Paying It Forward as a CASA Volunteer
This boy was not a risk, he was my nephew and I knew my heart would never be the same.
In October of 2016, I was sworn in as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) in my community and have been advocating ever since for kids and teens in situations very similar to my nephew's.
My name is Amara but my family and friends call me "Maurie". I live in West Texas where I work in full-time student ministry. Although I am single and have no kids of my own, I am the proud aunt of six, three adopted from foster care, one currently being fostered, two biological, and I volunteer as a CASA in my community.
I became an aunt in a manner slightly different than I had imagined. I got a call from one of my sisters letting me know that she and my brother-in-law were adopting and that I would have a nephew...I was overjoyed! They told me he was twelve…I was shocked. My sister and brother-in-law explained to me that he was in foster care...I was speechless. Up until that point, my life and foster care didn't cross paths. All I knew about Child Protective Services (CPS) was what I saw on the news. I had no concept of group homes or house parents or licensing agencies. The whole thing was foreign and it seemed risky, that was until I met him. Him, my nephew, a twelve-year-old boy, named John Carlos, with a smile that covered every inch of his face and then spread onto mine. Upon introduction, Carlos wrapped his arms around me and squeezed me tight. I was both done and undone.
On my nephew's adoption day, the courtroom was filled with family, friends, caseworkers, house parents, supervisors, attorneys and more. It was that day that I learned that my nephew had a CASA who had been investing in Carlos for years. Her name was Mary and she was a retired grandma who celebrated Carlos' birthday, took him out for ice cream, called him, prayed for him, advocated for his placement with my sister and brother-in-law and kept up with the details of his life and his legal case. Mary was there for Carlos. How could we ever repay her for what she had done for him and for us, his forever family? I resolved to "pay it forward" and honor both my nephew and his CASA by becoming a CASA myself!
When I was sworn in as a CASA, I underestimated the weight of it. It has been hard, several cases have had endings that I did not agree with. There's been danger and discouragement and the struggle to connect with kids who have lived through trauma. There have been heart wrenching moments in court, moments when I have had to tell the kids what's happened with the case or why they can't see their parent or why their placement is changing. There have been mountains of paperwork, and more times than I can count, moments when I have had to pull away from my job to meet with a teacher, go to a conference at the CPS office, or take phone calls from a caseworker. I have taken an oath to protect the privacy of the kids in my cases. No one in my circle can know the names or stories of those who I am currently advocating for. No one knows...except the kids at the heart of it. My CASA kids—they see me, and more importantly, they know I see them.
Teenagers are often overlooked in the foster care system. From my experience, most people I’ve met that foster to adopt are interested in babies and toddlers. I want everyone to know that some of the bravest kids in the system are the teenagers - they are old enough to be fully aware of what is happening and still young enough to have absolutely no control over it. They need consistency. They need love. They need someone to say "yes" to giving them a home. No, it's not easy, but it is full of joy and love, growth and development!
I've had people ask me, “How much do you get paid as a CASA?”, and “Why do you do it?”, and although it’s a volunteer position, I do it for him. That 12-year-old boy with the toothy grin who has grown into a a smart, funny, handsome 16 year old. Carlos has been through so much, but he is not defined by his past. He is strong and capable, tender and kind. Carlos is the first foster kid I ever knew and the reason I am a CASA. Thank you, my beloved nephew.
I've had my heart so re-oriented by foster care, adoption and the missing pieces that older child adoption can bring, so much so that I wrote a book specifically for those kids. It's titled The Bridge That Love Built.
-Amara, CASA and Foster Aunt