I don’t often receive correspondence directly from judges, but on May 2, 2023 at 10:55 pm, a family court judge emailed with the subject line “Help!” The message opened with, “Can I get a CASA for another case, please?!!” Clearly, this judge was concerned about the children, a sibling group of six.
Disclaimer: In blog stories with CASA children, names, details, and photos have been changed to protect confidentiality.
Trauma & transition
Manuela, my sweet CASA child, was born in Honduras where she was physically and sexually abused by several family members. In 2018 she emigrated to the United States with her mother’s boyfriend, who also abused her. After spending time in several states, she eventually arrived in Grand Rapids in 2020 and was placed in a transitional living center through a child welfare agency.
Given her history, Manuela does not trust people, especially men. Due to her trauma, she avoids discussing her family and past experiences. She struggles with her mental health and has thoughts of self-harm. She suffers flashbacks and has high anxiety and depression. Given all of that, she maintains a pleasant demeanor, has learned to speak excellent English, and is thoughtful and polite.
Manuela currently has Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) but progress is slow in getting permanent residency, work authorization, and a social security number. She had been attending high school but switched to GED preparation. She has done the coursework but cannot take the GED tests because she does not have a social security number. She doesn’t know what kind of job she would like to get – other than working first shift (she is an early riser!).
Living on her own
Manuela has been on her own for some time with no support from family and friends. She has not felt comfortable living in a home with other teenagers and tends to spend most of her time alone. Some good news we received recently is that Manuela is moving to a house in which she will rent a room from a female landlord. This will relieve a lot of her stress but will also present many new challenges: cleaning her own room, doing laundry, cooking meals, grocery shopping, and managing a budget. She will have a new case worker and some support for transportation, but she’s also going to need to learn the bus routes and make decisions about job training. She would love to learn to drive and get her driver’s license, but with the delay on obtaining permanent residency and a social security number, it’s likely this will take a while.
A balanced CASA relationship
My inclination is to make a list for Manuela to work from: steps 1, 2, 3, etc. until she accomplishes everything on (my) list. It’s a challenge for me to back off and give her the time and space she needs to make decisions and identify what direction she wants to take. Right now, I’m trying to find the right balance of support. For example, she can’t open a bank account because she doesn’t have a social security number. She has not asked me what she should do about that or talked about handling cash. Do I raise the subject? Do I tell her what I think she should do with her cash to attempt to protect her from potential vulnerability? I’m not her boss or her mother. I want to be a supportive adult that she can trust.
While being a CASA can certainly be a challenge, I take pleasure in the small successes. Manuela is moving into a home with her own room and a supportive landlord. That’s progress! I will help her learn to cook a meal that she likes. That’s progress! I continue to remind myself to be content with the small successes and be patient for the bigger ones over the long term. I truly believe she will be successful.
Jenni was 13 years old and living in a residential treatment center with other teens when she met her Court Appointed Special Advocate, Amanda, for the first time. During weekly visits both on and off campus, Jenni barely spoke to Amanda. Sometimes the two of them would sit inside Wendy’s over a Frosty in silence.
Sometimes, CASA volunteers work together in pairs – especially for larger sibling groups like the Williams children, where there is a significant amount of information to gather. CASAs April and Eliza are currently advocating for the group of five siblings. With so many children to visit and observe, it is helpful to split the responsibilities between two advocates.
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