Published Saturday, February 09, 2013
By SARAH FAY CAMPBELL
Volunteers and supporters of CASA — and people unfamiliar with its work — heard stories of just how vital the group can be at Thursday’s fundraising luncheon.
Court Appointed Special Advocates are volunteers who act on behalf of children in the foster care system.
Held to raise awareness and funds, the second annual luncheon also was aimed at potential CASA volunteers, according to Traci Corné, executive director of Coweta CASA.
Volunteers are asked to invite friends to the events. Members of the juvenile court staff and school counselors are also invited.
It’s nice to have the school and court staff see the CASA workers in a little bit different light, Corné said.
“It’s a really important connection to keep,” she said.
Thursday’s guest speaker was Stephen Ott, who serves as a “guardian ad litem” in Fayette County juvenile court. A guardian ad litem serves as the attorney for children who are going through deprivation proceedings or who otherwise end up dealing with the Department of Family and Children’s Services.
Ott got his start in juvenile court as a SAAG — a special appointed attorney general.
SAAGs attorneys who represent DFCS in deprivation proceedings.
“I gave it up several years ago to become a guardian ad litem,” Ott said.
Ott recalled when, many years ago, the judge “told us we’re going to have a CASA.”
At first, nobody really knew what it was. Ott thought it had something to do with the Office of the Child Advocate.
But after a few years, “the question is no longer what’s the CASA? The question has become, Where’s the CASA?” Ott said.
“Because anything that happens in that courtroom, regarding children in a deprivation case, we know the CASA knows. I can’t go see every child on my case list every day. But a CASA is going to see these children,” he said. “A CASA is going to have a better relationship with this child than anybody else in the system.”
When the courts have questions about whether an individual plan has been created for a child, or whether the child ever got a psychological evaluation, “the case manager may not even know,” Ott said. But the CASA will know.
“What a great difference it has made in the lives of children,” he said of CASA programs in Georgia.
“In my mind, the CASA is the heart and soul of juvenile court,” he said. In juvenile court, everyone has an interest in the outcome of the case. The judge has to do an “incredible balancing act.”
The clerks hear and witness many awful things, but “there’s not much that they can offer for the child. That’s not their role,” Ott said.
There is DFCS and there are the parents.
But, “who is caring about the kid? Who is thinking about the child? That is the CASA,” Ott said. “That brings some heart when we make decisions in juvenile court.”
As a guardian ad litem, Ott gets paid, but members of CASA are volunteers.
“It happens to be my most enjoyable job because of the value that I place on children and their childhood. But I still cannot be the CASA,” Ott said. He can’t go with the child to the doctor visit or the psychologist. “They (CASA) do that.”
“The guardian is the legal advocate for the child, but who advocates for everything else? That’s CASA. When placement isn’t so good, it’s CASA” that does something about it.
Ott shared some stories of the impact CASA has made on individual children’s lives.
Recently, there was a young girl who had been institutionalized for “well over a year due to acting out.”
“The parents say they would like to visit but never have. The CASA sees this young lady every week.”
The CASA volunteer reported to Ott that “little was going on other than keeping this young lady in a stupor. She is medicated in a corner when I go visit.”
There didn’t seem to be any treatment going on and there didn’t seem to be any plan for permanency, other than the institution.
“The volunteer says to me ‘that is all wrong. We ought to have a better plan.’”
By December, the volunteer had found out that only one person, the stepmother, had ever observed the girl “acting out.”
And she learned that the stepmother “despises and hates this young lady.”
“We learn that indeed most of these things have been fabricated for the purpose of getting that young lady out of the home. And it worked,” Ott said.
Eight days after the court hearing, “that child is in private placement. She is still there and thriving. There is no acting out,” Ott said.
“Without the CASA the young lady is at the institution, medicated. No one else saw that. No one else even looked into it,” he said.
There was another child who had disrupted several placements and was going to be sent to an institution. The case manager said that the child had no knowledge of any family members other than the parents, and really had nothing to say.
The volunteer made more than 50 phone calls and found relatives in Michigan. The relatives “have been looking for this child that nobody would tell them about. The kid didn’t even know about them but they knew this child was out there,” Ott said. On Monday, “we will finalize permanency to those relatives,” Ott said.
He told the story of another young man, whom he saw because the boy had gotten into trouble at school. When Ott tried to speak to him, all the young man would do was grunt.
“I told him I’d spoken with his CASA and he will be here soon,” Ott said. “The reply was, ‘well, of course he will.’”
Ott said that was the most he’d ever heard the boy speak. “And then he says ‘he’s always here.’ And I think wow, because this is the first time I’ve made it,” Ott said.
It’s been about eight months and the boy has had no further delinquency incidents.
“The value and the power of a relationship can’t be lost,” Ott said. “It’s part of why my son does well, because he has relationships with a lot of people that care about him. It’s why you may do your job, maybe you have these relationships.”
Once the young man realized that somebody cared, “I guess he finally heard it.”
“You can see how the CASA organization changes lives,” Ott said.
He closed with one last story.
Ott comes from a large family and talked about how the name “Nana” always has special meaning. When his nephew was born, Ott’s mother became Nana.
Ott had to go visit a sibling group in a group home. As he was waiting, a young girl, 7 or 7, was helping out the receptionist. But she was really waiting for someone. She kept asking, “Is she here yet?”
The receptionist told her “she’ll be here, you know that.”
The little girl was so excited, she was looking out the window. Ott discovered the little girl only ever had two visitors — her case manager and her CASA volunteer.
“It doesn’t make all that much sense to me but… I understand that this is what happens. So I’m thinking about the young lady, thinking about the family.” He thinks about his family that loves him. “I’m thinking about my MawMaw and my Nana, and I’m thinking, what are we doing with this young lady?”
The little girl keeps asking. “What if she’s not coming?”
“These things pulled at my heart,” Ott said.
Finally, the front door opens and a “very ordinary lady steps through.” Ott sees her CASA name tag, and the secure door slams open and the little girl comes flying out, saying, “Nana, Nana, I love you. I knew you were coming.”
“I leave you with that,” Ott said. The children “may not ever tell you, or even mention a word. Maybe they just grunt at you,” Ott said. But “these children need you. They need you desperately. The system needs you. It needs you desperately.”
“We’ve got to help these kids, and it’s up to us,” Ott said. “It’s up to everyone here.”
For more information about Coweta CASA, call 770-253-0046 or visit www.cowetacasa.org .