For Dale Gustafson and Ann Shaver of Green Valley, it's about the little things — a trip to the park, learning to ride a skateboard, a new pair of shoes.
That, along with providing a safe environment, is what they give two young brothers in Pima County's Court Appointed Special Advocate program, or CASA. They're among several Green Valley and Sahuarita residents who volunteer to step in for children in the Pima County Juvenile Court system. It's a broad-based commitment that means advocating in court as well as making personal time each month.
CASA exists for children who have been removed from their homes for their safety, welfare and well-being. They live in a foster home, a group home or with a relative. While there are 3,700 kids in the system, just four percent have advocates. About 25 people in Green Valley and Sahuarita are either working as advocates or are in training.
Gustafson and Shaver have been advocates for two brothers, ages 4 and 6, for a year. Shaver was touched by heartbreaking stories her sister in Tennessee shared about her role as a child advocate. She shared the stories with Gustafson, and they applied to CASA to work as a couple. The brothers they help are not living under the same roof.
“We are probably the most consistent thing in their lives right now,” she said.
Time together is often spent taking the active boys to the park and teaching them how to ride a skateboard and a bike to give them a sense of normalcy. After their first visit, Gustafson said the boys cried when he and Shaver left.
For Shaver, satisfaction is trying to break the perpetual cycle of foster care. For Gustafson, it’s little things such as helping to get adequate clothing and shoes.
“It’s the little things and seeing their happiness,” he said, adding that the judge overseeing the case listens and asks for their input.
Both are appreciative that the Green Valley Fire District donated about 50 toys to the CASA program at Christmas.
“It’s been interesting to stick our noses in the system, a system that is overburdened, and to see the dedication of case workers.”
Andrea Dempsey of Sahuarita works full time but felt she had to do “something meaningful.” She has been an advocate for a 7-year-old girl for more than a year. Her organizational and analytical work experience make being a CASA volunteer a good fit for her.
She devotes a Saturday a month to spend together with the girl and said the two have formed a bond.
“We plan an adventure such as the Desert Museum. I let her talk, let her pick and choose what to do so she has some form of control,” she said. “I take her out for dinner.”
Dempsey said CASA volunteers need to see where the child lives because it’s beneficial when making detailed reports to the court.
“It’s about seeing life through the child’s eyes and our ability to do something for a little kid that makes a difference. Our job is to keep the child safe.”
Mark Rosenberg has been a CASA advocate for a 7-year-old boy for more than a year. He said the social mechanisms that were in place when he was a child no longer exist and this type of volunteerism resonated with him.
Rosenberg, a retired veterinarian who lives in Sahuarita, wanted to volunteer in a way that was totally new for him.
Though advocates cannot speak about the child they oversee, Rosenberg said children are removed from parents for good reason.
“I’ve taken the child to a museum and various places. I meet with him weekly and try to inspire what works. The bond has brought me to tears,” he said. “A young person perceives safety. CASA is the advocate for the child, pure and simple.”
His questions for potential volunteers: Do you have the time? Will you be dedicated for the full term? Can you withstand the emotional toll? Can you accept how the system works?
What you get in return is personal satisfaction, he said.
“When you know you’ve made some sort of difference, something inside you lights up. It’s justice. The rewards are amazing.”
Contact Green Valley freelance reporter Ellen Sussman at firstname.lastname@example.org.