Lisa Mohr has taken on various volunteer roles all throughout her life, but when her last child graduated high school, she knew she wanted to use her newfound time to do even more for her community. That’s why eleven years ago, she became a Court Appointed Special Advocate, also known as a CASA, in her Baton Rouge, La. community. As a CASA, Lisa is a specially-trained and supervised volunteer advocate on behalf of children who have been removed from their homes due to abuse and neglect. She serves as not only their voice within the court system, but also as a someone the child can turn to while they go through one of the most traumatic experiences of their life.
Lisa is currently working on her 17th case as a CASA, and over the years has served 23 children ranging from infancy to teenagers. While working on a case, she meets with the child, their parents, foster parents, teachers, doctors, counselors and more in order to build a report she will present to the judge presiding over the case. She must visit the child she is appointed to in person at least once a month, although she personally usually sees them more often, checking in on them and serving as a source of comfort. Lisa says while her volunteer work can be challenging, it is by far the most rewarding and meaningful work she has done.
Describe your volunteer role with Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA).
I am a volunteer advocate. This is a volunteer position and I am supervised by employees of CASA, a nonprofit organization. I am very closely monitored because this is important work that we’re doing here. I spend my time working with children who have been removed from their homes resulting from abuse and neglect. When the Department of Children & Family Services gets a call for abuse and neglect, it’s often times an anonymous call. Then they’ll turn it in and investigate it. If they find there is cause, they will move to the court system to have the children removed depending on the severity of the issue. I don’t become involved until after they’ve had a hearing and the judge has decided to put a hold order and they remove the children. If they do, then a court case will come and the judge will ask for a CASA.
The first essential thing I do is a build a rapport with everyone involved in the case — with the children, the parents, the foster parent, with whomever’s home their in if they were moved to a family member. I build a rapport and then we work together. Our job is to advocate for the best interests of the children as they navigate the court process, so I’m with them every step of the way. I mostly just offer comfort and support to these children, and then I make reports. I have reports that I turn in to the judge. He uses my reports in a different way than he uses the other reports because I’m a volunteer and I’m an advocate for the child. I am the child’s voice at court.
I’ve had [children of] all ages. I’ve had 17 cases and 23 children. It’s been eleven years. Currently right now I have two different infants. Sometimes I do two cases at a time because it doesn’t really require too much work in this case, because they’re with foster parents and they’re basically healthy. I go and I visit them and I advocate for them. If they need services like Early Steps intervention or evaluations, I make sure that they get that. If it’s a school-age child, I go to school and I check with counselors and teachers, I get reports, and I’ll sometimes just go eat lunch with them or visit. Also, I will take them on little activities. It’s my duty to visit with them once a month. It’s part of the job description. I must have a face-to-face contact with my children at least one time, but many times I do more often. Of course, I’m in constant contact if something comes up. Sometimes I’ve had some issues where the kids haven’t been doing too well in the foster home and I need to really keep a close eye on that. In that case, I’m over there maybe once a week popping in, checking, going to school, talking to the counselor. … Sometimes I drive them to visits, sometimes I meet them at the doctor, those kinds of things. It just depends on what needs to be done, because each case is different.
Why did you want to volunteer with this organization?
I’ve always volunteered my time when I had small children in the schools. We’re part of the Catholic school system so I always did a lot of Catholic school [volunteer] work. Once my child graduated from high school, my last child, I realized I needed to do something a little more in the community. I was just looking for more. This organization fits my needs. That’s why, obviously, for eleven years I’ve been able to do it. This work is challenging, I will say that. There’s a lot of ups and downs and there’s a lot of disappointments, but there are so many joyful times, too. When things come together and a child is adopted — I’ve had three adopted — or if they return to their family members and everything seems to be fine, you know those are wonderful, uplifting times. The reason I like this work is there’s a beginning and an end to it. You work toward a goal, and most often we’ve been successful in our goal that I can see.
Why is it important for children to have an advocate?
I think it’s essential. I’m there as a personal support for these children. I’m a source of comfort and I answer their questions and I help them through it. It’s somebody that has extra time, because these Department [of Children & Family Services] workers, they don’t have the time I have. They might have 30 cases and I have two. I’m available. If they have my cell phone number, [the children] can call me and ask a question or if they need something, and I can do my best to answer it. It’s a nice, familiar face. I sit with them in court and I bring little toys and games to play to occupy their time, books to read, snacks to eat. I help the time pass and then we go in. I think everyone has done very well. This is a very traumatic time for them. They miss their parents and this is hard. This is the hard time until we can get it all straight.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
The most rewarding part is when we have success. It is building that bond with that child and seeing them be OK, and seeing a resolution to the case and knowing that we did the best job we could do for them, and they’re happy and they’re settled and it all worked out well. I can’t say that happens every time, and sometimes I don’t know more than I know. Some of them I feel like they were returned and doing OK, and I have to just hope and pray that they are well. Some of them, the ones I keep in track with, I know they are OK. I really wish I could know everything about everyone of them, but time moves on and everybody moves past this process. Sometimes they don’t really want to remember this. Sometimes it’s hard to remember what they went through in this. That’s why I step back, I see what they need from me. That’s mostly what I do, I just see what everybody needs from me and I do my best to give it to them, and just bring a little light and happiness.
One of those little boys I would take to the park, and I made some little homemade cupcakes, just simple little cupcakes. He was like ‘oh my goodness, these are so good.’ He says, ‘Miss Lisa, every time we come to the park, can I please have some cupcakes?’ He just loved sitting on the picnic bench and eating the cupcakes. See how easy that was? That was an easy, little thing I could do for him. I did it the best I could. Sometimes our visits were quick, but I made sure I had cupcakes for him as much as I could. That’s just a simple thing.
What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?
I have learned a lot. One of my things I always say is, when you come into a new case, leave your judgment at the door when you go to visit someone. Everyone doesn’t live the same way we live. Everyone doesn’t mother the same way I mother. We have to make sure that the child is safe, secure, and in a home that’s a good, safe home. As far as all the things that maybe you were raised or I was raised, not all of us were raised the same way. It’s important to know that. I learned a lot about the children’s world. They have a lot of anxiety that builds in their home life. When their mothers are mentally ill or on drugs, they don’t feel safe when they wake up in the morning. They don’t know what they’re going to see when they get home from school. I’ve learned about that, too. I try to pay close attention to what’s going on and don’t judge and do my best to make sure everyone gets what they need so they feel OK. The parent is trying to work her case plan to get her child back. I work with her too, because I want every child to be with their own parent if we can. I want that to happen for them if it’s possible. Sometimes it’s not. I’ve had plenty of them that it’s not possible. But that’s the main thing that I learned, just cultural awareness and differences, and the way we live and work, and needs people have and how they manage their lifestyles. They’re learning about me, they ask me questions all the time, too. I think it’s a win-win for all of us.
What should someone interested in becoming a CASA know?
I work closely with the Department [of Children & Family Services] and family members, parents, foster parents. We always work to achieve a goal of a stable, safe home for each child. Our primary goal is advocating for the best interest of these children. It’s something I think anyone can do. It is a rewarding opportunity to meet people, to work with people and to help children, our greatest resource in this country.
Anybody can do this volunteer position. All you have to do is care about children and be organized and responsible. We have to make reports and we have to show up for court, but I will tell you that if I’m out of town, my supervisor takes care of everything for me and she’ll give me a report. It’s not like it’s something I have to give up everything for. This can work in anyone’s life. It’s so rewarding. It’s one of the most rewarding volunteer opportunities. I’ve done a lot of different volunteer opportunities, I’ve had plenty throughout my years, but this is the one I’m keeping. I really see the value in this, and that’s what makes me want to keep doing it.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
How important this volunteer opportunity is. It’s so important that we care for our young children in our society. If our parents can’t do the job or need help doing the job, we as a community can try to help them fill the gap here and do what needs to be done to make them good, solid citizens. Children are our future and we have to keep them safe and secure, educate them, and provide homes for them so they can be good citizens.
Why do you think it’s important for others to give back?
I think it’s essential because if you have this opportunity and have some time, and it just depends on how much time you have, anyway you are able to contribute back to your society and to your community, you get rewards tenfold. It’s just a wonderful, wonderful feeling if you can give your time and help others in some kind of way that’s meaningful. I find this particular job very meaningful and it’s so worth my time. I get such a reward, and I’m meeting some wonderful people. Some of these foster mothers that I’ve formed relationships with, they’re lovely people. Totally different from me, and I have really, really enjoyed getting to know them and keeping in touch with them. That’s an added bonus, too. I have all these added friends to my life, different people who are wonderful additions and we carry them on through life.
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