Eleven years ago energetic Debbie Mancino of Flower Mound considered ways she could make a difference in the world while she still worked full-time at St. Nicholas Church.
On advice from her lawyer daughter, Debbie joined CASA, Court Appointed Special Advocates, a national non-profit charity that assists Juvenile and Family Court judges who make life decisions on behalf of local minors in foster care.
Nationwide there are 946 CASA programs and 77,000 diligent volunteers at work every month.
“Children go to foster care,” Debbie said, “because they have experienced abuse or neglect or outright abandonment. The first thing they need is structure, consistency and daily routines.”
Many children who are new to foster care do not know the simplest rules for social interaction. It may be news to them that they must exercise self-control, or that their parents’ job is meet the children’s basic needs for regular meals, adequate seasonal clothes, and reasonable housing.
“We all have different ideas about nutrition, clothing, and housing, but some parents lose their way,” Debbie said.
Never mind about all the extras most of us expect to come bundled with a loving, capable family.
How do families collide with Child Protective Services (CPS)?
“Well, if a diapered child wanders from a motel room then takes a walk along the freeway service road, that’s a good way,” Debbie said.
Emergency personnel in Texas are required by law to report all instances of suspected child neglect, abuse or abandonment.
“Sometimes relatives, neighbors or school personnel will call in complaints,” she said.
Families may get lost in the proverbial woods because of the parents’ background, or the lost way may arise from circumstances of the parents’ choosing–like alcohol and drug abuse, or criminal activities or undesirable friends and associates.
“CASA of Denton volunteers’ primary goal is family reunion,” Debbie said, “though sometimes that is not possible.” She is passionate about the importance of family bonds, but realistic about the difficulties some parents face.
The courts and CPS develop a customized one year plan of free services to help parents in trouble build an assistance network for themselves, and healthy environments to which their children may return. This means cost is no obstacle to family reunification.
“Goals in the plans are all reachable,” Debbie said, “but parents have to put forth the effort.”
At a minimum, parents in trouble must hold down a job, get child-appropriate housing, and stay away from trouble. Many parents want their children back, and they see the court plan as a way to overcome their problems.
“After six months CASA volunteers have a pretty good idea of what parents are willing to do,” Debbie said, “But we’re their cheering section the whole time they are separated from their children. We want them to succeed. The courts and CPS want them to succeed. This isn’t about punishing parental failure; it’s about fixing broken mothering and fathering skills, and repairing the family damage. CPS partners with many public and private agencies to help abusive or neglectful parents change so they can recover their children,” she said, “The CASA volunteer makes monthly contact with everyone possible who is involved with individuals in a family.”
The volunteers visit the parents and extended family, the foster family, friends, neighbors, school teachers and counselors, and medical and counseling providers to get the court accurate information about its charges.
“We assess and report progress or its lack to the court,” Debbie said.
CASA volunteers also visit their assigned foster children at least monthly to make sure the children’s needs are met, and they do not fall through administrative or bureaucratic cracks during their time away from home.
Several years ago national CASA volunteers discovered questionable administration of psychoactive drugs to some foster children. “We all want a magic pill to fix behavior problems,” Michael Piraino, National CASA Chief Executive Officer, said in a television interview.
The volunteer reports enabled court officers to redirect the children to counseling as needed.
According to Piraino 75% of foster children are behind in school at least one grade level due in some measure to fluctuating home and school situations. Educational success often eludes these children who are apt to respond to their traumas with angry behaviors. They may get low grades and frequent school suspensions. Suspensions increase the burden of personal isolation which is part of a foster child’s disruptive life package. They tend to have lower high school graduation rates, and few of them get college diplomas.
“I am the voice for my foster care children,” Debbie said, “I’m making a difference in specific children’s lives. What could be more satisfying than that knowledge?”
CASA volunteers tell the court decision-makers things the children cannot articulate.
Debbie is happy to share her scrapbook with pages about and photos of each of the 22 youngsters for whom she has advocated in her 11 years with CASA.
“We commit to serve on a case for a year to 18 months,” she said, “We can choose among available cases. I spend about 15 hours a month which includes 4 hours of visitation.”
That comes out to about a half day every week.
“We can go in the evenings or on the weekends. My service was compatible with my full-time job,” she said.
Many of her CASA cases are success stories, but in one instance Debbie recalled the court terminated the family relationship when the parents entered prisons.
“The best possible outcome,” she said, “is for a family reunion. The next best result is an adoption. I work with younger children, so I see these resolutions most often.”
CASA volunteers often visit in teams. “Only once have I ever felt uneasy when I visited a home,” Debbie said, “but I had anticipated that and taken a partner along.”
CASA does background checks on all prospective volunteers. The organization holds 30 hours of initial volunteer training then provides 12 hours of required annual Continuing Education. Debbie calls the volunteers in her first training session “My class.”
“We have become friends over the years, and we help each other. It’s a fun experience,” she said.
CASA volunteers range in age from 21 to “Who knows how old!” Debbie said with a big smile. She recently retired from the staff at Saint Nicholas, but has no plans to retire from CASA.
“CASA needs more volunteers,” she said.
Nationally there are only enough people to cover about one third of the courts’ foster child caseload. That leaves a lot of American foster children without an advocate’s help, without a voice.
Debbie’s husband Bob Mancino joined CASA of Denton’s Board of Directors over six years ago. The board provides financial oversight, sets policy, and raises funds.
Every year CASA sponsors a spring skeet shoot at the Dallas Gun Club, and an autumn “Evening of Elegance” gala to raise funds to defray the non-profit’s expenses.
Through the efforts of its board, advisory council, and staff, CASA of Denton joins forces with local businesses, medical/dental providers, church and civic groups, and private donors who provide extras like toys, health care, new clothes, blankets, Easter baskets, and gift cards and occasional spending money for local children in foster care.
In late March the Mancinos became the local first couple to receive the Heartbeat of CASA award given by the organization’s board and staff.
< br />“The Mancinos are just outstanding people, who follow through with outstanding commitment,” Sherri Gideon said. She is CASA of Denton’s Executive Director. “The Mancinos participate in everything we do, and we all wanted to give them this special recognition.”
“We were completely surprised and thrilled,” Debbie said.
Learn more about CASA or volunteer at www.casaforchildren.org or call the Denton office at 940-243-2272.