My first two years at CASA have been spent almost entirely on one case. Just last month, it finally closed, and had a very happy ending. To briefly sum up the case, a baby had been removed from his mother’s care immediately after being born, and remained in the hospital for the first month of his life until the grandmother was awarded temporary custody.
At first, I thought this would be a fairly simple, open and shut case because he was already placed with family, had a loving grandmother willing to be his guardian, and she was already the guardian of his older half sister. But I was wrong.
The justice system is slow and complex, even when a child seems to be in the ideal scenario, and this case was especially slow due to a high turnover of DFACs (Department of Family and Child Services) caseworkers, which resulted in X different caseworkers just on this case over the last two years. Every time the case was handed over to a new caseworker, it pushed the process back.
Information was lost, misinformation was passed along, numbers changed, hearings were rescheduled, and so on. What’s already a confusing and foreign process for most families became even more difficult to track. But this is where I, as the CASA, was able to be the one constant person in this family and child’s life throughout the process. And my role was huge.
When the grandmother wasn’t sure who to turn to, she reached out to me. When the mother didn’t know what her case plan was, she reached out to me. When the caseworker changed for the first, second, and third time, they all reached out to me.
CASAs are so much more than just an advocate for the child. They’re the support for everyone who loves that child as well. They’re the liaison between the complicated justice system and the families. Our job isn’t just to check-in and report, it’s to gather information on BOTH sides of the case, and communicate with both sides.
I found myself reporting more to the family than I did to the court. Because so much was happening behind the scenes, it was hard for them - grandma and mom - to keep up with dates, plans, evaluations, phone numbers, doctors appointments, etc. In a process that is often chaotic, emotional, scary and uncertain for many families and children, CASA can act as the one constant support throughout the case. I understand now just how important the role of a CASA is, and that what is required may vary from case to case, child to child.
Even though the case is closed, and there couldn’t have been a better outcome, I still speak to the grandmother, now the permanent guardian, on a regular basis. We’ve developed a genuine friendship and respect for one another over the last two years, and I look forward to seeing the child grow. I think the takeaway here is that every case is going to have its challenges, and the process is unpredictable. This is why it is so important that the CASA be the one person the family can rely on.
About the Author
The last time Sarah* saw her five year old son, Michael, child protection services was removing him from her hotel room. At that time, Sarah was under the influence of substances that numbed her senses. That day was a blur. A horrible blur. The cries of her child. The police officers observing. The case manager filling a trash bag of Michael's clothing. She saw it happening, but she felt she was watching from somewhere else.
Today is the first time Sarah will see Michael in months. She is excited but nervous to see him. Will he be angry at her? Will he be sad? She arrives at the Bright House with ingredients to bake a cake and hope in her heart. She is sober today. Thanks to the help of Recovery Place, she hasn't used in 6 weeks. She is committed to making a change. She doesn't want to use substances to treat her past trauma anymore.
Bright House staff greet Sarah with a smile. It sets her at ease. They sit down and talk to her about what she is feeling. She hesitantly shares a little bit. She doesn't know the staff well yet, but they seem kind and helpful. Together, they plan what she will do with Michael when he arrives.
A minute later, there is a knock at the door. Then Michael comes bursting through it. He runs up to Sarah and wraps his arms around her. Sarah's eyes well up with tears. It's been a long time since she has held her son. Even when he lived with her, she was so numb she didn't get to fill this fully.
The Bright House staff retreats to their office, where they will supervise the visitation by the video feed. Sarah and Michael explore the living room, dining room, and kitchen tentatively. Michael is excited to pull out toys and play with them. She asks him if he wants to bake a cake with her. He excitedly agrees. They bake a cake together, laughing and getting more and more comfortable. While the cake is baking, they go outside to kick a ball around in the backyard.
The two-hour visit goes quicker than they wanted, and soon the transporter arrives to take Michael back to his foster home. Michael's eyes fill with tears as he is again separated from his mom. Sarah promises him that they will visit again next week. She knows she hasn't always kept her promises, but things are different now. She knows she must follow through if she wants her son back.
After the visitation, the Bright House staff sits down with Sarah to discuss how it went. They give her advice on redirecting Michael without raising her voice or losing patience. They ask her what it is like to parent sober, something she has never done. She acknowledges she feels the highs and lows much more deeply. Staff encourages her to discuss this more with her therapist. They talk about her case plan and other things she needs to complete before getting her child back. Staff provides resources on job placement, low-income housing, and additional support.
For the first time in a long time, Sarah feels hope. She doesn't feel alone. She has something to look forward to – not just next week's visit but eventually getting Michael back with her. Sarah is committed to overcoming her substance use disorder and becoming the mother she knows Michael deserves and she is grateful The Bright House is going to help her get there.
The Bright House provides court-mandated supervised visitation and family support services in a home-like setting. Learn more here.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.
About the Author
Since 1991, CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) has served thousands of children who entered foster care due to abuse or neglect from their biological families. As of today, there are over 150 CASA volunteers who, remarkably, give freely of their time and talents to help the vulnerable child through this difficult period. For the superlative work by staff and volunteers alike, Chatham County/Savannah CASA has been honored as Best CASA in Georgia.
Our Dream – Tackle the Glaring Gap in Service:
Supervised visitation is a mid-way step in the foster care process that is ordered by the Courts to begin reunification between the biological family and their child. During the months, and sometimes years, a child is in foster care, research has demonstrated that parents and children benefit from quality time to “start-over” and learn new skills as a family. This is crucial to strengthening parent-child attachments and decreasing the child’s sense of abandonment. Family visitation time is linked to improving a child’s well-being such as spending less time in out-of-home care and faster reunification with the biological parents.
Sadly, Chatham County has one of the largest populations of children in foster care outside of Greater Atlanta. In 2021, there were 102 children entering foster care and an average daily number of 360 children (!), a number comprising all children still in care over multiple years. Though recognized as crucial to family-child success, Chatham County had no Visitation Center. But with vision, inspiration, devotion, and dogged fundraising, the CASA team opened The Bright House on February 14, 2022, and actualized this dream. Chatham County has its first Family Visitation Center.
Now the Hard Work
A child coming into foster care is often the vulnerable recipient of deep-seated generational trauma. The causes may be a parent’s mental health instability, stressors due to poverty, or multiple factors combined, at times expressed by substance use. The Bright House’s goal is to help parents start to confront the underlying causes of family dysfunction and begin to heal so that their child can return home. This is hard, uphill work on the part of the parents, the child, and the professional team of The Bright House. Typically, approximately 50 percent of the children who enter foster care in Chatham County are reunified with their parents. The Bright House team hopes to raise this percentage and achieve the ideal outcome for more and more children – reunification with the biological family.
Since opening our doors, The Bright House has already served over 40 family members and completed 44 supervised visits. We strongly believe – and research verifies - that this one-on-one support increases the chance that families are reunited. In our safe and warm environment, families begin to create new memories and rebuild trust and bonds.
Our Community Came Together:
Thank you to all our dedicated stakeholders, volunteers, and families for trusting us to close this service gap in the foster care system. As we know from years of successful CASA work, our supportive community is motivated by the deeply held beliefs that children are our future and deserve their best shot to succeed in life. This year, CASA evolved to be Brightside Child and Family Advocacy. We stand poised to make a new and significant contribution to the well-being of children and their families.
About the Author
Thirteen years ago, Lucille Jackson was a dynamic CASA advocate. She would often take more than five cases at that time! Ms. Jackson stepped aside from advocacy for a while. But on March 27, 2019, Ms. Jackson swore in with the Juvenile Court a second time. Excited to get back to the challenging but deeply meaningful work, Ms. Jackson accepted the case of Baby Rose.
Rose and her mother had both tested positive for an illegal substance at the baby's birth. Unfortunately, in addition to substance use disorder, Rose's mother struggled with schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety, a combination of obstacles that prevented her from caring for Rose.
Diving into this time-sensitive case, Ms. Jackson used her deep reservoir of experience and skills to connect with Rose's mother, relatives, caseworkers, foster parents, and all involved with Baby Rose's wellbeing. She drove more than two hours to the foster home to assess Rose's stability and progress monthly. Ms. Jackson respectfully observed Rose and her mother during the court-ordered supervised visitations. Additionally, Ms. Jackson conducted careful research and gathered substantive information to develop her clear recommendations for her CASA report submitted to the Juvenile Court Judge. Ms. Jackson identified recommendations for Rose's placement, health, development, and a visitation schedule with Rose's mother. She recommended tangible steps among a myriad of support services for Rose's mother to become a successful parent.
Rose's mother sincerely strived to implement her case plan for the first year. Unfortunately, the arduous steps to reunification were overwhelming, and she abruptly left treatment. Thinking always of Baby Rose's circle of support, Ms. Jackson pivoted to the new problem. She called around to the family's relatives, the mother's previous employer, and even drove through her old neighborhood to speak with neighbors. Ms. Jackson could not find Rose's mother. After several months, the caseworker heard from Rose's mother. Despite her love for Rose, her mother would not continue working towards reunification.
Over the past three years, Ms. Jackson has continued to advocate for Rose. Fortunately, Rose has been in the same foster home since entering care. Ms. Jackson enjoys a beautiful relationship with this family. As a genuinely positive development for Rose, her foster family plans to adopt her. Even with the barriers imposed by Covid, Ms. Jackson continues to support Rose both virtually and in person.
To this day, Ms. Jackson regularly looks for Rose's mother when she drives around her old areas in town. Lucille Jackson is a tenacious and tireless advocate for Baby Rose. But she shows deep compassion for Rose's mother, too, hoping someday that opportunities may turn her life around, as well.
About the Author
The sunlight filtered through the trees on Monterey Square, illuminating the brick path in front of me. It was August 2018, and as I left the old CASA office, I took a photo of the path and the sun peeking delicately between the Spanish moss and branches. I walked confidently down that straight path, prepared to be a change agent, one child at a time.
My decision to become a CASA Volunteer grew over time. In 1995, I graduated with my M.S. in social work. I began working with people with dementia, Alzheimer’s, and various mental illnesses. I witnessed first-hand abuse and learned to navigate a government system full of red tape. This is when I first heard of CASA, a Court Appointed Special Advocate - a person who advocates for the best interest of a child in foster care. A seed was planted in my heart.
After my son was born, I moved to part-time. Two years later, our twin daughters were born. My husband’s career began to take off, resulting in 11 career moves. We decided it was best I stayed home with the children, which was no easy task. I became an expert at investigating communities, school systems, doctors, and relocating our family quickly through the years. When the twins were in first grade, we learned that one was on the autism spectrum with a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome. Although I suspected the diagnosis, it was difficult to accept. But it was a relief to finally have answers. Now I had a path to follow.
I became a fierce advocate for my daughter. Each move brought new challenges as I transitioned each child into a new environment. I quickly noticed that not every child has a parent who knows how to advocate. It was evident that children with hidden disabilities, such as autism, easily slip through the cracks and do not receive services to succeed.
Bloom Where You Are Planted
Remember the “CASA seed” planted 20 years ago? In July 2018, we were again uprooted and replanted in Savannah. As a social worker, I wanted to be of service to others. I recalled my love of CASA’s mission and soon discovered Savannah CASA. Before I finished unpacking the boxes, I had filled out an application.
My journey as a CASA brings paths, seeds, and flowers to mind. Unlike that straight, sunlit path that welcomed me after I first left the CASA office, the path of a Volunteer is not always well lit. As Volunteers, we press on because we see narrow rays of sunlight. We tend to our relationships with the CASA children. We plant seeds in compacted soil, and we find ways to allow struggling roots to push through and grow into a world where a child has acceptance and belonging.
As a CASA Volunteer, I have advocated for four children in three years. My last two children were commercially sexually exploited. They participate in HOPE Court (Healing Opportunities Through Positive Empowerment) - a new, incentive-based court for youth experiencing commercial exploitation. During the first year of HOPE court, a team of exceptional individuals worked tirelessly cultivating the seeds, adding the right combination of nutrients to grow a program that flourishes. The challenges I faced were beyond anything I experienced as a social worker. Donning my most durable garden gloves, I started digging and sifting through the weeds to learn anything and everything I could about my CASA children and their families. During the hardships, I have never felt alone because I am blessed with the support of an exceptional CASA team and a wonderful, patient, and knowledgeable Coordinator. We walked along this new path, learning the twists and turns together.
Remember that straight, sunlit path that welcomed me to my CASA journey? COVID has forced a reevaluation of my life’s purpose, and I was led into new shifts of direction along the path I was walking. My love of volunteering has never wavered. I remind myself that I am making a difference. In the Fall of 2021, an opportunity was presented to transition from CASA Volunteer to CASA Staff. Yet I paused. Much of my time has been devoted to supporting my children and aging parents; I had to really think about accepting a position after twenty years away from the workplace. The big hesitation? As a Volunteer, I advocated for my two girls in HOPE Court, and I was unwilling to walk away from these relationships. I wondered if I could be both a Volunteer and Coordinator? As a Coordinator, I wouldn’t have direct contact with children and families. Yet I understood that I could impact many more children by guiding and supporting multiple volunteers. Upon reflection, I accepted the position and started walking a new path.
Together, my Volunteers and I find answers and solutions. We plant seeds in the lives of children in the hope that one day they will remember the CASA who advocated for their best interest and will grow into adults who will plant seeds of hope in others.
I am reminded of a recent walk along the beach as I write this blog. There, I noticed flowers growing from a fallen tree. Among the driftwood from hurricane damage, life emerged in an unusual place. As a Volunteer and now as a Coordinator, my goal is to scatter seeds of hope in children’s lives, our community, and other Volunteers’ lives.
I am an advocate for CASA. I plant seeds because you never know where a flower may bloom.
About the Author
My Expectations. When I imagined being a CASA, my dream was to form a meaningful relationship with a child in crisis who needed an encouraging friend. I would be someone who really knew them and be their support during a stressful time. I believed that I could make a difference, even if I didn't understand all aspects of the child welfare system. I would study, take notes, and learn. I would ensure that my child would get everything needed after being removed from the only home they have known.
I had heard that "the system is broken" my whole life. I believed I found the perfect way to be a part of the solution and make a difference from the inside. I imagined deep conversations with my child as I told stories of my own childhood and how I enjoyed outings for ice cream on special days to celebrate. As I went through CASA training, I couldn't wait to meet the child I would get to know and love. I would earn their trust with tender smiles and soft, kind words full of hope.
The Journey Begins. Then I was assigned my first case. I certainly never expected to be given a sibling group of three special needs, non-verbal children, one of whom we discovered later was nearly deaf. I thought, "Okay, how am I going to have deep conversations with these children and learn how they feel? How can I explain what is going on when they don't have language or cognitive ability to understand the situation?"
What I had imagined was nowhere close to reality. I began to think of creative ways to spend non-verbal time with the children during our monthly visits. Stickers, paper crafts, picture books, and playing catch with a big bouncy ball took the place of heart-to-heart talks. I discovered that smiles and fist-bumps will transcend language barriers.
Committed and Caring Adults. Since I could not speak with the children, I talked to their foster mom and other significant adults in the children's lives. This included their DFCS case manager, teachers, behavioral aids, interpreters, occupational and speech therapists, transporters, audiologists, psychologists, doctors, and dentists. Most of these adults will temporarily be in their lives, and some will be more consistent. In short, there are A LOT of new grownups in their lives, and A LOT of big changes since they came into care. I was committed to figuring it all out.
Above all, I am grateful for the faithfulness of their foster mother. Taking good care of children with special needs 24/7 would be difficult for anyone, but she is fiercely dedicated to providing stability and consistency. They have developed and grown because of her enduring love and care. I know that sometimes foster children get moved around or even separated from their siblings, causing more trauma. However, "my" kids have been allowed the necessary time to heal and learn. Foster parents like her are the world's true heroes. She has shown me what it really means to love.
I am determined to be consistent in the children's lives. As a CASA, I will have this case as long as they are in foster care. We may not have meaningful talks, but I believe they know I am on their side. And I've not given up on the hope of conversations yet! As they are being taught ASL, I am learning sign language myself. Now, my dreams include giving sign language explanations when they don't understand and, importantly, asking them directly about their needs and hopes. Only God knows what I will do with this new skill. These special children have taught me how to change my expectations when necessary. I have reaped benefits that I couldn't even imagine.
I also have deep gratitude for the juvenile court judge in the children's case. He shows patience, compassion, and respect to the people in his courtroom. Even after hundreds of cases, he remembers the humanity of the people before him who are hurting. He rises above the fray to ensure justice for children who can't speak up for themselves. The wisdom and rightness of his decisions impress me. He shows me how powerful humble discernment can be.
I'm Still Learning. My case is so complex, and there is heartache in the messiness. While the system isn't perfect, I have hope for my CASA kids. They have a capable, caring team of adults on their side. As a CASA, I am a part of the solution. I advocate for ways that can impact these children's lives for the better. I have learned that being their advocate is the most meaningful relationship I could have, even if we never get to have that heart-to-heart conversation.