'I am your voice ... I am here for you': CASA volunteers make positive impact on foster kids
Back in October of 2016 when Ashley Smith was a relatively new volunteer with CASA of Southwest Missouri, she was sent to Great Circle in St. James to meet a pair of children who'd been in foster care for some time.
The younger child — a brown-eyed, curly-haired 6-year-old named Franny — looked at Ashley with worry and then whispered something to her older sibling.
"Her older (sibling) said, 'No, I think we can trust her,'" Smith recalled. "And then Franny came to me and told me about some stuff that was going on."
"I told her back, 'You know what? You can tell me anything from this day on. I am your voice. And anything that needs to go through to the team or to the judge, I am here for you,'" Smith said. "Since then we kind of had a great relationship."
CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) of Southwest Missouri is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to recruit, train and support community volunteers who assist the court in protecting the best interests of abused and neglected children in Greene and Christian counties.
As Franny's CASA, Smith served as a mentor and advocate while Franny and her sister were in the foster care system.
"I loved meeting Franny," Smith continued. "I always tell this story because I love it so much. She immediately wanted to talk to me, but was a little scared because they had been moved around so much."
Franny, now 10, listened with a smile as Smith told the story of how they met. Franny's adoptive mom and dad, Racheal and Jerreth Hunt, sat across from Smith and Franny on the park picnic table. They, too, smiled.
Over the next five years, Franny and Smith formed a close bond built on trust — trust that Franny could count on Smith to consistently be in her corner and trust that Smith always had Franny's best interest in mind. No matter where Franny was moved or what case workers were assigned to her case, she could count on Smith to be there.
Though Franny was adopted last May and Smith is technically no longer Franny's CASA, Smith remains close with Franny and her new parents. They met with the News-Leader on a recent afternoon at Sequiota Park, where Franny would later have a Girls on the Run practice.
"Franny was always so open with me," Smith said. "It's easy to be her CASA. She is just an open book. Even though she was really little when I first met her, she talked like an adult a lot of the time. She would tell me about her feelings way early on. ... She made it easy for me in court and meetings, because I was able to tell them exactly what Franny felt."
"Even though I'm not her CASA anymore, I still get to see her and we have a great relationship," Smith said. "I tell her, 'I'm going to be there when you get married, when you move somewhere else, wherever you go."
Franny laughed and exclaimed, "I'm not going to get married."
"Well, wherever you go to college," Smith reassured her.
"With my cases, I plan on being part of the child's life even after being a CASA," Smith said.
Having a CASA helped smooth Franny's transition into her adopted family and their home, Racheal Hunt said. There were times when Franny struggled with the new surroundings and Smith was able to either talk to Franny on the phone or come pick her up for a date.
"She continues to be there for her," Racheal Hunt said of Smith.
According to Franny, Smith made a great CASA because she is "good at making people happy."
"She helps me through all the stuff that is really hard," Franny said. "She always believes in me."
Laura Farmer, executive director of CASA of Southwest Missouri, said it's been uplifting to watch Franny's trust and relationship with Smith grow over the years.
"Franny has a story that is similar to a lot of our children in foster care, where they come into foster care and unfortunately they don't have stability for whatever reason," Farmer said. "They have case managers that turn over. They have foster homes that don't work out."
"If there's one thing that children in foster care are familiar with it's change," Farmer said.
With every new placement or foster home, the child is likely switching to a new school and possibly new foster siblings, she said. Often they are not placed with their biological siblings.
"Ashley was that point of contact for Franny, that consistent person who was showing up for her no matter where she was at, no matter what was going on in her case," Farmer said. "That consistent support and that consistent advocacy really started to help make that change in Franny where she began to trust Ashley. They've built that connection and positive relationship that all kids need.
"When Franny was able to move into the Hunts' home, she was really ready for that attachment and that love that the Hunts wanted to provide her," Farmer said.
Farmer is happy to report that Smith's and Franny's success story is not unique within the CASA program.
Research shows foster kids who have a CASA on average spend less time in the system by several months, they do better academically and are less likely to return to the foster care system once they find permanency.
"That is why me and my team are so passionate about spreading community awareness. We are a volunteer program," she said. "We are small and mighty. We don't have a big marketing budget like a lot of nonprofits. We really rely on the community to help us spread the word."
"Anytime we do things like this, we have community members respond and say, 'I want to be a CASA. I want to get involved,'" Farmer said.
Making sure the child's voice is heard
Following an application and interview process, CASAs complete 30 hours of training. They learn what it means to be a CASA, about the court and child welfare system and how to connect and build trust with a youth who has been traumatized and is in foster care.
They are then assigned to a foster care case. It might be an individual child or a sibling group. CASAs are asked to commit to being that child's CASA for as long as he or she is in the foster care system.
CASAs have one-on-one visits with their youth twice a month.
They also attend court hearings and Family Support Team (FST) meetings where the case worker, the guardian ad litum and anyone on the child's "team" discuss what's going on with the family and the child's case.
The CASA is there to speak on behalf of the child, Smith explained.
"I'm always saying, 'Well, the child told me this. The child told me that,'" she said. "I speak up because until the kid is about 13, they don't really come to the FST meetings."
It's important for the kids to know that their CASA is not part of that the Children's Division and foster care system "team," both Smith and Farmer said. The kids know the CASA is a volunteer who wants to be there on the youth's behalf.
"The team can be kind of scary sometimes. They see all these people in court and stuff," Smith explained. "I always tell them, 'I'm not part of them. I'm not being paid. I'm here because I want to be."
Farmer agreed, adding that it's important to have that CASA serving as the child's advocate to keep that kid from falling through the cracks of the child welfare system.
"It's important for our CASAs to be at the table where decisions are being made about our kids so that we can make sure the child's voice is heard," she said.
"(CASAs) not only get to know the child on a personal level and is a positive mentor for that child," Farmer said, "but they also really learn what makes that child tick, what that child might need to be successful."
This helps ensure the child gets the right therapeutic support and helps them have academic success at school.
Because it's common for kids in care to be moved around often to new foster homes or group homes or have new case workers assigned to their case, it's nice for the child to have the same CASA volunteer by their side through the repeated transitions.
"The CASA will follow them no matter where they go," Smith said. "I try to go see them as soon as they move, so they know 'this new place is scary, but I'm still here and I'm that constant figure no matter where they are moved to or who else comes into their team."
As Franny's CASA, Smith was in communication with her teachers, doctors and therapists (if Franny shared something concerning, Smith could let her therapist know about it).
"In Franny's case, she went from home to home to home," Smith said. "I would always go talk to the home and give them the whole download of what has gone on before that. So it's nice to always know her story."
Asked if she was ever apprehensive about the commitment that comes with being a CASA, Smith said absolutely not.
"It has been one of the most uplifting things in my life, the most rewarding," Smith said.
The CASA volunteers always have an advocate supervisor available to help with questions or to attend meetings and court hearings, if for some reason the CASA volunteer is unavailable.
"You are never alone on it," she said. "And you learn a lot, too, about yourself through the process."
The Hunts, too, encourage anyone interested in helping vulnerable youth to consider the CASA program.
"The kids who don't have a CASA I feel like don't have a fair chance at their best future," Racheal Hunt said. "Being a CASA volunteer could mean the difference between a child finding permanency in the foster care system and lingering in the foster care system."
'I'm not going anywhere'
Foster parents for nearly five years, Racheal and Jarreth Hunt had mostly taken teenage girls into their home. The couple has a license for youth with elevated needs.
In August of 2019, Racheal Hunt said, they got a call from a case worker that went something like this: "Hey, I know teenagers are what you are comfortable with, but we have this 9-year-old. She's been really unstable. She's been really struggling," the case worker said. "If you are up for the challenge, would you be interested in taking placement of her?"
Within days, the Hunts had picked Franny up from a respite home and brought her to their home in Springfield.
"We knew very early on that she would be staying. She's just a really sweet girl. She's really creative," Racheal Hunt said. "She was eager to make a deeper connection with a family and we were open to that. It happened very quickly and very naturally."
But the transition wasn't always easy.
Franny came into foster care due to parental drug abuse, Racheal Hunt said. Franny's biological mother left the girls with a relative, and that relative sexually abused them.
By the time she came into the Hunt's home, Franny had been in foster care for more than four years and in 13 different placements (foster homes and group homes).
"She definitely had elevated needs. She had some pretty big behaviors," Racheal Hunt said. "She really didn't trust adults. She didn't trust adults to stay or keep their word. She would really push in moments."
It sometimes seemed like the idea of forming a connection with her new foster parents scared Franny, so she would push back and have "really big tantrums," Racheal Hunt said.
Those tantrums were frequently filled with self-deprecating words.
"She would sometimes say things like, 'You should send me away. I'm going to ruin your life. Send me to the next home. I don't belong here. Why do you love me?'" Hunt said. "It would start out with her lashing out at us: 'I hate you! I hate you!' But then it very quickly turned inward and was more reflective of her experience of being sent away when things got hard."
The Hunts remained persistent and consistent with Franny.
There were times Franny would be in her room "raging."
"I would sit outside the bedroom door and tell her, 'I am right here and I'm not going anywhere. When you are ready to talk, you know where to find me,'" Hunt recalled.
Perhaps the big turning point happened one day during a tantrum that had gone on for a few hours. Hunt said they'd tried everything they knew to calm Franny, but Franny seemed determined to not calm down.
"So we went into her room and kind of joined the chaos. Jarreth said to her, 'We are not going anywhere. We are right here. I'm here listening,'" Racheal said. "He just kept repeating over and over again, 'I'm right here. I'm right here.'"
Franny slowed down and appeared to get tired. She collapsed into Racheal's and Jarreth's laps.
"We held her and just told her that we are always going to be her mom, always going to be her dad. And no matter what she does, there's nothing that would make us love her less. And we are not going anywhere," Racheal Hunt said. "I think that was the first moment that she really started to believe that and trust that."
Franny was the first foster child the Hunts had in their home who had a CASA. They believe having Smith in the picture — someone who knew Franny's background and understood why she sometimes behaved the way she did — helped Racheal and Jarreth connect and bond with Franny.
"When she first moved into our home, we got a lot of background information on her that you don't normally get from a case worker," Racheal said. "We were more equipped to know what to expect, because Ashley had all this information about her."
For example, Smith shared with the Hunts ahead of time that Franny struggled with bath time. In addition to sexual abuse, Franny had a troubling experience in another foster home where she was just thrown into the shower.
"She would have these big meltdowns over bathing," Racheal Hunt said. "We knew (what happened). So we went and bought some fun swimsuits. We got bubbles and bath markers, fizzies. We made bath time a thing. She would put her swimsuit on, and I would be in the bathroom with her and open the door. And we would just do fun stuff in the bathroom.
"Now, she takes showers on her own. She is fully capable of doing all those things on her own and she has a great attitude about it," Racheal Hunt said. "It took a long time, but that is something that may have been a struggle had we not known."
The Hunts credit Franny's relationship with Smith as being a major factor in putting Franny in a place where she was open to being a part of a family. Because Franny had learned to trust Smith, she was ready to trust the Hunts.
And when Franny was still unsure if she could trust the Hunts, the youth had Smith to share those insecurities and worries with.
"I think Ashley was a safe space for her to talk about those feelings," Racheal Hunt said. "Ashley was able to help her feel like she could trust us and be secure."