Greater Good

Casa of Tarrant County

Speak Up For A Child

Interview by Jennifer Acosta Scott

Every year, thousands of children enter âthe systemâ in Tarrant County when it is discovered they are being abused or neglected. Between all of the social workers, family court judges, foster homes and bureaucratic red tape, it is easy for the childâs best interests to get lost in the shuffle. Thatâs where CASA of Tarrant County comes in. Founded in 1983, CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocates) is an organization of volunteers who work on behalf of abused and neglected children in Tarrant County. They help connect the dots between all of the âofficialâ personnel handling an abused childâs case, making sure that everything being done is appropriate for them. Whether itâs attending court hearings, consulting with caseworkers, or simply being a shoulder to lean on, CASA volunteer advocates make sure that a turbulent time in the childâs life is handled as smoothly as possible.

They are quite often the only stable people in a childâs life at this time,â says CASA board member Rhoda Bernstein, who helped found the Tarrant County chapter. âThe only person whose interest they have at heart is the child.â

CASA of Tarrant County was one of the first CASA chapters in the country, founded just a few years after Seattle judge David Soukup launched a program in his county that would train volunteer advocates to work on behalf of children caught up in the court system. Soukupâs program was enormously successful, and by 1979, Dallas courts had partnered with the National Council of Jewish Women to form its own chapter. Several years later, officials in Tarrant County wanted to follow suit. CPS Director Wayne Hairgrove and Judge Scott Moore, who presided over the 323rd judicial district, approached Bernstein and community volunteer Monna Loftis about it.

âThey came to me, as a member of the National Council of Jewish Women and said, âWhat do you think?ââ says Bernstein, a Fort Worth resident. âI was really young. I said, âI donât know if I can.â But they had a lot more belief in me than I did in myself.â

Using a guide that had been written for CASA chapters, Bernstein and Loftis worked together to establish bylaws, obtain 501(c)(3) status and assemble a board of directors. They trained a small band of volunteer advocates. Today, more than 300 volunteer advocates work with CASA of Tarrant County. âI never dreamt it would be what it is today,â Bernstein says. âI canât believe what theyâve done and where they are. Itâs amazing to me.â

To be a volunteer with CASA, applicants must complete an application and interview, and successfully pass a background check. Then comes an orientation, and 30 hours of classroom training to prepare them to work with children. The classes are held at various times during the week, says Terry Slife, a volunteer advocate who has worked with CASA of Tarrant County for 10 years. âThereâs Saturday classes, some days, some evenings,â Slife says. âItâs great if you can finish it all at one time, but if you have to miss a couple of classes, you can go back to retake them during the next training session.â The typical time commitment of a volunteer advocate is about 10 to 12 hours per month, according to the CASA website. However, Slife says, the hours required can change depending on what is happening in the childâs case. âThere are some cases that may be going really well, and I may put in six hours a month,â Slife says. âBut the next month, that same case can completely fall apart, and I spend time at court hearings, making phone calls to attorneys and meeting with caseworkers. Then I could spend 20 hours that month.â

Though some volunteer advocates are retired or donât work outside the home, many advocates do balance their CASA commitments with a full-time job. CASA of Tarrant Countyâs paid staffers (there are 18 of them) can step in occasionally if court hearings or other meetings clash with professional obligations. âItâs probably a little more difficult if you work, but the office makes it work,â Slife says. âYou rearrange your schedule, see the kids on the weekends or evenings. If thereâs a court date and you canât get to it, a supervisor can attend for you.â

In a typical month, a CASA advocate may check on the child in their foster home, attend the childâs supervised visitations with their parents, meet with attorneys and more. Slife says she also serves as a support system for the childâs parents, though her main concern is the child. âWeâre a place to talk,â Slife says. âIf they vent or complain to their caseworker, or someone in a higher position, they feel like thatâll count against them. They know they can vent to me, as long as theyâre not venting at me. Theyâre angry at CPS but for some reason, theyâre never angry with us. They see us as this person who doesnât have a dog in the race.â Through positive reinforcement, Slife also helps to build up the parentsâ self-confidence and get them on the right pathâwhich means theyâre more likely to get their children back. âIf Iâve found that theyâve done something rightâike had a negative drug test, or completed a classâIâll call and congratulate them,â Slife says. âA lot of these people have never heard praise before.â

Because any given case may involve physical, sexual or emotional abuse (or all three) CASA volunteer advocates may have to bear witness to some emotionally trying situations. Slife says some cases are indeed tougher than others, but she stays strong and firm for the childâs sake.

âIt doesnât get any easier ten years later,â Slife says. âSome cases hit you hard, and some, you do your job and when itâs over, youâre OK. I remember them all, but I may not think about a particular case all the time. Some cases, I think about them all the time. Some days I go to a visit, grit my teeth and go home and cry.â

Over the 30 years that CASA of Tarrant County has been in existence, some things have changed. Sadly, the number of children in need has increased, and the severity of the cases has increased as well. CASAâs volunteer advocates have also become more accepted in the court system as a beneficial addition to a childâs case. In the early days of CASA, the advocatesâ services were not as well-known. âItâs now just a given that if you can have a CASA volunteer on your case, that is the best thing that can happen,â Bernstein says.

For all the changes, however, CASAâs core mission has remained the sameâto make life better for children during a difficult time in their lives. But difficulties still remain. Though about 300 volunteer advocates work with CASA of Tarrant County, hundreds of children in the court system are still waiting for a CASA volunteer to be assigned to their case. The organization continues to try to raise its public profile in hopes of drawing out more committed, caring volunteers. While volunteers from all walks of life are needed, CASA is in particular need of male advocates, since few are currently working with the group. âWe need more men,â Slife says. âWeâve got some great men in CASA. These young boys need good role models.â

Slife says many people instinctively reject becoming a CASA volunteer because of the emotional punch that the job can pack. However, even those who consider themselves âsoftiesâ can usually find it within themselves to do a great job.

âThese children are being emotionally, physically and sexually abused, and theyâre handling it by themselves,â Slife says. âIf they can deal with it, I can deal with it. They need someone to stand up and speak for them. Because they canât do it for themselves.â

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Facts About Child Abuse â Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

  • Three-fifths of all child abuse reports are submitted by professionals, such as doctors, law enforcement officers and daycare providers.
  • In 2011, Texasâ child welfare agencies received 211,949 child-abuse reports.
  • In 2011, more than 80 percent of child-abuse perpetrators were the childâs parents, and the majority of those were biological parents.
  • 1,570 children died in the United States in 2011 from abuse or neglect.
  • More than one-half of abuse and neglect perpetrators in the United States in 2011 were women

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CASA of Tarrant County

  • Established: 1983
  • Location: Fort Worth
  • Staff: 18
  • Volunteer advocates: approximately 300
  • Funding: combination of government grants and private donations
  • Online: www.speakupforachild.org
  • Phone: (817) 877-5891

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Tax-deductible donations are also accepted through CASAâs website, www.speakupforachild.org, to help support the organizationâs efforts.