CASA services into Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties in the new 2020 state budget failed in a budget dispute with the Governor’s Office in late 2019.
Resolve to Do the Right Thing in 2020: Michigan Must Restore Plans to Expand CASA Program for Children in State’s Care
We all agree that the child welfare system in Michigan is overburdened. Case workers often have too many and too complex cases for any one person to handle. The system works overtime to try to keep kids from falling through the cracks, yet there is no room for the individual attention and advocacy that a child in crisis needs.
For these children, Michigan established the Court Appointed Special Advocates program in which volunteers are appointed by a judge to speak up for the best interests of an abused or neglected child, bringing urgency to his/her needs. They become a dedicated voice for a vulnerable child in the court proceedings that surround a case.
Michigan’s 2020 budget, signed by the Governor late last year, is now underway but with a glaring hole for children and youth in foster care and for those whose guardianship is in transition. Approved by the Legislature but vetoed by the Governor was a $500,000 appropriation that would have begun plans to greatly expand CASA services in grossly underserved counties and open new programs in unserved counties. There is no doubt that CASA volunteers are needed in every one of our state’s 83 counties, but political disagreements among state leaders has left a missed opportunity to do the right thing. The state after all is primarily responsible to serve in the best interest for the almost 13,000 children in Michigan’s child welfare system.
To illustrate how CASA volunteers have made a difference in the life of children in the state’s welfare system and why funding must be restored, here are just a few real life examples of what our CASA volunteers have done to help children in the system.
•The volunteer who contacted each of the 11 high schools a foster youth had attended and recovered enough credits so that the teen could graduate on time.
•The CASA who helped a foster child with a large cavity in her molar. The girl would not go to the dentist because she was terrified of needles, and her insurance would not pay for nitrous oxide. The CASA volunteer found a dentist who understood the child’s fears. He used the calming medicine and tended to the child’s needs with respect and kindness.
•The tenacious volunteer who scoured through the confusing files of a young boy who was languishing in the foster care system. The CASA found an aunt and uncle in another state who had adopted the boy’s older sisters. The couple had no idea the boy existed until they were contacted, and they began the adoption process almost immediately.
•The many other volunteers who make sure “their kids” have the necessary things to start school, or who fight for money so a foster teen can play football or take driver’s training.
Every child has different needs. A CASA volunteer develops a relationship with the child, family and professionals involved and becomes able to advocate for the child and his or her specific needs. CASA volunteers are a constant presence in the life of the foster child. When volunteers are screened and specially trained, it is with the understanding that they will stay with their case until each child is in a permanent and safe home.
Nelson Mandela once said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
In a time when many are questioning the soul of our country, it is imperative that we give these children someone who will fight for them, who will stand side by side with them, who will give them a voice.
Our “soul” is revealed in the look in a boy’s eyes as he prepares to be adopted, the look in a girl’s eyes when she is reunited with her siblings or the look in a teen’s eyes when, against all odds, she is accepted into college. Those looks are the result of small miracles, and small miracles are the result of CASA volunteers.
It’s not too late to do the right thing. Please restore funding for expanding the CASA program so that more children have a CASA volunteer in their corner when they most need an advocate.
Manuel was just 3 years old when he was abandoned by his mother and placed in a foster home. Manuel showed signs of severe neglect and physical abuse: he had scars on his body, was not toilet trained, and his speech was extremely limited.
His attorney immediately recommended that a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) be assigned to Manuel’s case, knowing that a CASA would be able to provide individual advocacy to Manuel to ensure his urgent needs were met and that he would receive the time and attention he needed to heal physically and emotionally.
On the outside, Manuel was an adorable, friendly child, but his history of abuse had caused serious damage to his inner, emotional health. When he became frustrated, Manuel would act violently. This challenging behavior proved difficult for foster parents, so within seven months Manuel was moved three times.
Manuel’s CASA saw that the changes aggravated Manuel’s emotional trauma so she worked to keep him from being moved again. She advocated for intensive therapy and special education as well as training for the foster parents in order to stabilize Manuel in their home and in school.
For the CASA, these improvements were not enough. Believing that Manuel needed a forever home, she continued to make inquiries about a permanent adoptive home, and when a young couple became interested in adopting Manuel, his CASA spoke to them weekly, keeping them up-to-date on Manuel’s progress in school and at home.
When Manuel was set to meet his adoptive parents for the first time, his CASA was with him. In fact, she helped him throughout the transition to a new home and continued to see him weekly until the adoption was finalized.
On a recent visit, his CASA was treated to a tour of his home. He told her, “This is my home now, and this is my own room. What I like here is that I have a mom and a dad who love me. They help me with my homework, and my dad even taught me how to fish!”
"Long before my feet touched Iraqi soil—before I even joined the United States Marine Corps—I was a veteran of a long war for survival."