When the Family Portrait is Empty

When the Family Portrait is Empty

The moment she turned 18, Laura Nunes joined the Marine Corps, looking for an intense challenge but also for any assurance that she would have a place to sleep and food to eat. By then, she was all too familiar with the basic need to survive. Before she became a Marine police officer and fought for her country in Iraq, Nunes fought for her life at home.

For years she endured abuse from her father, until the day he walked out forever. Just when she thought she had lived through the worst, her mother's mental illness turned their home upside down.

At 14, when Nunes should have been unwrapping Christmas gifts, she was instead locked in a bedroom by her mother. She endured the isolation for nearly a week, without food or water, until police broke into the house out of fear that she and her mother were both dead.

Rescued from starvation and her troubled mother, Nunes did not yet have relief. With no one in the family picture, she began a long journey of survival. She wouldn't have to make it alone.

Nunes is one of more than 2 million Americans who, as abused and neglected children, have had Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteers stand up for them during foster care and through the judicial process.

The Seattle-based National CASA Association For Children is a nonprofit organization founded in 1977 by juvenile-court judge David Soukup, who at the time became concerned that no one in the courtroom had the single, vital job of providing a voice for abused and neglected children. After losing hours of sleep each night wondering if his life-changing court decisions were in a child's best interest, Soukup started recruiting and training volunteers to advocate for children in the courtroom.

"These children are looking to have a childhood and to be safe, and it feels good that we are able to do something about that," says Michael Piraino, National CASA's chief executive officer. "Out of all the things I have seen since the '70s regarding child advocacy, I have not felt anything as powerful as this is."

CASA volunteers don't just advocate on behalf of children to ensure that they don't get lost in the legal or social-services system, or find themselves in unsafe foster homes. They also spend countless hours engaging, listening to and encouraging the young person. Essentially, a CASA volunteer becomes the one constant person in a foster child's life. For Nunes, Sally Payne filled that role.

"Foster care is far from perfect, so you need something normal and consistent in your life," says Nunes, now 29. "Sally was that for me. It's hard to keep your self-esteem when you feel abandoned, abused, neglected and thrown around. So having Sally take me out and do normal things because she wanted to, such as walking in the park or dining out, saved me."

For Payne, making a difference in Nunes' life was her reward.

"Laura was a joy to be with," Payne says. "The thing I enjoyed most about being her advocate was that she appreciated me and other things so much. I love Laura, and we will be friends forever. CASA is a great organization, and being able to help a child and make a difference in his or her life makes you feel so good."

Volunteer Training. The National CASA Association has a network of 1,000 program offices with more than 70,000 volunteers. Together, they serve 65 percent of the 700,000 children who are placed in foster care each year.

To be a CASA volunteer, a background in law or social work isn't necessary. The CASA volunteers currently serving children are normal, everyday people who work full time, or are retired. Training is necessary and can be time-consuming, but one well-trained volunteer can keep a child from landing in a bad living situation that can leave lifelong scars.

Volunteers first participate in a 30-hour pre-service training course, usually conducted at the local CASA chapter's office and facilitated by program staff. After the initial training, 12 hours of continuing education is required yearly.

Unfortunately, in-person training can be a barrier to acquiring volunteers. The American Legion Child Welfare Foundation (CWF) recently awarded CASA a $49,000 grant for a flex-training project that will redesign its core training curriculum, allowing 15 hours of online training and 15 hours of in-person training. The intent is to make training more convenient for those who volunteer.

Since 1954, CWF has provided more than $11 million in grants to worthy nonprofit organizations. In the fall of 2010 alone, the foundation awarded $666,670 in grants to 21 different organizations - including CASA - dedicated to improving the lives of youth who have been dealt difficult circumstances.

With the help of CWF's grant, CASA's new online curriculum allows staff to see if prospective volunteers are completing the training. It will also include discussion boards for volunteers to interact and share their thoughts about videos they may have viewed relating to child advocacy.

"One cool thing about the redesign of our core curriculum is that it will be much more case-study based," says Brian Washburn, CASA's training manager.

An Army Ranger friend shared with Washburn his experience of how the military uses after-action reviews to help develop its talent.

"An after-action review is the idea of going through an experience, debriefing, and then asking three questions," Washburn says. "One, what happened? Two, what did we expect to happen? And three, what can we learn from the gap?"

Similar to an after-action review, CASA volunteers will first receive relevant information on such topics as domestic violence, substance abuse and how to write a court report. Once the volunteers gather for in-person training, they will review case studies, and discuss how to work on a case, debrief it and use the after-action format.

"Because some of the decisions that volunteers will make are life and death, we want to make sure volunteers are really prepared," Washburn says. "This grant has enabled us to change the training to be more focused on experiencing what it's like to be a volunteer before actually going out in the field."

In the field, volunteers are in contact with not only the child for whom they're advocating, but his or her foster parents, social workers, parents, teachers and others. Volunteers spend up to 10 hours a month on each case, and must commit to stay with a case until it's closed - perhaps a year or more. They also submit regular reports to the judge recommending what they believe is the best course of action for the child.

"My mom didn't attend every court appearance, due to her mental illness, but once Sally came into my life, she attended every one when she could have easily just submitted her report on me to the judge," Nunes said. "Sally would write a report on my progress, how I was feeling and how I felt about where I was living. She was the one person I could be so honest with because she wasn't being paid to be in my life."

The Legion's Support. The American Legion is an important part of CASA's family.

"What we do for these kids is recruit people who are not just compassionate but extremely honorable," Piraino says. "That is why I think our collaboration with Legionnaires is so inspiring. We are able to provide Legionnaires a really wonderful, meaningful opportunity that makes use of their skills and values that they hold through service and life experiences."

Many Legionnaires support CASA locally and nationally through donations. They volunteer as advocates for children in the courtroom, or as mentors to older youth aging out of foster care - a critical need, according to CASA.

Once children leave foster care - at about 18 or 19 - all aid ends for housing, health care and other needs because they are no longer part of the child-welfare system.

"Research has shown that within one, two or three years the rate of homelessness, teen pregnancy and incarceration skyrockets," Washburn says. "So we are working on a volunteer-training curriculum that's going to impact the outcomes for older youth."

The first part of the curriculum is an assessment tool to help volunteers focus on equipping youth with six necessities: education, employment, life skills, health needs, relationships and housing. The second part of the curriculum centers on goal-setting.

"Advocacy for older youth is transitioning, because it requires working with these older kids so they can self-direct what they want to do and what their plan for independent living looks like," says Carmela Welte, National CASA deputy CEO. "They need to know how to write checks, find a job, conduct interviews and learn independent skills. This type of advocacy could appeal to Legionnaires who already have the knowledge and understanding of independent living."

Other ways Legionnaires can and do support CASA are through partnerships and fundraising efforts. For example, the Department of Nevada joined forces with the Nevada CASA chapter more than a year ago, drawing awareness to both organizations in an alliance that "grows stronger every day," says Bill Fowler, executive director for Nevada's CASA Association.

Fowler has described CASA's mission to Nevada Legionnaires at several district Legion meetings, as well as at the department's annual convention. In response, the Department of Nevada is sponsoring the local CASA chapter's upcoming Harlem Ambassadors basketball-game fundraiser, and is sharing a booth with CASA at a rodeo in June, where veterans will hand out brochures on multiple Legion programs.

"I'm really proud of the Legion and what they are doing for CASA," Fowler says. "I know it's been great for our organization, and I'm always thinking of ways to promote the visibility of the Legion.

"And in terms of the kids, we are more than a warm body. Volunteering requires good life skills, some backbone and the willingness to be those eyes and ears for our abused and neglected children. The CASA experience is a challenging, meaningful one, and I can tell you that we make a big difference in the lives of our kids."

CASA Awareness. CASA's goal is to serve 100 percent of displaced children by 2020, starting with a drive to increase public awareness of the organization's existence and vision.

"We have done surveys that show over 90 percent of people out there who could become volunteers or donors to our organization are not aware of CASA," says Jim Clune, chief communications officer. "The reason why we raise awareness of CASA is because there's a huge need of volunteers for children who need someone to advocate for their safety and well-being, and we also need help building the infrastructure within the programs so the volunteers can be trained, supervised and used effectively."

An awareness campaign called Friends and Funds is currently under way. "A movement like the pink-ribbon breast-cancer campaign will put CASA at the top of mind for a large population that otherwise wouldn't be connected to us," says Kris Gonzales, CASA's manager of partnerships.

The campaign will give those unable to volunteer an opportunity to support CASA's cause by sending online fundraising invitations to friends and colleagues. These will center on both CASA's mission and vision, and the sender's financial goal to support the organization.

"It's all about creating movement at the grass-roots level," Gonzales said. "Just having folks in our family forward on an e-mail to friends is how we can really build awareness."

CASA also expects the campaign to draw attention to ethnic communities in desperate need of volunteers so children can be placed in homes that match the cultures they know.

"Diversity is more than brown faces," says Chanin Kelly-Rae, National CASA's senior director of inclusion and equity. "It also challenges impacting military families whose kids are being displaced. It's about unique experiences that each individual brings to the table, and their voices need to be heard."

In 2009, blacks represented 14 percent of the U.S. population of children. However, they made up 30 percent of the children living in foster care. "Minority children in foster care do not receive the same access to services (health care or counseling) as white children," Kelly-Rae says. "So we are doing everything we can to ensure children of color are getting access to the services they deserve."

Besides the Friends and Funds campaign, which publicizes this cause, CASA unites with outside organizations with track records of leadership and respect in minority communities, most often those with contacts at the state and local level.

"You don't have to look like the child you advocate for, but our expectation is that you have compassion, and that an individual bias does not get in the way of advocating for a kid," Kelly-Rae says.

Positive Outcomes. Being a CASA volunteer can be intimidating, especially when it can require regular visits to unsafe neighborhoods or meetings with people outside a volunteer's comfort zone. "But you benefit in terms of life experience, the incredible satisfaction you have with connecting with a young person at risk, and doing something to help resolve that young person's life in a positive way," says Clune, who has been an advocate for four different children.

"Sally was the one positive influence in my life," Nunes explains. "She always told me how important it was to get through school and not let how angry I was get to me. She wrote me letters during my two deployments to Iraq, and she was the one who took me into the bad neighborhoods and dingy hotels looking for my homeless mother because I was afraid something was going to happen to her, and I wouldn't be able to say goodbye. More importantly, it didn't matter if I was changing schools, foster homes or social workers, because Sally was always there. I love her so much."

Nunes never did get to say goodbye to her mother, who passed away days after she and Payne went searching for her. And to this day, her family portrait is empty, with no parents to turn to for support or shelter. But with guidance, compassion, and encouragement from CASA and Payne, Nunes has served her country as a Marine, is living independently, and is currently attending college in San Francisco, studying to be a psychologist.

"I want people to know that you don't have to be a foster parent to help a foster kid," she says. "Just giving a foster kid something to look forward to once a week for a few hours can keep their thirst for life going."

Cameran Erny is an assistant web editor for The American Legion.


CASA Connections

Give: Tax-deductible donations can be made in a variety of ways, whether it's individual giving, workplace contributions and matching, corporate support, or stocks.

Volunteer: Besides advocating for a child, volunteers are needed to raise CASA awareness in the workplace and community, as well as to assist with fundraising and in-house needs.

Join: In lieu of volunteering, one can become a member of CASA with a gift of $45. Membership includes a one-year subscription to CASA's Connection magazine and Powerful Voice newsletter, the right to elect board members, and discounts on registration fees to the annual National CASA Conference.

Learn more online about how to be a part of CASA at both the national and local level: www.casaforchildren.org