Editor’s note: This is the second two stories about Central Kansas CASA. While part one cast a spotlight on the organization, the people it helps, and the upcoming CASA Chocolate Auction, today we look at one longtime volunteer. Donna Staab has served CASA for more than two decades.
After raising three children, Donna Staab took the advice of her youngest son, Jeremy, as he left for college.
“Mom, if you ever have any extra time, you ought to think about volunteering with that CASA organization,” he said. “They do good work.”
That was more than 20 years ago. It got in her blood, her heart and her spirit, she said. As a CASA volunteer, Staab has touched the lives of many children and families through her quiet caring and thoughtful advocacy.
CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocate. Volunteers work with children who have ended up in the courts and foster care systems due to cases of criminal abuse and neglect. CASAs become the eyes and ears of the judge assigned to the case.
“I didn’t come with a lot of expectations, but that I hoped I could be of help to children,” Staab said. With little familiarity with the courts system,or the responsibilities that would be asked of her, she used her experience as a mother to guide her.
Staab admits she is still sometimes surprised by the depravity of the circumstances of these children’s lives. But years of experience have taught her some important skills.
“When I get a new case, I read the information of why these children have come to the court system,” she said. “ And there aren’t any situations where a child has been spanked too hard. Those aren’t any of the situations.”
She has learned to set aside the case for a day or two and let her initial anger over their circumstances subside. She immediately becomes convicted about the child or children.
“I want to be able to best serve the child,” she said. “The only way I can do that is to set aside some of my belief systems and go and meet the parents of the child, the foster parents, and the teachers separately.”
The work is unlike many of the mentorship programs where adults and children work together. In Big Brothers and Big Sisters, Scouting and 4-H, relationships can be out in the open and public, but with CASA, the opposite is true.
“We go to great lengths to keep our relationships confidential,” Staab said. “I always tell tell the children I work with, “If I run into you at Walmart, I will not come over and talk to you. If you choose to approach me, that’s wonderful and that’s great. I’d love to have a conversation with you.” But through the years, I will not approach them.”
Being a CASA child means you’ve been abused or neglected, she said. It’s not something most people would want the world to be aware of.
“Our work is mostly done quietly and gently.”
Foster care lessons
While Staab and other CASAs are there to help, often the children they work with have much to teach them. Staab has worked with sibling groups and children of all ages. Insights they’ve offered about what it is like to be a child in foster care have particularly touched her. Always cautious to protect the identity of the people she works with, she is careful not to mention names. locations, or details. She shared about the wisdom one particular child offered to her, about the difference of being a foster child in a small town compared to a larger city.
“ She said, “Donna, there are a lot of differences between being in a foster home in (a large city) and being in one in a really small town in Kansas.
“When I go to school, everyone knows I’m a foster kid. I can’t be anonymous. I almost can’t have a sense of being something else, because I’m a foster kid in a small town,” and she said, “It’s hard to be better than those expectations of us.
“When I was in (a large city), I could be better than that, because I could walk through that school, and not everyone knew I was a foster child, so I could be just a regular person. Just a regular teenager.”
Another time, she asked the child, a girl, to list the things that troubled or frightened her as a teen. Things like being able to find a job or go onto college topped the list. She wanted to finish the list and send it, but had no stamps or paper.
As they talked, Staab learned that there was very little the child did have. While for most children, things like MP3 players, flip phones, iPods, iPads, Kindles and so on are often taken for granted, but most foster children do not have. If they do, they are often lost or stolen during moves, so they learn to do without.
“There are so many children who have not had the advantages that I have had, that my children have had,” she said. “I consider being able to help them a rare honor and a privilege.”
When a CASA takes a case, most of the time, they just have that case until it closes, Staab said. It’s rewarding work, because in the end, the outcomes for the children are much better, regardless of whether parents come around or not. Ultimately, the hope is a family can be salvaged somehow.
“Sometimes those parents, after becoming aware of the inefficiencies or the deficiencies of their parenting, really then bring their game,” Staab said. They begin attending the case meetings, and they make all their visits, and they begin to be a positive part of that child’s upbringing.
“Sometimes they really do turn themselves around,” she said. “And it can all change, and its a wonderful process to watch.”
Still, sometimes parents either decide not to invest that energy, or ignore those good commitments. They don’t want to expend the time and the energy involved, and so they just choose not to support the child in the ways they should.
“That’s a hard thing to watch, when a parent makes a decision that “Gee, I’d rather be with this person that isn’t safe for this child than I want to be with this child,” and that’s the hardest of all on the children.
“Or they make the decision, maybe not a conscious one, but they demonstrate addictive personality behaviors, and they’re addicted to alcohol, or really dangerous drugs. That’s also an adult choice--I need to spend time doing this instead of working to commit to my child,” she said. “That’s a hard situation also”
“Once that case is closed, while I carry them always in my heart, and I carry them in prayer, I don’t carry them in other ways,” she said. “Once that case is over, it’s over, and my job is done. It’s not valuable to hold on, take a peek, see what happens, wonder how things are going five years from now. That’s just not a good or healthy thing for the CASA or the children.”
Recently, Staab was asked by a foster parent if she receives payment for her services. The parent was surprised that she does not. She sees great wisdom in that.
Looking at it from the perspectives of the other players in the case, a county attorney could have a large caseload and want to lesson the number of cases. His motive may be wanting to close the case. The guardian ad litem may feel he or she has too many cases also. Ultimately, everyone wants to see Humpty Dumpty put back together again, Staab said, but these people are paid to be involved with these children’s lives.
“When a CASA volunteer goes to visit with a child, children, or sibling group, there is great freedom in knowing that they are not serving any master,” she said. “That they are really trying to do the best they can, make the best decisions they can for the judge.”
The judge can’t go and visit in each of those homes, or make sure every one of those homes is safe. That, she said, is what a CASA volunteer is supposed to do--make sure that child is safe.
“There’s great freedom in making a report and saying “I really believe the child will be best served in this situation,” and “These are the things I’ve found based on my frequent and consistent visits with the child.”
Staab’s mother just died recently. She lived across the street from her, and took care of her for 15 years. When Staab finally could not physically care for her any longer, her mother made the decision to move a nursing home, where she stayed for two years. The two often talked about being cared for by people who are paid to care for you, Staab said. While her mother was fond of her caretakers, the two recognized there was a difference.
“It occurred to me once during one of our conversations that our CASA children who live in foster homes are in that same kind of arrangement,” she said.
Staab’s family has been supportive over the past two decades of her involvement with CASA. Her son, Jeremy, who now works for Kansas Public Radio in Lawrence, daily sends emails and words of encouragement. Her daughter will be on hand to help with the annual CASA Chocolate Auction happening in Great Bend Saturday night, and her granddaughter will be serving the VIP table at the event. Her oldest son has been a frequent and generous donor also.
“I’ve made them believers,” she said with pride.
Staab sees many years of advocacy ahead of her, and tells people she’ll do it as long as she believes she still can.
“When I can no longer write the court reports, when I can no longer make a coherent sentence, I hope I’ll have the wisdom to say, “Okay, the rest of you take over,” she said. “I believe I always receive more than I get.”