Angels of the Court: CASA Provides Crucial Help in Child Abuse Cases

By Laurie A. Kaiser

To learn more about becoming a volunteer child advocate, call 225-7070 or visit Training sessions are ongoing and take place at the CASA office, 406 San Pedro Ave.
As a Judson elementary school teacher, Ethel Johnson led children in their journey to learn to read, multiply numbers and find South America on a map. Now retired, Johnson, 66, is guiding children on a different kind of journey – one often fraught with heartache and confusion.
As a volunteer for Child Advocates San Antonio (CASA), Johnson works with abused or neglected children who have been removed from their homes. Her job is to talk to everyone in the kids’ lives – parents, extended family, teachers, attorneys and Child Protective Services (CPS) workers – and share that information with the Children’s Court judge who decides whether or not to return the child to his family.

“They are basically the unbiased eyes and ears of the court,” explains Richard Garcia, one of two judges who hear the Children’s Court cases. “They give me a written report of who they’ve seen, what their concerns are and recommendations (for the child) from their point of view. Sometimes they spot something the caseworkers or attorneys miss.”

Details of the cases volunteers handle can be heartbreaking: the toddler with the 17 bone fractures, the child begging neighbors for food.

 “CASA is not a touchy-feely, rocking babies kind of volunteer job,” says Janet Ketcham, executive director of the 20-year-old nonprofit organization. “You need to be a legal representative for these kids.”

Of the 300 inquiries CASA receives reach month, only about five people actually end up volunteering. Currently, 208 volunteers are active; others are in training. More are always needed.

CASA volunteers commit to at least one year of service, as most cases last between one year and 18 months. Each volunteer undergoes 33 hours of initial training plus 12 hours a year of continuing education. Most volunteers only take one case at a time, but they are allowed up to three.

Johnson, in her seventh year as a volunteer, says she was drawn to CASA after reading about the need for volunteers in the newspaper. “I knew nothing about the legal part of it, but learned as I started working on the cases,” she says. She’s also learned what a vital service advocates offer judges. “They put a lot of value on our reports.”

About one-quarter of the children CPS has removed from their homes – usually those with a large sibling group or where more eyes and ears are needed – are routed to CASA.
“I’d like to have CASA on every case if I could,” Garcia says.

About a third of the children CASA represents are reunited with their parents. The others go to live with other relatives, are adopted or “age out” of the system.

Johnson’s first case was a single mom with two young children. The mother was illiterate, had a drug problem and a partner who was abusive with their kids. Johnson stepped in after the children were put into foster care.

“I went to visit the children quite often,” Johnson says, adding that all five of the CPS workers assigned to the family during the 18-month case left for various reasons. “I was the only one who was with the family the whole time,” she says. “I got to know them really well.”

Rampant turnover of CPS workers carrying tremendous caseloads makes CASA volunteers even more vital. “If you do nothing else but serve as a consistent adult in a child’s life, you are making a big difference,” Ketcham says.

In most of the cases CASA handles, the parents are low-income. Many are young, single mothers with no support. Drug abuse and domestic violence are prevalent, and drug treatment and counseling services are scarce. “Some of these parents know they need help, yet it can take six months to get into a treatment program,” says Ketcham. “And they only have one year to get it together before their parental rights are terminated.”

So though CASA volunteers might feel intimidated by the prospect of talking to parents, the parents generally welcome their involvement. “It’s a lot of single parents who just want someone to listen to them,” Ketcham says. “They often will tell you everything, even when they know you have to pass along the information to the judge.”

And all volunteers are linked with a staff supervisor. “Any time you are not sure about something, you can go to them,” Johnson says.

Ketcham remembers what it was like serving in the frontlines. She started as a volunteer with the Austin chapter of CASA. She says many parents who end up having their children taken away aren’t aware that their behavior is wrong because of the way they themselves were raised. “For many, this is truly a wake-up call,” she says.

Johnson says she has compassion for the mothers, many of whom had difficulties in their own childhoods. At the same time, she never condones abuse or neglect. “There are too many ways for parents to get help,” she says.

Friends often ask Johnson if her volunteer work is depressing. And her answer is emphatically,


“Maybe because I’ve worked with children a long time, I feel it’s my gift,” she says. “It’s satisfying to see the child end up with his or her family. That is the ideal, but it isn’t always the case.”

Laurie A. Kaiser is the former editor of Our Kids.
First published May 2007  in Our Kids San Antonio.