Changing a child’s story
By Rachelle Wilson
Photography by Seth Lloyd
When Joshua* was abandoned by his adoptive family at 13 years old, he spent the subsequent years in Central Georgia bouncing between group homes and fosters families. His hope of finding a forever family never waned, even when he moved as far away as Atlanta.
The instability alone was enough to cause any adolescent anxiety, anger, or fear. For Joshua, the tumultuous time he experienced was buoyed by the anchor of an everyday hero named Joyce Snead.
Snead, a retired insurance agent, visited Joshua each month to ensure his welfare and to better understand the reality of his environment. She came to know Joshua and, through observing him in foster home placements and during visits from his original adoptive family, came to understand the bigger picture of his case. Snead summarized her findings in written reports to the judge and attended hearings connected to Joshua’s case. Snead translated his experiences for a judicial context, and so she gave this neglected child a voice in a grown-up world.
Snead is a part of a small but powerful community organization known as Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA. CASA is a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of children in foster care in Bibb, Peach, and Crawford counties. By advocating for children who have experienced abuse or neglect, volunteers from the community amplify each child’s voice and help change a child’s story.
As CASA volunteers, “we come to know their struggles and are supportive of the children throughout their struggles,” Snead said. “My job is not to make them who I think they should be, but bring out the best that is within them for themselves.”
From group homes to foster homes and back again, Snead built a trusting and insightful relationship with Joshua, one that provided a unique and valuable perspective to the many parties involved in his outcome, most notably the juvenile justice court judge appointed to his case, Judge Chéferre Young.
“CASA volunteers bring a sense of balance to the case,” Young shared. “They are the party I look at as a non-biased party.” Attorneys representing the child, the parents, and the Department of Family and Child Services are all arguing for various outcomes in any given case. “My job is to determine the best interest of the child. Whenever there are competing viewpoints, I look to the CASA volunteer to offer an unbiased perspective with no self-interest involved. It is a huge benefit when deciding such sensitive cases.”
Over the years of Joshua’s struggle for permanency, he found Snead to be the adult in his life who helped the court see his path forward. “Ms. Joyce has definitely made a difference in my journey,” Joshua said. “Throughout my childhood, I’ve been through a lot. CASAs are the ones that are pushing me forward when I’m not seeing a way to be motivated forward. Ms. Joyce has been doing that for me since day one.”
Operating in the Central Georgia area for 25 years this November, Central Georgia CASA has provided volunteer support for over 2,500 children in Bibb, Peach, and Crawford Counties. Today, 122 children in foster care are actively being represented by CASA volunteers. Executive Director Susanna Patterson spoke to her pride in CASA’s impact.
“CASA provides best-interest advocacy for kids in foster care,” Patterson said. “In the life of that individual child, we make a tremendous impact on their permanency, so ultimately which family they end up with, but also in the services they receive in foster care to address all the trauma they have experienced. In the life of that one child or family, the CASA makes a tremendous impact. But the collective impact of all of those CASA volunteers on all of those children and families over the 25-year history of our organization and into the future, is tremendous. Not only on those families but on our community as a whole.”
Like Snead, over 50 everyday heroes are actively volunteering with Central Georgia CASA. Ranging from lawyers and nurses to insurance agents and teachers, volunteers are what empower the organization to maintain a consistent impact that decision makers like Judge Young have come to rely upon.
“It is a national organization that really makes a difference in our community,” Young said. “The volunteers are invested in these cases. Their voices are heard in their courtroom. They come and present just as good as any attorney and even on a deeper level because they have connected with the child.”
CASA VOLUNTEER VOICES
“I first encountered CASA when I worked with DFCS,” said attorney and CASA volunteer George Dekle III. “I saw from the attorney’s side that the movers and shakers on a case, the people that kids count on are actually the CASA volunteers. A few years later, when I joined the staff at Mercer Law School, I had the time to volunteer for CASA myself and have been ever since. I am grateful that when I have my monthly visitation with the foster children I represent, Mercer allows me some schedule flexibility so I can visit when it is best for the family they are with. They have been very supportive of me volunteering.”
“I found CASA through an online search,” said volunteer Pat Solomon. “I love children. My first case, the child was a baby, only nine days old. Now he’s 18 months old and walking. It is a blessing to see him in a loving foster family. We are the voices for the children; some can’t even speak at all.”
“I encountered CASA many years ago when I was a teacher,” said volunteer Billie Abbot. “Later, I saw an ad in the paper calling for volunteers and I said, ‘Okay God, I get the message!’” Since then, Billie has represented infants, teenagers, and children over the years. “So many of these children have been through so much trauma. They need as much stability as they can get. One of the things I strive for with all of my cases is to be that constant person that is there for them.”
“I found CASA through an online search for a volunteer opportunity that involved helping kids,” said volunteer Claire Helm. “The reason I went into CASA is because I know that, for so many kids, the trajectory of their lives is contingent on the environment they grow up in. I don’t want anyone to grow up in the pain or struggles that come along with an abusive or dysfunctional home. I wanted to do what I could to help children have a better outcome in their lives as adults. To be happy, healthy, and functioning, just for themselves. To be whole people.”
And while many kids in foster care are receiving the individualized attention of CASA volunteers, the need for volunteers remains. As of this writing, 118 kids in foster care are still without a CASA. With a total of 30 in-class hours (15 in-person and 15 independently working through an online platform that National CASA provides) and 10 observation hours, the training period occurs on a rolling basis throughout the year. After training, a volunteer commitment averages between 10 and 15 hours per month throughout the lifetime of a case.
Central Georgia CASA volunteers like Snead, Dekle, Solomon, Abbot, and Helm display passion, commitment, and love. The gift of their time and attention has impacted not just the children they serve, but also our community as a whole.
TACKLING A TRAGEDY
“Because the experience of foster care is linked to so many of the problematic outcomes that we see plague our community,” Patterson said, “we are a recipient of the Macon Violence Prevention Grant. One of the things we are really working on there is increasing the percentage of older youth that we are serving because the linkage between experiencing foster care as a teenager or a child and then having interaction with our criminal justice system later is absolutely appalling, and frankly, a national tragedy. We want to get in and interrupt those cycles. When we think about these bigger societal issues, graduation rates, teen pregnancy, criminality, being unhoused — all of these issues have strong links back to the experience of foster care. While our volunteers are focused on making an impact on the life of an individual child, the collective work of what CASA does in Central Georgia, in the state and the nation, is really incredible when you think about the long-term, multi-generational effect that we have on these families.”
As Young put it, “Joshua is a wonderful child that would have been put in a box, labeled as bad, troubled, and at-risk. Now he’s in a situation that brings out the best in him. He is flourishing in college and able to make his own decisions. He is becoming independent but with the support of a loving home that he feels is his permanent family.”
Today, Joshua is 19 years old. For seven years of his life, CASA volunteers have shown him the support and love his family could not. “CASA volunteers put that foot forward for us, and I am forever grateful,” Joshua said. “I am not the only kid going through situations like this. I always try to do my best, but I can say that I am where I am through the help I have gotten through CASA.”
Whether you carve out some time to volunteer, incentivize volunteerism in your workplace, or nominate an everyday hero in your life to volunteer, support of CASA will play a role in shaping a brighter tomorrow for our community and for kids like Joshua. For more information, visit cgcasa.org.
*For legal purposes, name has been changed.
Why CASA matters
By Eliza Moore
The Numbers for Children in Foster Care:
- By the age of 17, over half of youth experiencing foster care will have also experienced an arrest, conviction, or overnight stay in a correctional facility.
- As much as 80% of the nation’s prison population consists of former foster youth.
- Half of children in foster care leave high school without a diploma, and by age 25, fewer than 3% have a college degree. (Statistics found from CASA website)
The Bibb-Crawford-Peach circuit currently has:
- 246 children in foster care
- 132 children actively represented by CASA volunteers
- 114 children still in need of a CASA volunteer
(Numbers from Executive Director of Central Goergia CASA Susanna Patterson)
Studies show that after having a CASA volunteer:
- A child is half as likely to reenter the child welfare system.
- Four out of five CASA recommendations on their behalf are accepted in court.
- Children reported significantly higher levels of hope, which is linked to academic success, overall wellbeing, increases in self-control, positive social relationships, and optimism. (Research conducted by National CASA/GAL Association)
How You Can Help
- Bibb-Crawford-Peach currently has around 50 committed volunteers. In order for every child to be assigned a CASA, they would need to double this number.
- CASA volunteers are taken on a rolling basis throughout the year, and after training, they commit to between 10 and 15 hours a month for each case.
- Spread awareness about the program, and go to the CASA website at https://www.cgcasa.org/volunteer/apply-now/ and click Volunteer to begin the process!