A Voice for Children: Serving as a Child Advocate in San Antonio

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Judge Richard Garcia and Karen Kracjer

This essay is not meant to tweak your guilt, nor do I intend for it to horrify you into volunteer work. This April, National Child Abuse Awareness Month, I just want you to know that volunteering for public service isn't as hard as you might think, and yes, you're perfect for it.

I’ve seen the commercials—the starving third world children, the abused animals in tiny cages. I’ve changed the channel. To fully process that visual information between episodes of Say Yes To the Dress and other Saturday mid-morning reruns is overwhelmingly sad. Though I’ve always considered helping others to be a priority, it seems like no matter what image the charitable organizations show, set to what Sarah McLachlan song, or how easy they make it (for just 25 cents a day/for less than the price of a cup of coffee/just text AID to 2345) it can be harder to get personally involved than I’d like to admit.

Maybe that’s because sending money doesn’t feel personal. Or maybe it's because the issue seems insurmountable, so incomprehensibly complicated that there's no way it's so easy to fix so I might as well think about something else . . .like the Comedy Central "Roast of James Franco" or my kid's diaper.

But when it comes to getting involved in local organizations, when it comes to walking in and writing your name on a sticky name tag and actually, physically helping people in need by sorting through clothing donations, building a house, delivering food to the elderly . . .yeah, I used to not be so good about doing that either. But I wanted to be.

Take CASA, for example. CASAs (Court Appointed Special Advocates) look out for the best interests of abused and neglected children who are under state custody by providing constancy, advocating for services, and speaking out for them in court. The ultimate goal of a CASA is to place children in safe and permanent homes. I knew this information long before I attended the info session because I internet-stalked the non-profit organization like a timid, love-struck middle school girl. I used to drive under the blue and red CASA banners that read BE A VOICE FOR ABUSED AND NEGLECTED CHILDREN and experience near-epileptic fits of inner monologue:  I should do that! Can I do that? Oh, I can’t do that. But I should do that! (repeat)

Well, I did it. I’m doing it. And, really, it’s not as hard as I thought.

I completed training and was sworn in by Judge Richard Garcia in October, fretted over whether or not to take a case in December, and finally signed on to my first case in January. Until the case is resolved in September, when I hand in my final court report to the judge, I will have three more children in my life, three more futures to do my best to secure by helping to find one of the most essential components of life, a safe and permanent home. This is a big responsibility. From the moment of my initial email inquiry to the moment I met my CASA kids, I worried that I would not be good enough--not in an angsty-teen "people will hate me" sort of way, but that my efforts would be insufficient and might even end up harming these kids more than helping them. I couldn't possibly know everything. I couldn't possibly do everything that these children need.

Yeah, I don't. And no, I can't. But that's okay. After becoming a parent, becoming a CASA has taught me an invaluable life lesson: I can't do it all, but I can do enough.

Advocating for abused and neglected children isn't as hard as I thought it would be. I am not a licensed social worker, but I know how to help my three CASA kids, and so would you. You just need to know that you can do it and that it will make a difference. But let me not end with the “make a difference” cliche. Let me ground the statement in detail.

Because of an inquiry I made on Facebook—on Facebook!—and an hour of internet research and phone calls, my CASA third grader, who is testing at a kindergarten or first grade level and will be retained to repeat the third grade, will now receive low cost tutoring this summer and free tutoring in his school next year (as will his sisters).  Because I stopped to ask their caregiver, who is also their grandmother, how the kids were adjusting to their new environment, I learned that the required forms for psychological services were so complicated she couldn’t complete them. We sat on her porch and together filled out the 10-page psychological questionnaire about her nine-year-old granddaughter, whom, grandma had recently learned, had been sexually abused and had reported thoughts of suicide. Because I reported to the children’s therapist that all three of the children were showing signs of psychological damage, all three children are in regular therapy. Because I show up when I say I will show up and listen when I ask people to talk, three children who have been abused, neglected, homeless, and afraid see that some people, even complete strangers, can be dependable and trustworthy. And because I treat them with kindness and respect, they will, I hope, believe that they deserve it.

Advocating for abused and neglected children isn't as hard as you might think it is, and you'll see your impact when you advocate for children in your community. CASAs serve children who live in our state, our city, our neighborhood, our street. Of the more than 2,300 children in Bexar County who entered state custody last year, only a little more than 1,500 had CASAs. My three CASA kids are currently under the care of their paternal grandmother, who lives seven minutes away from my house. Fifteen minutes from my house is where their mom, a methamphetamine-user, had sex in the same room as her children and told them to drink water when they were hungry. Fifteen minutes from my house is where their maternal grandmother would pick up the two girls to drive them to her boyfriend's house where he would sexually assault them. I don't know how far away they parked the car in which they sometimes lived or where the police arrested the father for domestic abuse or, later, arrested the mother for trying to steal a car. But I do know that these kids suffered in my community, not far away at all.

As a parent, especially as a parent of young children, never do I make a major decision without first thinking of how it will affect my family. The time that I spend with my CASA kids is time that I am not spending with my own kids. But they will be fine. My kids don't just need a parent; they need a role model. And just as I want to model for my children the importance of making service a part of our lives, I want to model to my CASA kids that people can be dependable and kind.

Children with a CASA volunteer are half as likely to re-enter the foster system, breaking the cycle of abuse, and finding a safe, permanent home eight months faster than children without a CASA volunteer.  If you've made it to the end of this blog, please make your way to CASA's local website, where you can find details on information sessions, ways to get involved, and more personal stories from other CASA volunteers and families.

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Photo credit: Will Langmore, courtesy of Child Advocates San Antonio

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