Helping others in Need
Posted on 07 August 2017
CASA volunteers crucial to communities
By DAVID REESE
Teresa Kennedy and Glenna Burke strolled through a park in Kalispell, arm in arm under a brilliant fall day.
Watching them walk, you could see theirs was a close relationship. Like most strong relationships, theirs was a relationship forged through hard times. You could see they shared a bond of friendship, love and care. Their friendship began when Burke had been appointed to Kennedy through the Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA. Kennedy works with children who are placed with CASA when children have to be removed from their homes and made wards of the state.
Kennedy is former California resident who moved to Bigfork nine years ago. In the first few years after moving here she lived the life of a Bigfork socialite, unaware, perhaps, of the deeper cultural issues that the Flathead Valley faced. She had worked in Los Angeles as a volunteer in a homeless shelter, so she knew how to get her hands on local issues. After moving to Bigfork she worked with ACES after school program. That opened her eyes. “There was an entire Flathead Valley I wasn’t exposed to,” Kennedy said. “You don’t realize how many kids are going to school without shoes or no money for lunch.”
Then she volunteered with CASA, which is based in Kalispell. She began taking on cases as a child’s advocate in the court system. She helped monitor the children in their foster homes, evaluate their situations and make recommendations to district court during custody cases.
The work changed her life.
She works as a child’s advocate, recommending to the court system what choices are in the best interests of the child. Everyone involved in cases in the foster care system has legal representation: the parents, the children, and the foster parents. But those lawyers represent what their clients want — not necessarily what their clients need. And that’s where CASA advocates like Kennedy come in. They help the child — and the system — make the best choices for the child, with no preconceived agenda.
Her work with CASA opened her eyes underlying social issues in the community. “It made me realize the need in Bigfork,” Kennedy said. “You think it’s a magical life … then you realize the sometimes horrific side of life, the stories of drugs and abuse.”
As an advocate she has access to nearly all parts of the child’s life; from their foster parents, to relatives, school workers and the court system. Advocates advise the presiding judge every six months. Advocates become a part of the child’s life.
“We tell the judge, ‘In our opinion this is what we see,’” Kennedy said. “We get to see all the pieces. We have the benefits of perfectly clear eyes to see what’s in the best interests of the children.”
The cases are always changing. For example, a child who is living in a foster home may suddenly be approached by a distant aunt who wants to have custody. Or the parents, who lost their children because of abuse or neglect, may have completed a drug or alcohol rehabilitation program and be on the road to recovery.
The goal throughout the process is to get the children back with their biological parents if — and that’s the big IF — that’s in the best interest of the children.
The first step to a child being removed from their home usually starts with the police. It may be a report of a domestic disturbance, or use of illegal drugs. But when a child is involved — and placed in temporary custody of the state — CASA steps in.
It was sometimes hard for Kennedy to look the other way and not judge the parents, she said. “But when I look at the history of the parents, it’s pretty clear they weren’t the Cleaver family,” she said. “In the beginning, when I first started, it was hard to understand the parents weren’t monsters. I learned that it’s not one-dimensional.”
Flathead County district court requires that all children placed into foster homes and who have become wards of the state have a CASA advocate. (That’s great for the children, but this requirement has also put a larger burden on CASA to provide volunteer advocates. CASA will have a volunteer training in October to get more volunteers into the system.) “We have more cases than advocates,” Kennedy said.
There are many other pieces to the social system that cares for children removed from abusive homes. Intermountain is one of the pieces. This organization is building a new foster home in Somers for children. ChildBridge, based in Bigfork, helps locate foster families for children. And CASA helps the child navigate through all of it, to get back to a safe, secure place — a home. “The pieces all work together,” Kennedy said, “and we all have our special piece. CASA is a really amazing program. It’s brilliant.”
Kennedy was raised in a home of middle-American privilege and domestic bliss. Her family ate meals together, shared together, and never went to bed without hearing “I love you.” She now works as a wedding planner in Bigfork. Kennedy said she knows hers is an ideal life, and she hopes the children she works with now can have at least some semblance of an orderly, safe, and loving home — whether it’s with their biological parents or not. “My heart wishes for that,” she said.
Parents caught up in the system are given choices when they lose their children. They can get clean, they can get counseling. There are ways to get their children back. “It’s not that they don’t love their kids,” Kennedy said. “It’s just that whatever they are dealing with they haven’t been able to fix.”
The best outcome, Kennedy said, is for the parents to get clean and be reunited with their children. Cases last a minimum of two years. “We need to give the parents time to change,” she said.
When CASA steps in, Kennedy becomes a part of the child’s life. The children react to Kennedy in different ways.
“At first they’re just not really sure who I am,” Kennedy said. “Some think you’re just another bad person who took my mommy away. After time, they realize I’m there for them.”
With so many moving parts in the legal system surrounding foster cases, it’s easy to lose focus on what’s important: the children. “I have to stay out of the muck and keep focused on the kid,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy thought she could handle seeing all the abusive situations children are exposed to. Then she snapped. One day she made the decision to quit. Finish her cases and quit. “I was so clear I had to be away from this,” she said.
Then providence gave her a gift. Her bible class that particular day was about “service.” She met with a child that day who had gone on to live a healthy, happy life after being a court case. “I realized that our relationship mattered. That was the moment,” Kennedy said, “I realized I was exactly where I wanted to be. It never happened again and I have never looked back. I’m not afraid of it, and I’m never going to back out. I’ve got what it takes.”
CASA for Kids is Actively Seeking Volunteers to Advocate for the Abused/Neglected Children of Flathead County –Every year, children in Flathead County experience abuse and neglect. As a result they are removed from their homes. Who advocates for these children in the courtroom? Who explains the whirlwind of changes, which abruptly becomes a part of these children’s lives? Devoted and trustworthy individuals within the community called CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) volunteers step in to ensure that each child’s needs and wishes are heard. Advocates speak solely on behalf of the abused or neglected child and seek to make sure that resolutions are made in the best interest of the child.
The local CASA program serves Flathead County, and is seeking community members interested in becoming an advocate with CASA for Kids. Each applicant will undergo a thorough screening process and complete over 40 hours of training before being matched with a child’s case. The next training session will begin Oct. 20. To request an application packet or more information, or to make a tax deductable donation, call the CASA office at 755.7208.
CONTACT: Jamie Campbell at 755.7208 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org