CASA shares moving stories of hope with supporters and potential supporters

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LEGAL NEWS PHOTOS  BY CYNTHIA PRICE

By Cynthia Price
Legal News

The stories of those who have made their way through the court system as abused, neglected, or abandoned children can start out tragic and end up tragic.

But when Court Appointed Special Advocates step in, there is hope for a happier ending.

Last week at its annual “Place at the Table” luncheon, CASA?of Kent County invited a young man named Wyatt to share the story of his life. For an 18-year-old, his speaking skills were impressive: he delivered his simple narrative with abundant confidence, yet tinged with humility.

And in just a short period of time, he shared with the CASA supporters gathered at the Amway Grand Plaza his pain, his hope, and his triumph.

Trained CASA volunteers provide “a voice for the voiceless,” advocating for a child or set of siblings who are involved with Family Court due to abuse or neglect until their case reaches resolution. CASAs go above and beyond ushering children through the court system, and often provide the only consistency for children with absent or troubled parents and overworked case managers.

CASA has over 950 programs nationally and was recognized by Congress in the 1990 Victims of Child Abuse Act. In the 1970s, Kent County Juvenile Court Chief Judge John P. Steketee was instrumental in shaping, and naming, the national program.

Wyatt’s story began when he was five years old, when both his parents were put in jail. He was placed with relatives who eventually rejected him, and then shuttled around to various foster homes, eventually moving to Florida.

His life was a stream of social workers and court appearances, disruptions and disappointments. He said the first time he met Frank, his Court Appointed Special Advocate, he thought, oh, no, not another case manager.

But Frank was different. He stuck with Wyatt through thick and thin. The first time they met, Frank advised Wyatt, “You should go to college.” He made sure Wyatt stayed in school and spoke up on Wyatt’s behalf at every turn in the legal system, and even arranged for him to go back and forth to Michigan.

Eventually, Wyatt was able to move back here and into the home of his brother, Frank helping at every turn.

“After nine case managers 13 placements, and eight high schools,” Wyatt said, “I’m graduating from East Kentwood — on time. The last six months of school I’ve been working two jobs while maintaining my grades. And last but not least — this is for you, Frank — I’m going to college next year.”

Wyatt’s tale of hope was met with a standing ovation by the crowd at the fund-raising luncheon.

But Wyatt’s is not the only story of  success generated by the diligence, compassion and sacrifice of CASA volunteers.

CASA?Marion Hight (shown) spoke to those at her table about her first case, where she had observed the mother of her assigned child spend over $100 on a credit card purchase for herself. When the case came before the court, the mother claimed that the abysmal living conditions her children experienced resulted from her desperate poverty,

“I was shaking in my boots,” Hight recalled, “but I got up in front of the judge and told what I had seen.” The judge, who had appeared inclined to leave the children with the mother, decided on a 30-day trial period. “Two weeks later, the mom fled,” Hight said.

Hight has been a trained CASA for thirteen years, and has served 25 children. She said she could never take more than one case at a time, because she would not be able “to give kids all the attention they deserve,” but she has often worked with more than one sibling from a family. (The amount of time spent on advocating for any given child varies greatly.)

Circuit Court Family Division Judge Daniel Zemaitis, who was named Michigan CASA Judge of the year for 2012, also shared some stories with the crowd, including high praise for the CASAs involved.

“There was a circumstance in a case of mine where an 11-year-old didn’t go to school because his parents weren’t capable of sending him. The CASA?got close to him and found out he was at the least very smart, probably more like brilliant. The CASA persevered until he got into school, even when he didn’t get into the first one he tried,” Judge Zemaitis recounted. “This boy might be the type of person who gives us a cure for cancer one day.”

He also told about a young child who had no idea what it meant to be hugged, and the CASA?volunteer who taught the child how to hug.

“I believe CASAs are people who love,”?Judge Zemaitis stated.

Judge Patricia Gardner and Jay Quist were also in attendance.

CASA?of Kent County Executive Director Patty Sabin said that the program has expanded. Eight years ago, there were 101 children helped and last year there were 325; there are 97 advocates now versus 42 then.

At the same time, there are many children waiting to be helped, at a cost of $1000 per year per child, so Sabin asked people to open their hearts and help fund continuing hope.