I’m pretty fortunate. I grew up in a loving family. We’ve had our problems, but I could feel the love that I was raised with. My children are pretty fortunate too. I am far from being a perfect mom, but I hope that they feel the heart and the love they receive from my husband and me and from the rest of our family.
Not every child is as fortunate. And not every parent is as fortunate to have grown up in a nurturing family, in an environment where you are taught how to give love. “For many of us, we emulate what we have learned”, says Alyssa Johnson. She grew up in a troubled family herself. Alyssa doesn’t have children of her own. She doesn’t want children of her own. But she wants to support children and help them through challenging, troublesome situations. Alyssa is a volunteer for the non-profit organization CASA of Travis County in Texas.
CASA stands for court appointed special advocate. CASA is a national organization with local programs. CASA of Travis County speaks up for children who’ve been abused or neglected by empowering the community to volunteer as advocates for them in the court system. When the state steps in to protect a child’s safety, a judge appoints a trained CASA volunteer to make independent and informed recommendations in the child’s best interest. After 39 hours of intensive training and courtroom observation, background checks and being sworn in by a judge, volunteers are appointed to a child or family of children and spend an average of 15-20 hours a month advocating for these children for at least a year. Created in 1985, CASA of Travis County is now one of the top ten CASA programs in the nation, supporting nearly 750 volunteers who advocate for almost 1,850 children a year.
Alyssa remembers having heard of the organization years ago. But it wasn’t until she saw blatant child abuse at a park two years ago that she seriously considered working with CASA. “Watching that abuse didn’t trigger my own pain”, she explains. “So instead of being sad and running away, I was able to handle the situation very rationally and file a report with Child Protective Services.”
“I still wasn’t ready to work for CASA at that point in time. I let it sit for a few months and then I woke up one morning and knew I wanted to work with them.” So she started the training process and has worked on several cases since.
CASA cases involve children who are removed from their families and live with foster families, in group homes or residential treatment centers. But children in problematic families are not always removed from their family. Often, the children remain with their families, but they or their parents are ordered to do therapy or parenting classes. Cases like this may also involve a CASA volunteer.
“Numerous studies have shown that children want to be at home. Even if they are in an unloving situation”, explains Alyssa. “Their home is what they know, their family, their friends, their universe. They prefer to be in situations that they know as opposed to moving in with a family they don’t know and enrolling in a school that is unfamiliar to them. Furthermore, children love their caretakers and their siblings – they want to be with them. So whenever there is a case involving a child who has been removed from his or her home, the goal is usually to close that case as quickly as possible to get the child back home.”
Often when it is determined that the family is ready to take the kids back into their home, there will be what is called a “return and monitor”, explains Alyssa: They go back to their home, but the case is still open and the parties are checking in on them before the case is actually officially closed.
CASA advocates for the best interest of the children. “We are no-one’s lawyer”, says Alyssa. The children have their own attorney and the parents have their own attorney. “We are appointed by the court. We represent the best interest of the child. That puts us in a very special position: We have access to the children’s service providers like teachers or therapists as well as the parents’ records, school records etc.” Alyssa says, she tries to get the most comprehensive picture of the situation, of the child and his or her needs. She is looking at it from an unbiased position and tries to see what the child really needs to thrive.
Alyssa explains the difference between the CASA and the child’s attorney: “The child’s attorney has to advocate for whatever the child wants. So let’s say for example, the child said: I really want to eat pizza for the rest of my life, the child’s attorney has to go to court and advocate for that wish. CASA advocates for the best interest of the child. So it’s highly unlikely that we come in and say ‘your honor we think you should order that the child gets to eat pizza for the rest of their life.’ So we would advocate for what is in the best interest according to the child’s dietary situation.”
Every party involved in the case has their own position that they bring in. CPS, the child’s attorney, the parents… All of these parties are representing a certain viewpoint or interest in some way, shape or form. CASA is there to represent as unbiased a position as possible. “We want to be able to give the judge an unbiased, non-judgmental view of what is going on”, says Alyssa. “So the judge gets a voice in there that isn’t part of a certain viewpoint.”
Alyssa says, volunteers meet with the children at a minimum of once a month and often she sees them more because she also meets with the teachers and other service providers. Volunteers also meet with the parents, other family members, or other caretakers who are involved in the children’s lives. “It’s important to try and connect with as many people as possible who are involved in the child’s life in order to get the most accurate picture of what the child needs and how all of the legal parties in the case can best help the family have a successful reunification with the children. I want to help to find the best solution for children in challenging situations.”
She is very conscious in not showing grief in front of the children. “Many children are so sensitive that they will take on another person’s pain. Also, young children think that everything that is happening around them is because of them. It’s around the age of 6-7 when children start understanding that they are not the cause of everything that is happening in their world – they start to see outside of themselves. Prior to this age, they generally don’t have the development to understand that things happen in life regardless of their behavior. So they take things on emotionally that’s not theirs to carry. You see this a lot with younger children who think that it’s their fault that their parents are getting divorced.”
Therefore, she is very mindful of her behavior and tries to avoid anything that may make children think that what is happening in their situation is their fault. “I have been saddened by the situations I experience, but I let these feelings happen outside of my time with the children.”
Is there a general rule as to what is best for the kids? What was the best for the kids in her cases? “It really depends on the situation and the family dynamics and the wishes of the children. Every child and every family is so unique”, says Alyssa. She says she has been involved in cases where the children were removed from their home and CASA worked on getting them reunited with their families. “But I think that there are times when a parent for whatever reason isn’t able to take care of his or her child in a way that the child deserves”, she continues. “So it is an act of love and kindness to allow someone else to take the child. It might not seem that way on the surface, but if you go a little bit deeper, you see that the parent really doesn’t have the ability to meet the needs of the child and it is kinder to allow the child to go somewhere where his needs can be met. I have seen that. I have also seen where the parents have done a tremendous amount of work and healing to have the children come home and it is in the best interest of the children to be at home at this moment in time.”
Alyssa deeply respects CASA, because it is the most compassionate, non-judgmental non-profit she has ever worked for. “With CASA, you really try to look at the totality of a person. You see a person for more than a particular incident that may have happened. I think that is so extraordinarily loving and kind. We don’t want to come in with our eyes closed and our blinders on, because there are people in this world who are really not fit to be parents. But for the most part I think, we get stressed in life. Financials are a huge stressor for families. So you get frustrated easily. Someone may hit their child or say something inappropriate, but there are life stressors there that may bring that particular behavior out in someone, but overall that person is very loving and kind and doing the best he or she can to provide for his or her family. So that is always the way that we try to look at things – as something that happened in that moment in time, but not necessarily the entire way this person is in the world.”
Parents are often “extraordinarily kind-hearted people, loving and deeply regretful of things that have happened”; says Alyssa. “Their purest essence is kind and loving and wonderful and life stressors got the best of them. They have gotten the best of me at times. I have lashed out at friends and family. Again, working to really see them as a total human being rather than something that happened at one specific moment in time. And as I think about myself, there are a lot of moments in my life where I wouldn’t want people to judge my entire existence based on what I did in that moment. Unfortunately – or fortunately – what happened in their case is that the system got involved. So it is always coming back to being as compassionate as I can.
“Abuse is often generational. Many parents involved in CPS cases were not raised in a predominantly loving home, they did not see good, loving, nurturing parenting. So they do the best they can with what they have and what they have learned. And many of them when they take a parenting class, they are just like ‘wow – I didn’t know that’s what a child needs’. We just don’t know what we don’t know. And how can we give something that we didn’t receive or that wasn’t even in our awareness? It’s important to practice compassion and humanity throughout the entire CPS case.”
Alyssa emphasizes that abuse or neglect it is not dependent upon social class or race. “Many families to come into these cases are indigent, but it is a false conclusion to think that all indigent people abuse their children. That is not true at all. What is actually happening is that many of these families because of their life situation and their financial situation are often very heavily reliant on social services and governmental programs to survive. This means more eyes are on them, which also means it is more likely that things are going to be reported because of their interaction with society. Whereas if you are in a family that doesn’t need social services or governmental subsidies, abuse and neglect can happen behind close doors. I grew up in an upper class family and there were lots of awful things going on behind closed doors that no-one caught because no-one had their eyes on us. So it’s not true that all indigent families abuse their children, nor is it true that wealthy families don’t abuse their children.”
Alyssa has deep respect for the judges and the incredibly difficult decisions they have to make that impact families: “What a really hard job to do!”
She views her work with CASA as a gift and a beautiful opportunity to keep practicing compassion.
After the cases close, the volunteers don’t remain in the families’ lives. Alyssa says that families are not proud to be involved in a CPS case. They have feelings of deep shame and guilt about what happened, to have a child removed or to be a child being taken out of your home. “It is incredibly traumatizing. Families need to heal and move on.”
But sometimes she wishes she could remain part of their life. “I get to know these children really well. I adore them.”
“I see my own responses to trauma and abuse in these children and they teach me so much. They are so extraordinarily resilient and so loving and so deeply kind. And not a single child on this planet deserves to be mistreated. It is a gift for me to see their strength and resiliency. It has also given me an honest look at myself. Where do I react out of fear and how is my programming affecting my behavior? It is helping me work through things too.”
“This is the most rewarding volunteer work I have ever done. Part of it is probably due to my own life experiences. I feel like I can take my own life experiences and use them as nutrients to bring more love into the world. And I feel really grateful to be in a place where I’m able to do that.”