By a Child’s Side
CASA looks out for kids in court, with the help of TCU students and alumni.
Mackenzie ’22* was raised by her mother and stepfather, the person she considered to be her father, in a small city in the Northwest. When she was 5, her parents told her she was going to take a trip to Hawaii to meet her dad.
“I remember I was so confused because my dad was sitting on the couch in front of me,” Mackenzie said. “Little did I know my parents were in a custody battle. … I was court-ordered to go to Hawaii to meet my biological dad.”
As mandated visits continued, Mackenzie said, her mother became concerned about her welfare. Through the court, Mackenzie was assigned a volunteer from the Court Appointed Special Advocate program. These CASA volunteers advocate for children in the foster care system or during custody battles when neglect or abuse is suspected.
Mackenzie’s advocate spoke on her behalf in the courtroom. She said he also sat with her in school, observed how she interacted with other children and made sure she was getting proper care and attention.
The organization that served Mackenzie is one of 950 such programs operating in 49 states and the District of Columbia under the national CASA/ Guardian Ad Litem Association for Children. Much as in Mackenzie’s case, the volunteer advocates look out for a child’s best interests by getting to know them, speaking up for them in court, working with others to connect the child with needed services and reporting what they’ve learned.
In 2021, CASA of Tarrant County served 1,167 children. “There are still 400 kids on the waiting list, meaning there are more children in foster care than we have volunteers,” said Natalie Stalmach, the organization’s development director.
Bridging the gap between the number of children in crisis and the shortage of adult helpers isn’t only a matter of finding volunteers — it’s also a funding issue. “Our biggest expense here is staff,” said Don Binnicker, CEO of CASA of Tarrant County. “One staff member can supervise and train 25 to 30 volunteers.”
Volunteer advocates do what Child Protective Services caseworkers cannot. “Caseworkers that are assigned to these children usually have more cases than is manageable, and it is difficult to see every child face to face,” Stalmach said. “That gap could be filled with volunteers.”
Volunteers are typically appointed to one court case at a time, though the case may involve one child or a sibling group. “We’ll go and talk with the foster homes, talk to the child’s teachers, day care providers and develop a court report,” Binnicker said. “A lot of times we give the information we gather to their attorneys and CPS workers — they depend on our information to help their recommendations to judges.”
Each volunteer stays with an assigned case until it is resolved. Ultimately, the organization’s goal is to find the child a safe home with family.
“We believe children belong to the parents,” Binnicker said. “And if they can’t go home to Mom and Dad, they need to go home to a relative if possible.”
Mackenzie’s advocate was there when her mom regained full custody and her stepfather adopted her.
HORNED FROGS HELPING
TCU’s Kappa Alpha Theta sorority has been raising money for CASA of Tarrant County since 1989. That is what drew Mackenzie to join the Greek organization after she became a Horned Frog. “I knew nothing about sororities,” she said. “I walked into Theta and heard about CASA, and I felt called to join.”
With its two annual fundraisers — a burger cookoff and a 5K run — the sorority collected $125,000 for CASA of Tarrant County during the 2021-22 school year. The donation will train 50 advocates, who will each serve a child in need. The fundraisers “are a tremendous help to us financially,” Binnicker said.
Catelyn Devlin ’11, adjunct professor of social work, serves as the director of grants and contracts at CASA of Tarrant County. She also brings the work that the organization does into the classroom.
“I always end up talking about child abuse and neglect in every class,” Devlin said. “I talk about it as a public health issue. … Everyone in Texas is a mandated reporter, meaning anyone in Texas is required by law to report suspicions of abuse and neglect.”
Lynn Jackson, associate professor of professional practice and field director for the social work department within the Harris College of Nursing & Health Sciences, has sent students to CASA of Tarrant County for internships.
Students from other disciplines have gotten involved, too.
“I love working with kids. I want to be a third-grade teacher when I graduate."
“I love working with kids. I want to be a third-grade teacher when I graduate,” said Sam Fanning, a senior early childhood education major who worked as an intern with the organization. “CASA makes such big impacts on the lives of children and provides kids with education resources, so that sparked my interest.”
“I was a journalism major at TCU,” said Cynthia Bishop ’89, a current volunteer. “I had an advertising internship my senior year of college. But we did pro bono work, and I created advertising for CASA.”
Bishop spent the next 25 years in the technology and marketing fields, moving to Seattle and the San Francisco Bay Area before returning to North Texas. “I’m at the point in my life now where my kids are grown and moved on, and I was looking for a way to give back. And I remembered CASA, so I volunteered.”
Volunteer advocates must be at least 21 years old and complete a fingerprint background check. They go through 33 hours of training to learn about the Child Protective Services system, the court system, and abuse, neglect and trauma.
Advocates are asked to dedicate 12 to 15 hours a month to their case and take continuing education. Most cases require appearing before a judge in a courtroom three to six times over the course of a year, though some can take longer.
“You do have to have a flexible schedule, but you do not have to have an infinite amount of free time,” Stalmach said. “Most of our volunteers work full time; you just need flexibility during the day to go to court.”
Binnicker said the organization is looking for varied representation within its volunteer force. “Half of the kids in foster care are boys and half are girls, but about 15 percent of our volunteers are men. We need more male volunteers, we need more African American volunteers, we need more Hispanic volunteers,” Binnicker said. “We want volunteers that can understand a child’s culture and look like them to build a more comfortable relationship.”
Mackenzie, a recent communication studies graduate, felt compelled to become an advocate as soon as she was old enough. She began her training during her senior year at TCU and completed it shortly after graduating. Today, while working at a legal firm during a gap year before law school, she awaits her first CASA assignment.
“I just want to be able to be something that kids look forward to during the week … just offer a sense of stability in a child’s life when they’re going through the court system and just be that welcoming face that they feel comfortable enough talking to,” she said. “I think it’s going to be incredibly fulfilling … knowing that you’re making a difference in a kid’s life.”
*Editor’s Note: Last name withheld as a courtesy to the source.
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We could not be more grateful for the work and support of the Thetas at TCU, here in Tarrant County. Each year they spend their time and talents helping raise money to support hundreds of volunteers that advocate for children who have been removed from their family of origin, due to child abuse and neglect. Thank you, so much, Thetas, for your hearts of love and support to make the life of a child or sibling group, as safe and whole as possible, while CASAs work to reunite them with their families, if possible. Thank you, TCU and Thetas. You are important in the lives of these children.
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