Volunteers ensure abused children have a voice
October 4, 2020
GRAND ISLAND, Neb. (AP) — During the last 15 years, Jackie Kuskie has helped a lot of children.
Kuskie recently retired from her work as a Court Appointed Special Advocate. CASA volunteers often work closely with young people who are the victims of abuse or neglect.
She told The Grand Island Independent she did the work "because I love children. I think every child deserves a childhood they want to remember."
The volunteers are appointed by a judge to advocate for a child's best interest in court. Those kids can be up to 19 years old.
CASA volunteers work with the child on a long-term basis. They stay on the case until the child finds "permanency in housing," said Erin Howe, executive director of Heartland CASA. The children eventually are adopted by a new family or return home to their biological family.
CASA volunteers strive to make sure the kids have a voice.
"These children are in a situation that is completely out of their control," Howe said. "They feel guilt, they feel anger, they feel resentment."
They are lost, she said.
The parents have lawyers, and social workers are involved in the case.
"But as we know, in the hustle and bustle of things, the kids get kind of pushed back and their voices get smaller and smaller until they disappear," Howe said.
CASA volunteers work to make sure the children wind up in a safe, caring and stable environment, she said.
In addition to the children, the CASA volunteers build relationships with other family members, foster parents, attorneys, judges, social workers and guardians ad litem.
A CASA volunteer is an anchor in a child's life.
The attorneys and Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services representatives are all busy with other cases.
But the children involved are a CASA volunteer's sole focus.
"It's one volunteer per family," Howe said. "And that is what I believe really sets CASA apart from the rest of the team that surrounds these families."
To work as a CASA volunteer, people need heart, an open mind, understanding and a dedication to children, she said.
"We deal with children from every walk of life. Abuse and neglect is not just a poor thing," Howe said. "It doesn't matter the color of your skin or how much money is in your bank account. Abuse and neglect can happen across the board."
Tonja Brown is a current CASA volunteer. The Grand Island woman is active in many community organizations.
"I'm pretty selective about what I get involved in, but a lot of what I had been spending time with was very boardroom-oriented," Brown said. "I wanted to do something very personal. So I chose CASA."
She remembers a time when there was no legal intervention for children, who often fell through the cracks.
"And now we have a pretty good legal system in place for children. And I want to be a part of that," Brown said.
She has been a CASA volunteer for a little more than five years.
"My job is to look out for what is best for the children," Brown said. She enjoys "being the eyes and ears that are looking out for the kiddos."
Kuskie also enjoyed that role.
"Children have been a part of my heart forever," said the Central City woman.
She especially enjoyed working with kids 5 and younger. "I've always just felt a connection with younger kiddos," Kuskie said.
As a CASA volunteer, she didn't establish a connection just with the child. She built relationships with the entire family. "Because I can learn a lot by getting to know them," she said.
She sometimes went to a day care to spend time with the child.
In many ways, she became part of the family. Trust developed.
The child would say that Kuskie might not be her mother, "but she's a friend of my mom."
The cases are complex and can last a long time. Kuskie's longest case lasted four years.
The role of the CASA volunteer has become more established over time.
Kuskie, who says she can sometimes be a bulldog, remembers attorneys who felt they didn't have to talk to her.
She would show them a court order. Her message was, "I am indeed an officer of the court and you do indeed have to talk to me."
CASA volunteers receive good support from area judges, Howe said. Heartland CASA works in Hall, Howard, Hamilton and Merrick counties.
Judges give a lot of credence to the reports written by CASA volunteers, she said. Those reports are entered as evidence.
Still, CASA volunteers sometimes have to make difficult decisions.
"In the case I'm on right now, the goal at the beginning of the case was reunification with the parents. And the way the case evolved, that goal had to change," Brown said.
"When you have to agree that termination of somebody's parental rights is necessary, it's hard," she said.
Nobody wants to separate children from their parents. "But sometimes that's in the best interest of the entire family," Howe said.
Not all women are meant to be mothers, Kuskie said.
The parents involved often are addicted to drugs. In some cases, parents "disappear off the map" for up to six months, Howe said.
Still, CASA has a good success rate. The organization is happy when the children get what they need and no longer run the risk of being lost, she said.
One day at Walmart, Kuskie heard a young girl call her name. She had worked with the little girl, who was 4 or 5. The case had been over for months. But the little girl was pleased to see her.
That experience showed her she had done the right thing.
"Because that little girl was happy," Kuskie said. "She was back with her mom."
Sometimes, the parties involved think there's no way a story will have a happy ending, but yet the parents "pull it off," Howe said. They get sober, find employment and housing and get their kids back.
"It's a huge accomplishment," she said.
Kuskie already knew she had a good rapport with children.
But before signing up with CASA, she wondered if she was smart enough, which is a common fear. Like many other volunteers, she also worried that she wasn't familiar enough with the legal system.
Kuskie soon found out that she could do the job, and that she could make a difference in children's lives.
"It makes me feel good, but it makes me so happy for that child" when he or she finds a forever home — "someplace where they'll be loved and cherished, as they deserve to be," Kuskie said.
CASA always is looking for volunteers. To find out more, visit http://www.heartlandcasa.org or call 308-385-5125.